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   Chapter 5 THE DEATH-PLACE

The Elephant God By Gordon Casserly Characters: 21585

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


An hour or two after night had fallen on the jungle Badshah stopped suddenly and sank down on his knees. Dermot took this as an invitation to dismount, and slid to the ground. When Badshah stopped, the long-stretching line behind him halted, too, and the elephants broke their formation and wandered about feeding. Soon the forest resounded with the noise of creepers being torn down, branches broken off, and small trees uprooted so that the hungry animals could reach the leafy crowns. Dermot realised that in the darkness he was in danger of being trodden underfoot among the hundreds of huge animals straying about. But Badshah knew it, too, and so he remained standing over his man, while the latter sat down on the ground, rested his aching back against a tree, and made a meal from the contents of his haversack. Badshah contented himself with the grass and leaves that he could reach without stirring from the spot, and then cautiously lowered himself to the ground and stretched his huge limbs out.

Dermot lay down beside him, as he had so often done before in the nights spent in the jungle. But, exhausted as he was, he could not sleep at first. The strangeness of the adventure kept him awake. To find his presence accepted by this vast gathering of wild elephants, animals which are usually extremely shy of human beings, was in itself extraordinary. Much as he knew of the jungle he had never dreamt of this. In Central Indian villages he had been told legends of lost children being adopted by wolves. But for elephants to admit a man into their herd was beyond belief. That it was due to Badshah's affection for him was little less remarkable than the fact itself. For it opened up the question of the animal's extraordinary power over his kind. And that was an unfathomable mystery.

Dermot found the riddle too difficult to solve. He ceased to puzzle over it. The noises in the forest gradually died down, and the intense silence that followed was broken only by the harsh call of the barking-deer or the wailing cry of the giant owl. Fatigue overcame him, and he slept.

It seemed to him that he had scarcely lost consciousness when he was awakened by a touch on his face. It was still dark; but, when he sprang up hastily, he could vaguely make out Badshah standing beside him. The elephant touched him with his trunk and then sank down on his knees. The invitation to mount was unmistakable; and Dermot slung his rifle on his back and climbed on to the elephant's neck. Badshah rose up and moved off, and apparently the other elephants followed him, for the noises that had filled the forest and showed them to be awake and feeding, ceased abruptly. Dermot could just faintly distinguish the soft footfall of the animal immediately behind him.

When Badshah reached the lowest hills and left the heavy forest behind the sky became visible, filled with the clear and vivid tropic starlight. An animal track led up between giant clumps of bamboos, by long-leaved plantain trees and through thick undergrowth of high, tangled bushes that clothed the foothills. Up this path, as a paling in the east betokened the dawn, the long line of elephants climbed in the same order of march as on the previous day. Badshah led; and behind him followed the oldest elephants, on which the steep ascent told heavily.

Two thousand feet above the forest the track led close to a Bhuttia village. As the rising sun streaked the sky with rose, the head of the long line neared the scattered bamboo huts perched on piles on the steep slopes. The track was not visible from the village, but a party of wood-cutters from the hamlet had just reached it on their way to descend to their day's work in the jungle below. They saw the winding file of ascending elephants some distance beneath them and in great alarm climbed up a big rubber tree growing close to the path. Hidden among its broad and glossy green leaves they watched the approaching elephants.

From their elevated perch they had a good view of the serpentining line. To their amazement they saw that a white man sat astride the neck of the first animal and was apparently conducting the enormous herd. One of the wood-cutters recognised Dermot, who had once visited this very village and interrogated this man among others. Petrified with fright, the Bhuttia and his companions watched the long line go by, and for fully an hour after the last elephant had disappeared they did not venture to descend from the tree.

When at last they did so there was no longer any thought of work. Instead, they fled hotfoot to the village to spread their strange news; and next day, when they went to their work below and explained to the enraged Gurkha overseer the reason of their absence on the previous day, they told him the full tale. No story is too incredible for the average native of India, and the overseer and various forest guards who also heard the narrative fully believed it and spread it through the jungle villages. It grew as it passed from tongue to tongue, until the story finally rivalled the most marvellous of the exploits of Krishna, that wonderful Hindu god.

Meanwhile Dermot and his mammoth companions were climbing steadily higher and ever higher into the mountains. A panther, disturbed by them in his sleep beside the bones of a goat, rose growling from the ground and slunk sullenly away. A pair of brilliantly-plumaged hornbills flew overhead with a loud and measured beat of wings. Kalej pheasants scuttled away among the bushes.

But soon the jungle diminished to low scrub and finally fell away behind the ascending elephants, and they entered a region of rugged, barren mountains cloven by giant chasms and seamed by rocky nullahs down which brawling streams rushed or tumbled over falls. A herd of gooral-the little wild goat-rushed away before their coming and sprang in dizzy leaps down almost sheer precipices.

As the mountains closed in upon him in a narrow passage between beetling cliffs thousands of feet high, Dermot's interest quickened. For he knew that he was nearing the border-line between India and Bhutan; and this was apparently a pass from one country into the other, unknown and unmarked in the existing maps, one of which he carried in his haversack. He took it out and examined it. There was no doubt of it; he had made a fresh discovery.

He turned round on Badshah's neck and looked down on all India spread out beneath him. East and west along the foot of the mountains the sea of foliage of the Terai swept away out of sight. Here and there lighter patches of colour showed where tea-gardens dotted the darker forest. Thirty odd miles to the south of the foothills the jungle ended abruptly, and beyond its ragged fringe lay the flat and fertile fields of Eastern Bengal. A dark spot seen indistinctly through the hot-weather haze marked where the little city of Cooch Behar lay. Sixty miles and more away to the south-east the Garo Hills rose beyond the snaky line of the Brahmaputra River wandering through the plains of Assam.

A sharp turn in the narrow defile shut out the view of everything except the sheer walls of rock that seemed almost to meet high overhead and hide the sky. Even at noon the pass was dark and gloomy. But it came abruptly to an end, and as through a gateway the leading elephants emerged suddenly on a narrow jungle-like valley. The first line of mountains guarding Bhutan had been traversed. Beyond the valley lay another range, its southern face covered with trees.

Badshah halted, and the elephants behind him scattered as they came out of the defile. The aged animals among them, as soon as they had drunk from a little river running midway between the mountain chains and fed by streams from both, lay down to rest, too exhausted to eat. But the others spread out in the trees to graze.

Dermot, who had begun to fear that the supply of food in his haversack might run short, found a plantain tree and gathered a quantity of the fruit. After a frugal meal he wrote up his notes on the pass through which he had just come and made rough military sketches of it. Then he strolled among the elephants grazing near Badshah. They showed no fear or hostility as he passed, and some of the calves evinced a certain amount of curiosity in him. He even succeeded in making friends with one little animal about a year old, marked with whitish blotches on its forehead and trunk, which allowed him to touch it and, after due consideration, accepted the gift of a peeled banana. Its mother stood by during the proceeding and regarded the fraternising with her calf dubiously.

Not until dawn on the following day did the herd resume its onward movement. Dermot was awake even before Badshah's trunk touched his face to arouse him, and as soon as he was mounted the march began again. The route lay through the new mountain range; and all day, except for a couple of hours' halt at noon, the long line wound up a confusing jumble of ravines and passes. When night fell a plateau covered with tall deodar trees had been reached, and here the elephants rested.

Daybreak on the third morning found Badshah leading the line through a still more bewildering maze of narrow defiles and a forest with such dense foliage that, when the sun was high in the heavens, its rays scarcely lightened the gloom between the tree-trunks. Dermot wondered how Badshah found his way, for there was no sign of a track, but the elephant moved on steadily and with an air of assured purpose.

At one place he plunged into a deep narrow ravine filled with tangled undergrowth that constantly threatened to tear Dermot from his seat. Indeed, only the continual employment of the latter's kukri, with which he hacked at the throttling creepers and clutching thorny branches, saved him.

Darker and gloomier grew the way. The sides of the nullah closed in until there was scarcely room for the animals to pass, and then Dermot found Badshah had entered a natural tunnel in the mountain side. The interior was as black as midnight, and the soldier had to lie flat on the elephant's skull to save his own head.

Suddenly a blinding light made him close his eyes, as Badshah burst out of the darkness of the tunnel into the dazzling glare of the sunshine.

When his rider looked again he found that they were in an almost circular valley completely ringed in by precipitous walls of rock rising straight and sheer for a couple of thousand feet. Above these cliffs towered giant mountain peaks covered with snow and ice.

At the end of the valley farthest from them was a small lake. Near the mouth of the tunnel the earth was clothed with long grass and flowering bushes and dotted with low trees. But elsewhere the ground was dazzlingly white, as

though the snow lay deep upon it. Badshah halted among the trees, and the old elephants passed him and went on in the direction of the lake. Dermot noticed that they seemed to have suddenly grown feebler and more decrepit.

He looked down at the white ground. To his surprise he found that from here to the lake the valley was floored with huge skulls, skeletons, scattered bones, and tusks. It was the elephants' Golgotha. He had penetrated to a spot which perhaps no other human being had ever seen-the death-place of the mammoths, the mysterious retreat to which the elephants of the Terai came to die.

He looked instinctively towards the aged animals, which alone had gone forward among the bones. And, as he gazed, one of them stumbled, recovered its footing, staggered on a few paces, then stopped and slowly sank to the ground. It laid its head down and stretched out its limbs. Tremors shook the huge body; then it lay still as though asleep. A second old elephant, and a third, stood for a moment, then slowly subsided. Another and another did the same; until finally all of them lay stretched out motionless-lifeless, dark spots on the white floor that was composed of bones of countless generations of their kind.

There was a strange impressiveness about the solemn passing of these great beasts. It affected the human spectator almost painfully. The hush of this fatal valley, the long line of elephants watching the death of their kindred, the pathos of the end of the stately animals which in obedience to some mysterious impulse, had struggled through many difficulties only to lie down here silently, uncomplainingly, and give up their lives, all stirred Dermot strangely. And when the thought of the incalculable wealth that lay in the vast quantity of ivory stored in this great charnel-house flashed through his mind, he felt that it would be a shameful desecration, inviting the wrath of the gods, to remove even one tusk of it.

He was not left long to gaze and wonder at the weird scene. To his relief Badshah suddenly turned and passed through the trees again towards the tunnelled entrance, and the hundreds of other elephants followed him in file. In a few minutes Dermot found himself plunged into darkness once more, and the Valley of Death had disappeared.

When they had passed through the tunnel, the elephants slipped and stumbled down the rock-encumbered ravines, for elephants are far less sure-footed in descent than when ascending. But they travelled at a much faster pace, being no longer hampered by the presence of the old and decrepit beasts. It seemed to take only a comparatively short time to reach the valley between the two mountain ranges. And here they stopped to feed and rest.

When morning came, Dermot found that the big assembly of elephants was breaking up into separate herds of which it was composed. The greater number of these moved off to the east and north, evidently purposing to remain for a time in Bhutan, where the young grass was springing up in the valleys as the lower snows melted. Only three herds intended to return to India with Badshah, of which the largest, consisting of about a hundred members, seemed to be the one to which he particularly belonged.

During the descent from the mountains into the Terai, Dermot wondered what would happen with Badshah when they reached the forest. Would the elephant persist in remaining with the herd or would it return with him to the peelkhana?

Night had fallen before they had got clear of the foothills, so that when they arrived in the jungle once more they halted to rest not far from the mountains. When Dermot awoke next morning he found that he and Badshah were alone, all the others having disappeared, and the animal was standing patiently awaiting orders. He seemed to recognise that his brief hour of authority had passed, and had become once more his usual docile and well-disciplined self. At the word of command he sank to his knees to allow his master to mount; and then, at the touch of his rider's foot, turned his head towards home and started off obediently.

As they approached the peelkhana a cry was raised, and the elephant attendants rushed from their huts to stare in awe-struck silence at animal and man. Ramnath approached with marked reverence, salaaming deeply at every step.

When Dermot dismounted it was hard for him to bid farewell to Badshah. He felt, too, that he could no longer make the elephant submit to the ignominy of fetters. So he bade Ramnath not shackle nor bind him again. Then he patted the huge beast affectionately and pointed to the empty stall in the peelkhana; and Badshah, seeming to understand and appreciate his being left unfettered, touched his white friend caressingly with his trunk and walked obediently to his brick standing in the stable. The watching mahouts and coolies nodded and whispered to each other at this, but Ramnath appeared to regard the relations between his elephant and the sahib as perfectly natural.

Dermot shouldered his rifle and started off on the long and weary climb to Ranga Duar. When he reached the parade ground he found the men of the detachment falling out after their morning drill. His subaltern, Parker, who was talking to the Indian officers of the Double Company, saw him and came to meet him.

"Hullo, Major; I'm glad to see you back again," he said, saluting. "I hardly expected to, after the extraordinary stories I've heard from the mahouts."

"Really? What were they?" asked his senior officer, leading the way to his bungalow.

"Well, the simplest was that Badshah had gone mad and bolted with you into the jungle," replied the subaltern. "Another tale was that he knelt down and worshipped you, and then asked you to go off with him on some mysterious mission."

Dermot had resolved to say as little as possible about his experiences. Europeans would not credit his story, and he had no desire to be regarded as a phenomenal liar. Natives would believe it, for nothing is too marvellous for them; but he had no wish that any one should know of the existence of the Death Place, lest ivory-hunters should seek to penetrate to it.

"Nonsense. Badshah wasn't mad," he replied. "It was just as I guessed when you first told me of these fits of his-merely the jungle calling him."

"Yes, sir. But the weirdest tale of all was that you were seen leading an army of elephants, just like a Hindu god, to invade Bhutan."

"Where did you hear that?" asked Dermot in surprise.

"Oh, the yarn came from the mahouts, who heard it from some of the forest guards, who said they'd been told it by Bhuttias from the hills. You know how natives spread stories. Wasn't it a silly tale?" And Parker laughed at the thought of it.

"Yes, rather absurd," agreed the Major, forcing a smile. "Yes, natives are really-Hello! who's done this?"

They had reached the garden of his bungalow. The little wooden gate-posts at the entrance were smeared with red paint and hung with withered wreaths of marigolds.

When a Hindu gets the idea into his head that a certain stone or tree or place is the abode of a god or godling or is otherwise holy, his first impulse is to procure marigolds and red paint and make a votive offering of them by making wreaths of the one and daubing everything in the vicinity with the other.

"By Jove, Major, I expect that some of the Hindus in the bazaar have heard these yarns about you and mean to do poojah (worship) to you," said Parker with a laugh. "I told you they regard Badshah as a very holy animal. I suppose some of his sacredness has overflowed on to you."

Dermot realised that there was probably some truth in the suggestion. He was annoyed, as he had no desire to be looked on by the natives as the possessor of supernatural powers.

"I must see that my boy has the posts cleaned," he said. "When you get to the Mess, Parker, please tell them I'll be up to breakfast as soon as I've had a tub and a shave."

Two hours later Dermot showed Parker the position of the defile on the map and explained his notes and sketches of it; for it was important that his subordinate should know of it in the event of any mishap occurring to himself. But before he acquainted Army Headquarters in India with his discovery, he went to the pass again on Badshah to examine and survey it thoroughly. When this was done and he had despatched his sketches and report to Simla, he felt free to carry out a project that interested him. This was to seek out the herd of wild elephants with which Badshah seemed most closely associated and try to discover the secret of his connection with them.

Somewhat to his surprise he experienced no difficulty in finding them; as, when he set out from the peelkhana in search of them, Badshah seemed to know what he wanted and carried him straight to them. For each day the animal appeared to understand his man's inmost thoughts more and more, and to need no visible expression of them.

When they reached the herd, the elephants received Badshah without any demonstration of greeting, unlike the previous occasion. They showed no objection to Dermot's presence among them. The little animal with the blotched trunk recognised him at once and came to him, and the other calves soon followed its example and made friends with him. The big elephants betrayed no fear, and allowed him to stroll on foot among them freely.

This excursion was merely the first of many that Dermot made with the herd, with which he often roamed far and wide through the forest. And sometimes, without his knowing it, he was seen by some native passing through the jungle, who hurriedly climbed a tree or hid in the undergrowth to avoid meeting the elephants. From concealment the awed watcher gazed in astonishment at the white man in their midst, of whom such wonderful tales were told in the villages. And when he got back safely to his own hamlet that night the native added freely to the legends that were gathering around Dermot's name among the jungle and hill-dwellers.

On one occasion Dermot, seated on Badshah's neck, was following in rear of the herd when it was moving slowly through the forest a few miles from the foot of the hills. A sudden halt in the leisurely progress made him wonder at the cause. Then the elephants in front broke their formation and crowded forward in a body, and Dermot suddenly heard a human cry. Fearing that they had come unexpectantly on a native and might do him harm, he urged Badshah forward through the press of animals, which parted left and right to let him through. To his surprise he found the leading elephants ringed round a girl, an English girl, who, hatless and with her unpinned hair streaming on her shoulders, stood terrified in their midst.

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