Veil them, cover them, wall them round —
Blossom, and creeper, and weed —
Let us forget the sight and the sound,
The smell and the touch of the breed!
Fat black ash by the altar-stone,
Here is the white-foot rain,
And the does bring forth in the fields unsown,
And none shall affright them again;
And the blind walls crumble, unknown, o’erthrown
And none shall inhabit again!
You will remember that after Mowgli had pinned Shere Khan’s hide to the Council Rock, he told as many as were left of the Seeonee Pack that henceforward he would hunt in the Jungle alone; and the four children of Mother and Father Wolf said that they would hunt with him. But it is not easy to change one’s life all in a minute — particularly in the Jungle. The first thing Mowgli did, when the disorderly Pack had slunk off, was to go to the home-cave, and sleep for a day and a night. Then he told Mother Wolf and Father Wolf as much as they could understand of his adventures among men; and when he made the morning sun flicker up and down the blade of his skinning-knife — the same he had skinned Shere Khan with — they said he had learned something. Then Akela and Gray Brother had to explain their share of the great buffalo-drive in the ravine, and Baloo toiled up the hill to hear all about it, and Bagheera scratched himself all over with pure delight at the way in which Mowgli had managed his war.
It was long after sunrise, but no one dreamed of going to sleep, and from time to time, during the talk, Mother Wolf would throw up her head, and sniff a deep snuff of satisfaction as the wind brought her the smell of the tiger-skin on the Council Rock.
“But for Akela and Gray Brother here,” Mowgli said, at the end, “I could have done nothing. Oh, mother, mother! if thou hadst seen the black herd-bulls pour down the ravine, or hurry through the gates when the Man–Pack flung stones at me!”
“I am glad I did not see that last,” said Mother Wolf stiffly. “It is not MY custom to suffer my cubs to be driven to and fro like jackals. I would have taken a price from the Man–Pack; but I would have spared the woman who gave thee the milk. Yes, I would have spared her alone.”
“Peace, peace, Raksha!” said Father Wolf, lazily. “Our Frog has come back again — so wise that his own father must lick his feet; and what is a cut, more or less, on the head? Leave Men alone.” Baloo and Bagheera both echoed: “Leave Men alone.”
Mowgli, his head on Mother Wolf’s side, smiled contentedly, and said that, for his own part, he never wished to see, or hear, or smell Man again.
“But what,” said Akela, cocking one ear —“but what if men do not leave thee alone, Little Brother?”
“We be FIVE,” said Gray Brother, looking round at the company, and snapping his jaws on the last word.
“We also might attend to that hunting,” said Bagheera, with a little switch-switch of his tail, looking at Baloo. “But why think of men now, Akela?”
“For this reason,” the Lone Wolf answered: “when that yellow chief’s hide was hung up on the rock, I went back along our trail to the village, stepping in my tracks, turning aside, and lying down, to make a mixed trail in case one should follow us. But when I had fouled the trail so that I myself hardly knew it again, Mang, the Bat, came hawking between the trees, and hung up above me.” Said Mang, “The village of the Man–Pack, where they cast out the Man-cub, hums like a hornet’s nest.”
“It was a big stone that I threw,” chuckled Mowgli, who had often amused himself by throwing ripe paw-paws into a hornet’s nest, and racing off to the nearest pool before the hornets caught him.
“I asked of Mang what he had seen. He said that the Red Flower blossomed at the gate of the village, and men sat about it carrying guns. Now I know, for I have good cause,”— Akela looked down at the old dry scars on his flank and side — “that men do not carry guns for pleasure. Presently, Little Brother, a man with a gun follows our trail — if, indeed, he be not already on it.”
“But why should he? Men have cast me out. What more do they need?” said Mowgli angrily.
“Thou art a man, Little Brother,” Akela returned. “It is not for US, the Free Hunters, to tell thee what thy brethren do, or why.”
He had just time to snatch up his paw as the skinning-knife cut deep into the ground below. Mowgli struck quicker than an average human eye could follow but Akela was a wolf; and even a dog, who is very far removed from the wild wolf, his ancestor, can be waked out of deep sleep by a cart-wheel touching his flank, and can spring away unharmed before that wheel comes on.
“Another time,” Mowgli said quietly, returning the knife to its sheath, “speak of the Man–Pack and of Mowgli in TWO breaths — not one.”
“Phff! That is a sharp tooth,” said Akela, snuffing at the blade’s cut in the earth, “but living with the Man–Pack has spoiled thine eye, Little Brother. I could have killed a buck while thou wast striking.”
Bagheera sprang to his feet, thrust up his head as far as he could, sniffed, and stiffened through every curve in his body. Gray Brother followed his example quickly, keeping a little to his left to get the wind that was blowing from the right, while Akela bounded fifty yards up wind, and, half-crouching, stiffened too. Mowgli looked on enviously. He could smell things as very few human beings could, but he had never reached the hair-trigger-like sensitiveness of a Jungle nose; and his three months in the smoky village had set him back sadly. However, he dampened his finger, rubbed it on his nose, and stood erect to catch the upper scent, which, though it is the faintest, is the truest.
“Man!” Akela growled, dropping on his haunches.
“Buldeo!” said Mowgli, sitting down. “He follows our trail, and yonder is the sunlight on his gun. Look!”
It was no more than a splash of sunlight, for a fraction of a second, on the brass clamps of the old Tower musket, but nothing in the Jungle winks with just that flash, except when the clouds race over the sky. Then a piece of mica, or a little pool, or even a highly-polished leaf will flash like a heliograph. But that day was cloudless and still.
“I knew men would follow,” said Akela triumphantly. “Not for nothing have I led the Pack.”
The four cubs said nothing, but ran down hill on their bellies, melting into the thorn and under-brush as a mole melts into a lawn.
“Where go ye, and without word?” Mowgli called.
“H’sh! We roll his skull here before mid-day!” Gray Brother answered.
“Back! Back and wait! Man does not eat Man!” Mowgli shrieked.
“Who was a wolf but now? Who drove the knife at me for thinking he might be Man?” said Akela, as the four wolves turned back sullenly and dropped to heel.
“Am I to give reason for all I choose to, do?” said Mowgli furiously.
“That is Man! There speaks Man!” Bagheera muttered under his whiskers. “Even so did men talk round the King’s cages at Oodeypore. We of the Jungle know that Man is wisest of all. If we trusted our ears we should know that of all things he is most foolish.” Raising his voice, he added, “The Man-cub is right in this. Men hunt in packs. To kill one, unless we know what the others will do, is bad hunting. Come, let us see what this Man means toward us.”
“We will not come,” Gray Brother growled. “Hunt alone, Little Brother. WE know our own minds. The skull would have been ready to bring by now.”
Mowgli had been looking from one to the other of his friends, his chest heaving and his eyes full of tears. He strode forward to the wolves, and, dropping on one knee, said: “Do I not know my mind? Look at me!”
They looked uneasily, and when their eyes wandered, he called them back again and again, till their hair stood up all over their bodies, and they trembled in every limb, while Mowgli stared and stared.
“Now,” said he, “of us five, which is leader?”
“Thou art leader, Little Brother,” said Gray Brother, and he licked Mowgli’s foot.
“Follow, then,” said Mowgli, and the four followed at his heels with their tails between their legs.
“This comes of living with the Man–Pack,” said Bagheera, slipping down after them. “There is more in the Jungle now than Jungle Law, Baloo.”
The old bear said nothing, but he thought many things.
Mowgli cut across noiselessly through the Jungle, at right angles to Buldeo’s path, till, parting the undergrowth, he saw the old man, his musket on his shoulder, running up the trail of overnight at a dog-trot.
You will remember that Mowgli had left the village with the heavy weight of Shere Khan’s raw hide on his shoulders, while Akela and Gray Brother trotted behind, so that the triple trail was very clearly marked. Presently Buldeo came to where Akela, as you know, had gone back and mixed it all up. Then he sat down, and coughed and grunted, and made little casts round and about into the Jungle to pick it up again, and, all the time he could have thrown a stone over those who were watching him. No one can be so silent as a wolf when he does not care to be heard; and Mowgli, though the wolves thought he moved very clumsily, could come and go like a shadow. They ringed the old man as a school of porpoises ring a steamer at full speed, and as they ringed him they talked unconcernedly, for their speech began below the lowest end of the scale that untrained human beings can hear. [The other end is bounded by the high squeak of Mang, the Bat, which very many people cannot catch at all. From that note all the bird and bat and insect talk takes on.]
“This is better than any kill,” said Gray Brother, as Buldeo stooped and peered and puffed. “He looks like a lost pig in the Jungles by the river. What does he say?” Buldeo was muttering savagely.
Mowgli translated. “He says that packs of wolves must have danced round me. He says that he never saw such a trail in his life. He says he is tired.”
“He will be rested before he picks it up again,” said Bagheera coolly, as he slipped round a tree-trunk, in the game of blindman’s-buff that they were playing. “NOW, what does the lean thing do?”
“Eat or blow smoke out of his mouth. Men always play with their mouths,” said Mowgli; and the silent trailers saw the old man fill and light and puff at a water-pipe, and they took good note of the smell of the tobacco, so as to be sure of Buldeo in the darkest night, if necessary.
Then a little knot of charcoal-burners came down the path, and naturally halted to speak to Buldeo, whose fame as a hunter reached for at least twenty miles round. They all sat down and smoked, and Bagheera and the others came up and watched while Buldeo began to tell the story of Mowgli, the Devil-child, from one end to another, with additions and inventions. How he himself had really killed Shere Khan; and how Mowgli had turned himself into a wolf, and fought with him all the afternoon, and changed into a boy again and bewitched Buldeo’s rifle, so that the bullet turned the corner, when he pointed it at Mowgli, and killed one of Buldeo’s own buffaloes; and how the village, knowing him to be the bravest hunter in Seeonee, had sent him out to kill this Devil-child. But meantime the village had got hold of Messua and her husband, who were undoubtedly the father and mother of this Devil-child, and had barricaded them in their own hut, and presently would torture them to make them confess they were witch and wizard, and then they would be burned to death.
“When?” said the charcoal-burners, because they would very much like to be present at the ceremony.
Buldeo said that nothing would be done till he returned, because the village wished him to kill the Jungle Boy first. After that they would dispose of Messua and her husband, and divide their lands and buffaloes among the village. Messua’s husband had some remarkably fine buffaloes, too. It was an excellent thing to destroy wizards, Buldeo thought; and people who entertained Wolf-children out of the Jungle were clearly the worst kind of witches.
But, said the charcoal-burners, what would happen if the English heard of it? The English, they had heard, were a perfectly mad people, who would not let honest farmers kill witches in peace.
Why, said Buldeo, the head-man of the village would report that Messua and her husband had died of snake-bite. THAT was all arranged, and the only thing now was to kill the Wolf-child. They did not happen to have seen anything of such a creature?
The charcoal-burners looked round cautiously, and thanked their stars they had not; but they had no doubt that so brave a man as Buldeo would find him if any one could. The sun was getting rather low, and they had an idea that they would push on to Buldeo’s village and see that wicked witch. Buldeo said that, though it was his duty to kill the Devil-child, he could not think of letting a party of unarmed men go through the Jungle, which might produce the Wolf-demon at any minute, without his escort. He, therefore, would accompany them, and if the sorcerer’s child appeared — well, he would show them how the best hunter in Seeonee dealt with such things. The Brahmin, he said, had given him a charm against the creature that made everything perfectly safe.
“What says he? What says he? What says he?” the wolves repeated every few minutes; and Mowgli translated until he came to the witch part of the story, which was a little beyond him, and then he said that the man and woman who had been so kind to him were trapped.
“Does Man trap Man?” said Bagheera.
“So he says. I cannot understand the talk. They are all mad together. What have Messua and her man to do with me that they should be put in a trap; and what is all this talk about the Red Flower? I must look to this. Whatever they would do to Messua they will not do till Buldeo returns. And so ——” Mowgli thought hard, with his fingers playing round the haft of the skinning-knife, while Buldeo and the charcoal-burners went off very valiantly in single file.
“I go hot-foot back to the Man–Pack,” Mowgli said at last.
“And those?” said Gray Brother, looking hungrily after the brown backs of the charcoal-burners.
“Sing them home,” said Mowgli, with a grin; “I do not wish them to be at the village gates till it is dark. Can ye hold them?”
Gray Brother bared his white teeth in contempt. “We can head them round and round in circles like tethered goats — if I know Man.”
“That I do not need. Sing to them a little, lest they be lonely on the road, and, Gray Brother, the song need not be of the sweetest. Go with them, Bagheera, and help make that song. When night is shut down, meet me by the village — Gray Brother knows the place.”
“It is no light hunting to work for a Man-cub. When shall I sleep?” said Bagheera, yawning, though his eyes showed that he was delighted with the amusement. “Me to sing to naked men! But let us try.”
He lowered his head so that the sound would travel, and cried a long, long, “Good hunting”— a midnight call in the afternoon, which was quite awful enough to begin with. Mowgli heard it rumble, and rise, and fall, and die off in a creepy sort of whine behind him, and laughed to himself as he ran through the Jungle. He could see the charcoal-burners huddled in a knot; old Buldeo’s gun-barrel waving, like a banana-leaf, to every point of the compass at once. Then Gray Brother gave the Ya-la-hi! Yalaha! call for the buck-driving, when the Pack drives the nilghai, the big blue cow, before them, and it seemed to come from the very ends of the earth, nearer, and nearer, and nearer, till it ended in a shriek snapped off short. The other three answered, till even Mowgli could have vowed that the full Pack was in full cry, and then they all broke into the magnificent Morning-song in the Jungle, with every turn, and flourish, and grace-note that a deep-mouthed wolf of the Pack knows. This is a rough rendering of the song, but you must imagine what it sounds like when it breaks the afternoon hush of the Jungle:—
One moment past our bodies cast
No shadow on the plain;
Now clear and black they stride our track,
And we run home again.
In morning hush, each rock and bush
Stands hard, and high, and raw:
Then give the Call: “Good rest to all
That keep The Jungle Law!”
Now horn and pelt our peoples melt
In covert to abide;
Now, crouched and still, to cave and hill
Our Jungle Barons glide.
Now, stark and plain, Man’s oxen strain,
That draw the new-yoked plough;
Now, stripped and dread, the dawn is red
Above the lit talao.
Ho! Get to lair! The sun’s aflare
Behind the breathing grass:
And cracking through the young bamboo
The warning whispers pass.
By day made strange, the woods we range
With blinking eyes we scan;
While down the skies the wild duck cries
“The Day — the Day to Man!”
The dew is dried that drenched our hide
Or washed about our way;
And where we drank, the puddled bank
Is crisping into clay.
The traitor Dark gives up each mark
Of stretched or hooded claw;
Then hear the Call: “Good rest to all
That keep the Jungle Law!”
But no translation can give the effect of it, or the yelping scorn the Four threw into every word of it, as they heard the trees crash when the men hastily climbed up into the branches, and Buldeo began repeating incantations and charms. Then they lay down and slept, for, like all who live by their own exertions, they were of a methodical cast of mind; and no one can work well without sleep.
Meantime, Mowgli was putting the miles behind him, nine to the hour, swinging on, delighted to find himself so fit after all his cramped months among men. The one idea in his head was to get Messua and her husband out of the trap, whatever it was; for he had a natural mistrust of traps. Later on, he promised himself, he would pay his debts to the village at large.
It was at twilight when he saw the well-remembered grazing-grounds, and the dhak-tree where Gray Brother had waited for him on the morning that he killed Shere Khan. Angry as he was at the whole breed and community of Man, something jumped up in his throat and made him catch his breath when he looked at the village roofs. He noticed that every one had come in from the fields unusually early, and that, instead of getting to their evening cooking, they gathered in a crowd under the village tree, and chattered, and shouted.
“Men must always be making traps for men, or they are not content,” said Mowgli. “Last night it was Mowgli — but that night seems many Rains ago. To-night it is Messua and her man. To-morrow, and for very many nights after, it will be Mowgli’s turn again.”
He crept along outside the wall till he came to Messua’s hut, and looked through the window into the room. There lay Messua, gagged, and bound hand and foot, breathing hard, and groaning: her husband was tied to the gaily-painted bedstead. The door of the hut that opened into the street was shut fast, and three or four people were sitting with their backs to it.
Mowgli knew the manners and customs of the villagers very fairly. He argued that so long as they could eat, and talk, and smoke, they would not do anything else; but as soon as they had fed they would begin to be dangerous. Buldeo would be coming in before long, and if his escort had done its duty, Buldeo would have a very interesting tale to tell. So he went in through the window, and, stooping over the man and the woman, cut their thongs, pulling out the gags, and looked round the hut for some milk.
Messua was half wild with pain and fear (she had been beaten and stoned all the morning), and Mowgli put his hand over her mouth just in time to stop a scream. Her husband was only bewildered and angry, and sat picking dust and things out of his torn beard.
“I knew — I knew he would come,” Messua sobbed at last. “Now do I KNOW that he is my son!” and she hugged Mowgli to her heart. Up to that time Mowgli had been perfectly steady, but now he began to tremble all over, and that surprised him immensely.
“Why are these thongs? Why have they tied thee?” he asked, after a pause.
“To be put to the death for making a son of thee — what else?” said the man sullenly. “Look! I bleed.”
Messua said nothing, but it was at her wounds that Mowgli looked, and they heard him grit his teeth when he saw the blood.
“Whose work is this?” said he. “There is a price to pay.”
“The work of all the village. I was too rich. I had too many cattle. THEREFORE she and I are witches, because we gave thee shelter.”
“I do not understand. Let Messua tell the tale.”
“I gave thee milk, Nathoo; dost thou remember?” Messua said timidly. “Because thou wast my son, whom the tiger took, and because I loved thee very dearly. They said that I was thy mother, the mother of a devil, and therefore worthy of death.”
“And what is a devil?” said Mowgli. “Death I have seen.”
The man looked up gloomily, but Messua laughed. “See!” she said to her husband, “I knew — I said that he was no sorcerer. He is my son — my son!”
“Son or sorcerer, what good will that do us?” the man answered. “We be as dead already.”
“Yonder is the road to the Jungle”— Mowgli pointed through the window. “Your hands and feet are free. Go now.”
“We do not know the Jungle, my son, as — as thou knowest,” Messua began. “I do not think that I could walk far.”
“And the men and women would be upon our backs and drag us here again,” said the husband.
“H’m!” said Mowgli, and he tickled the palm of his hand with the tip of his skinning-knife; “I have no wish to do harm to any one of this village — YET. But I do not think they will stay thee. In a little while they will have much else to think upon. Ah!” he lifted his head and listened to shouting and trampling outside. “So they have let Buldeo come home at last?”
“He was sent out this morning to kill thee,” Messua cried. “Didst thou meet him?”
“Yes — we — I met him. He has a tale to tell and while he is telling it there is time to do much. But first I will learn what they mean. Think where ye would go, and tell me when I come back.”
He bounded through the window and ran along again outside the wall of the village till he came within ear-shot of the crowd round the peepul-tree. Buldeo was lying on the ground, coughing and groaning, and every one was asking him questions. His hair had fallen about his shoulders; his hands and legs were skinned from climbing up trees, and he could hardly speak, but he felt the importance of his position keenly. From time to time he said something about devils and singing devils, and magic enchantment, just to give the crowd a taste of what was coming. Then he called for water.
“Bah!” said Mowgli. “Chatter — chatter! Talk, talk! Men are blood-brothers of the Bandar-log. Now he must wash his mouth with water; now he must blow smoke; and when all that is done he has still his story to tell. They are very wise people — men. They will leave no one to guard Messua till their ears are stuffed with Buldeo’s tales. And — I grow as lazy as they!”
He shook himself and glided back to the hut. Just as he was at the window he felt a touch on his foot.
“Mother,” said he, for he knew that tongue well, “what dost THOU here?”
“I heard my children singing through the woods, and I followed the one I loved best. Little Frog, I have a desire to see that woman who gave thee milk,” said Mother Wolf, all wet with the dew.
“They have bound and mean to kill her. I have cut those ties, and she goes with her man through the Jungle.”
“I also will follow. I am old, but not yet toothless.” Mother Wolf reared herself up on end, and looked through the window into the dark of the hut.
In a minute she dropped noiselessly, and all she said was: “I gave thee thy first milk; but Bagheera speaks truth: Man goes to Man at the last.”
“Maybe,” said Mowgli, with a very unpleasant look on his face; “but to-night I am very far from that trail. Wait here, but do not let her see.”
“THOU wast never afraid of ME, Little Frog,” said Mother Wolf, backing into the high grass, and blotting herself out, as she knew how.
“And now,” said Mowgli cheerfully, as he swung into the hut again, “they are all sitting round Buldeo, who is saying that which did not happen. When his talk is finished, they say they will assuredly come here with the Red — with fire and burn you both. And then?”
“I have spoken to my man,” said Messua. “Khanhiwara is thirty miles from here, but at Khanhiwara we may find the English —”
“And what Pack are they?” said Mowgli.
“I do not know. They be white, and it is said that they govern all the land, and do not suffer people to burn or beat each other without witnesses. If we can get thither to-night, we live. Otherwise we die.”
“Live, then. No man passes the gates to-night. But what does HE do?” Messua’s husband was on his hands and knees digging up the earth in one corner of the hut.
“It is his little money,” said Messua. “We can take nothing else.”
“Ah, yes. The stuff that passes from hand to hand and never grows warmer. Do they need it outside this place also?” said Mowgli.
The man stared angrily. “He is a fool, and no devil,” he muttered. “With the money I can buy a horse. We are too bruised to walk far, and the village will follow us in an hour.”
“I say they will NOT follow till I choose; but a horse is well thought of, for Messua is tired.” Her husband stood up and knotted the last of the rupees into his waist-cloth. Mowgli helped Messua through the window, and the cool night air revived her, but the Jungle in the starlight looked very dark and terrible.
“Ye know the trail to Khanhiwara?” Mowgli whispered.
“Good. Remember, now, not to be afraid. And there is no need to go quickly. Only — only there may be some small singing in the Jungle behind you and before.”
“Think you we would have risked a night in the Jungle through anything less than the fear of burning? It is better to be killed by beasts than by men,” said Messua’s husband; but Messua looked at Mowgli and smiled.
“I say,” Mowgli went on, just as though he were Baloo repeating an old Jungle Law for the hundredth time to a foolish cub —“I say that not a tooth in the Jungle is bared against you; not a foot in the Jungle is lifted against you. Neither man nor beast shall stay you till you come within eye-shot of Khanhiwara. There will be a watch about you.” He turned quickly to Messua, saying, “HE does not believe, but thou wilt believe?”
“Ay, surely, my son. Man, ghost, or wolf of the Jungle, I believe.”
“HE will be afraid when he hears my people singing. Thou wilt know and understand. Go now, and slowly, for there is no need of any haste. The gates are shut.”
Messua flung herself sobbing at Mowgli’s feet, but he lifted her very quickly with a shiver. Then she hung about his neck and called him every name of blessing she could think of, but her husband looked enviously across his fields, and said: “IF we reach Khanhiwara, and I get the ear of the English, I will bring such a lawsuit against the Brahmin and old Buldeo and the others as shall eat the village to the bone. They shall pay me twice over for my crops untilled and my buffaloes unfed. I will have a great justice.”
Mowgli laughed. “I do not know what justice is, but — come next Rains. and see what is left.”
They went off toward the Jungle, and Mother Wolf leaped from her place of hiding.
“Follow!” said Mowgli; “and look to it that all the Jungle knows these two are safe. Give tongue a little. I would call Bagheera.”
The long, low howl rose and fell, and Mowgli saw Messua’s husband flinch and turn, half minded to run back to the hut.
“Go on,” Mowgli called cheerfully. “I said there might be singing. That call will follow up to Khanhiwara. It is Favour of the Jungle.”
Messua urged her husband forward, and the darkness shut down on them and Mother Wolf as Bagheera rose up almost under Mowgli’s feet, trembling with delight of the night that drives the Jungle People wild.
“I am ashamed of thy brethren,” he said, purring. “What? Did they not sing sweetly to Buldeo?” said Mowgli.
“Too well! Too well! They made even ME forget my pride, and, by the Broken Lock that freed me, I went singing through the Jungle as though I were out wooing in the spring! Didst thou not hear us?”
“I had other game afoot. Ask Buldeo if he liked the song. But where are the Four? I do not wish one of the Man–Pack to leave the gates to-night.”
“What need of the Four, then?” said Bagheera, shifting from foot to foot, his eyes ablaze, and purring louder than ever. “I can hold them, Little Brother. Is it killing at last? The singing and the sight of the men climbing up the trees have made me very ready. Who is Man that we should care for him — the naked brown digger, the hairless and toothless, the eater of earth? I have followed him all day — at noon — in the white sunlight. I herded him as the wolves herd buck. I am Bagheera! Bagheera! Bagheera! As I dance with my shadow, so danced I with those men. Look!” The great panther leaped as a kitten leaps at a dead leaf whirling overhead, struck left and right into the empty air, that sang under the strokes, landed noiselessly, and leaped again and again, while the half purr, half growl gathered head as steam rumbles in a boiler. “I am Bagheera — in the jungle — in the night, and my strength is in me. Who shall stay my stroke? Man-cub, with one blow of my paw I could beat thy head flat as a dead frog in the summer!”
“Strike, then!” said Mowgli, in the dialect of the village, NOT the talk of the Jungle, and the human words brought Bagheera to a full stop, flung back on haunches that quivered under him, his head just at the level of Mowgli’s. Once more Mowgli stared, as he had stared at the rebellious cubs, full into the beryl-green eyes till the red glare behind their green went out like the light of a lighthouse shut off twenty miles across the sea; till the eyes dropped, and the big head with them — dropped lower and lower, and the red rasp of a tongue grated on Mowgli’s instep.
“Brother — Brother — Brother!” the boy whispered, stroking steadily and lightly from the neck along the heaving back. “Be still, be still! It is the fault of the night, and no fault of thine.”
“It was the smells of the night,” said Bagheera penitently. “This air cries aloud to me. But how dost THOU know?”
Of course the air round an Indian village is full of all kinds of smells, and to any creature who does nearly all his thinking through his nose, smells are as maddening as music and drugs are to human beings. Mowgli gentled the panther for a few minutes longer, and he lay down like a cat before a fire, his paws tucked under his breast, and his eyes half shut.
“Thou art of the Jungle and NOT of the Jungle,” he said at last. “And I am only a black panther. But I love thee, Little Brother.”
“They are very long at their talk under the tree,” Mowgli said, without noticing the last sentence. “Buldeo must have told many tales. They should come soon to drag the woman and her man out of the trap and put them into the Red Flower. They will find that trap sprung. Ho! ho!”
“Nay, listen,” said Bagheera. “The fever is out of my blood now. Let them find ME there! Few would leave their houses after meeting me. It is not the first time I have been in a cage; and I do not think they will tie ME with cords.”
“Be wise, then,” said Mowgli, laughing; for he was beginning to feel as reckless as the panther, who had glided into the hut.
“Pah!” Bagheera grunted. “This place is rank with Man, but here is just such a bed as they gave me to lie upon in the King’s cages at Oodeypore. Now I lie down.” Mowgli heard the strings of the cot crack under the great brute’s weight. “By the Broken Lock that freed me, they will think they have caught big game! Come and sit beside me, Little Brother; we will give them ‘good hunting’ together!”
“No; I have another thought in my stomach. The Man–Pack shall not know what share I have in the sport. Make thine own hunt. I do not wish to see them.”
“Be it so,” said Bagheera. “Ah, now they come!”
The conference under the peepul-tree had been growing noisier and noisier, at the far end of the village. It broke in wild yells, and a rush up the street of men and women, waving clubs and bamboos and sickles and knives. Buldeo and the Brahmin were at the head of it, but the mob was close at their heels, and they cried, “The witch and the wizard! Let us see if hot coins will make them confess! Burn the hut over their heads! We will teach them to shelter wolf-devils! Nay, beat them first! Torches! More torches! Buldeo, heat the gun-barrels!”
Here was some little difficulty with the catch of the door. It had been very firmly fastened, but the crowd tore it away bodily, and the light of the torches streamed into the room where, stretched at full length on the bed, his paws crossed and lightly hung down over one end, black as the Pit, and terrible as a demon, was Bagheera. There was one half-minute of desperate silence, as the front ranks of the crowd clawed and tore their way back from the threshold, and in that minute Bagheera raised his head and yawned — elaborately, carefully, and ostentatiously — as he would yawn when he wished to insult an equal. The fringed lips drew back and up; the red tongue curled; the lower jaw dropped and dropped till you could see half-way down the hot gullet; and the gigantic dog-teeth stood clear to the pit of the gums till they rang together, upper and under, with the snick of steel-faced wards shooting home round the edges of a safe. Next instant the street was empty; Bagheera had leaped back through the window, and stood at Mowgli’s side, while a yelling, screaming torrent scrambled and tumbled one over another in their panic haste to get to their own huts.
“They will not stir till day comes,” said Bagheera quietly. “And now?”
The silence of the afternoon sleep seemed to have overtaken the village; but, as they listened, they could hear the sound of heavy grain-boxes being dragged over earthen floors and set down against doors. Bagheera was quite right; the village would not stir till daylight. Mowgli sat still, and thought, and his face grew darker and darker.
“What have I done?” said Bagheera, at last coming to his feet, fawning.
“Nothing but great good. Watch them now till the day. I sleep.” Mowgli ran off into the Jungle, and dropped like a dead man across a rock, and slept and slept the day round, and the night back again.
When he waked, Bagheera was at his side, and there was a newly-killed buck at his feet. Bagheera watched curiously while Mowgli went to work with his skinning-knife, ate and drank, and turned over with his chin in his hands.
“The man and the woman are come safe within eye-shot of Khanhiwara,” Bagheera said. “Thy lair mother sent the word back by Chil, the Kite. They found a horse before midnight of the night they were freed, and went very quickly. Is not that well?”
“That is well,” said Mowgli.
“And thy Man–Pack in the village did not stir till the sun was high this morning. Then they ate their food and ran back quickly to their houses.”
“Did they, by chance, see thee?”
“It may have been. I was rolling in the dust before the gate at dawn, and I may have made also some small song to myself. Now, Little Brother, there is nothing more to do. Come hunting with me and Baloo. He has new hives that he wishes to show, and we all desire thee back again as of old. Take off that look which makes even me afraid! The man and woman will not be put into the Red Flower, and all goes well in the Jungle. Is it not true? Let us forget the Man–Pack.”
“They shall be forgotten in a little while. Where does Hathi feed to-night?”
“Where he chooses. Who can answer for the Silent One? But why? What is there Hathi can do which we cannot?”
“Bid him and his three sons come here to me.”
“But, indeed, and truly, Little Brother, it is not — it is not seemly to say ‘Come,’ and ‘Go,’ to Hathi. Remember, he is the Master of the Jungle, and before the Man–Pack changed the look on thy face, he taught thee the Master-words of the Jungle.”
“That is all one. I have a Master-word for him now. Bid him come to Mowgli, the Frog: and if he does not hear at first, bid him come because of the Sack of the Fields of Bhurtpore.”
“The Sack of the Fields of Bhurtpore,” Bagheera repeated two or three times to make sure. “I go. Hathi can but be angry at the worst, and I would give a moon’s hunting to hear a Master-word that compels the Silent One.”
He went away, leaving Mowgli stabbing furiously with his skinning-knife into the earth. Mowgli had never seen human blood in his life before till he had seen, and — what meant much more to him — smelled Messua’s blood on the thongs that bound her. And Messua had been kind to him, and, so far as he knew anything about love, he loved Messua as completely as he hated the rest of mankind. But deeply as he loathed them, their talk, their cruelty, and their cowardice, not for anything the Jungle had to offer could he bring himself to take a human life, and have that terrible scent of blood back again in his nostrils. His plan was simpler, but much more thorough; and he laughed to himself when he thought that it was one of old Buldeo’s tales told under the peepul-tree in the evening that had put the idea into his head.
“It WAS a Master-word,” Bagheera whispered in his ear. “They were feeding by the river, and they obeyed as though they were bullocks. Look where they come now!”
Hathi and his three sons had arrived, in their usual way, without a sound. The mud of the river was still fresh on their flanks, and Hathi was thoughtfully chewing the green stem of a young plantain-tree that he had gouged up with his tusks. But every line in his vast body showed to Bagheera, who could see things when he came across them, that it was not the Master of the Jungle speaking to a Man-cub, but one who was afraid coming before one who was not. His three sons rolled side by side, behind their father.
Mowgli hardly lifted his head as Hathi gave him “Good hunting.” He kept him swinging and rocking, and shifting from one foot to another, for a long time before he spoke; and when he opened his mouth it was to Bagheera, not to the elephants.
“I will tell a tale that was told to me by the hunter ye hunted today,” said Mowgli. “It concerns an elephant, old and wise, who fell into a trap, and the sharpened stake in the pit scarred him from a little above his heel to the crest of his shoulder, leaving a white mark.” Mowgli threw out his hand, and as Hathi wheeled the moonlight showed a long white scar on his slaty side, as though he had been struck with a red-hot whip. “Men came to take him from the trap,” Mowgli continued, “but he broke his ropes, for he was strong, and went away till his wound was healed. Then came he, angry, by night to the fields of those hunters. And I remember now that he had three sons. These things happened many, many Rains ago, and very far away — among the fields of Bhurtpore. What came to those fields at the next reaping, Hathi?”
“They were reaped by me and by my three sons,” said Hathi.
“And to the ploughing that follows the reaping?” said Mowgli.
“There was no ploughing,” said Hathi.
“And to the men that live by the green crops on the ground?” said Mowgli.
“They went away.”
“And to the huts in which the men slept?” said Mowgli.
“We tore the roofs to pieces, and the Jungle swallowed up the walls,” said Hathi.
“And what more?” said Mowgli.
“As much good ground as I can walk over in two nights from the east to the west, and from the north to the south as much as I can walk over in three nights, the Jungle took. We let in the Jungle upon five villages; and in those villages, and in their lands, the grazing-ground and the soft crop-grounds, there is not one man today who takes his food from the ground. That was the Sack of the Fields of Bhurtpore, which I and my three sons did; and now I ask, Man-cub, how the news of it came to thee?” said Hathi.
“A man told me, and now I see even Buldeo can speak truth. It was well done, Hathi with the white mark; but the second time it shall be done better, for the reason that there is a man to direct. Thou knowest the village of the Man–Pack that cast me out? They are idle, senseless, and cruel; they play with their mouths, and they do not kill the weaker for food, but for sport. When they are full-fed they would throw their own breed into the Red Flower. This I have seen. It is not well that they should live here any more. I hate them!”
“Kill, then,” said the youngest of Hathi’s three sons, picking up a tuft of grass, dusting it against his fore-legs, and throwing it away, while his little red eyes glanced furtively from side to side.
“What good are white bones to me?” Mowgli answered angrily. “Am I the cub of a wolf to play in the sun with a raw head? I have killed Shere Khan, and his hide rots on the Council Rock; but — but I do not know whither Shere Khan is gone, and my stomach is still empty. Now I will take that which I can see and touch. Let in the Jungle upon that village, Hathi!”
Bagheera shivered, and cowered down. He could understand, if the worst came to the worst, a quick rush down the village street, and a right and left blow into a crowd, or a crafty killing of men as they ploughed in the twilight; but this scheme for deliberately blotting out an entire village from the eyes of man and beast frightened him. Now he saw why Mowgli had sent for Hathi. No one but the long-lived elephant could plan and carry through such a war.
“Let them run as the men ran from the fields of Bhurtpore, till we have the rain-water for the only plough, and the noise of the rain on the thick leaves for the pattering of their spindles — till Bagheera and I lair in the house of the Brahmin, and the buck drink at the tank behind the temple! Let in the Jungle, Hathi!”
“But I— but we have no quarrel with them, and it needs the red rage of great pain ere we tear down the places where men sleep,” said Hathi doubtfully.
“Are ye the only eaters of grass in the Jungle? Drive in your peoples. Let the deer and the pig and the nilghai look to it. Ye need never show a hand’s-breadth of hide till the fields are naked. Let in the Jungle, Hathi!”
“There will be no killing? My tusks were red at the Sack of the Fields of Bhurtpore, and I would not wake that smell again.”
“Nor I. I do not wish even their bones to lie on the clean earth. Let them go and find a fresh lair. They cannot stay here. I have seen and smelled the blood of the woman that gave me food — the woman whom they would have killed but for me. Only the smell of the new grass on their door-steps can take away that smell. It burns in my mouth. Let in the Jungle, Hathi!”
“Ah!” said Hathi. “So did the scar of the stake burn on my hide till we watched the villages die under in the spring growth. Now I see. Thy war shall be our war. We will let in the jungle!”
Mowgli had hardly time to catch his breath — he was shaking all over with rage and hate before the place where the elephants had stood was empty, and Bagheera was looking at him with terror.
“By the Broken Lock that freed me!” said the Black Panther at last. “Art THOU the naked thing I spoke for in the Pack when all was young? Master of the Jungle, when my strength goes, speak for me — speak for Baloo — speak for us all! We are cubs before thee! Snapped twigs under foot! Fawns that have lost their doe!”
The idea of Bagheera being a stray fawn upset Mowgli altogether, and he laughed and caught his breath, and sobbed and laughed again, till he had to jump into a pool to make himself stop. Then he swam round and round, ducking in and out of the bars of the moonlight like the frog, his namesake.
By this time Hathi and his three sons had turned, each to one point of the compass, and were striding silently down the valleys a mile away. They went on and on for two days’ march — that is to say, a long sixty miles — through the Jungle; and every step they took, and every wave of their trunks, was known and noted and talked over by Mang and Chil and the Monkey People and all the birds. Then they began to feed, and fed quietly for a week or so. Hathi and his sons are like Kaa, the Rock Python. They never hurry till they have to.
At the end of that time — and none knew who had started it — a rumour went through the Jungle that there was better food and water to be found in such and such a valley. The pig — who, of course, will go to the ends of the earth for a full meal — moved first by companies, scuffling over the rocks, and the deer followed, with the small wild foxes that live on the dead and dying of the herds; and the heavy-shouldered nilghai moved parallel with the deer, and the wild buffaloes of the swamps came after the nilghai. The least little thing would have turned the scattered, straggling droves that grazed and sauntered and drank and grazed again; but whenever there was an alarm some one would rise up and soothe them. At one time it would be Ikki the Porcupine, full of news of good feed just a little farther on; at another Mang would cry cheerily and flap down a glade to show it was all empty; or Baloo, his mouth full of roots, would shamble alongside a wavering line and half frighten, half romp it clumsily back to the proper road. Very many creatures broke back or ran away or lost interest, but very many were left to go forward. At the end of another ten days or so the situation was this. The deer and the pig and the nilghai were milling round and round in a circle of eight or ten miles radius, while the Eaters of Flesh skirmished round its edge. And the centre of that circle was the village, and round the village the crops were ripening, and in the crops sat men on what they call machans — platforms like pigeon-perches, made of sticks at the top of four poles — to scare away birds and other stealers. Then the deer were coaxed no more. The Eaters of Flesh were close behind them, and forced them forward and inward.
It was a dark night when Hathi and his three sons slipped down from the Jungle, and broke off the poles of the machans with their trunks; they fell as a snapped stalk of hemlock in bloom falls, and the men that tumbled from them heard the deep gurgling of the elephants in their ears. Then the vanguard of the bewildered armies of the deer broke down and flooded into the village grazing-grounds and the ploughed fields; and the sharp-hoofed, rooting wild pig came with them, and what the deer left the pig spoiled, and from time to time an alarm of wolves would shake the herds, and they would rush to and fro desperately, treading down the young barley, and cutting flat the banks of the irrigating channels. Before the dawn broke the pressure on the outside of the circle gave way at one point. The Eaters of Flesh had fallen back and left an open path to the south, and drove upon drove of buck fled along it. Others, who were bolder, lay up in the thickets to finish their meal next night.
But the work was practically done. When the villagers looked in the morning they saw their crops were lost. And that meant death if they did not get away, for they lived year in and year out as near to starvation as the Jungle was near to them. When the buffaloes were sent to graze the hungry brutes found that the deer had cleared the grazing-grounds, and so wandered into the Jungle and drifted off with their wild mates; and when twilight fell the three or four ponies that belonged to the village lay in their stables with their heads beaten in. Only Bagheera could have given those strokes, and only Bagheera would have thought of insolently dragging the last carcass to the open street.
The villagers had no heart to make fires in the fields that night, so Hathi and his three sons went gleaning among what was left; and where Hathi gleans there is no need to follow. The men decided to live on their stored seed-corn until the rains had fallen, and then to take work as servants till they could catch up with the lost year; but as the grain-dealer was thinking of his well-filled crates of corn, and the prices he would levy at the sale of it, Hathi’s sharp tusks were picking out the corner of his mud-house, and smashing open the big wicker chest, leeped with cow-dung, where the precious stuff lay.
When that last loss was discovered, it was the Brahmin’s turn to speak. He had prayed to his own Gods without answer. It might be, he said, that, unconsciously, the village had offended some one of the Gods of the Jungle, for, beyond doubt, the Jungle was against them. So they sent for the head-man of the nearest tribe of wandering Gonds — little, wise, and very black hunters, living in the deep Jungle, whose fathers came of the oldest race in India — the aboriginal owners of the land. They made the Gond welcome with what they had, and he stood on one leg, his bow in his hand, and two or three poisoned arrows stuck through his top-knot, looking half afraid and half contemptuously at the anxious villagers and their ruined fields. They wished to know whether his Gods — the Old Gods — were angry with them and what sacrifices should be offered. The Gond said nothing, but picked up a trail of the Karela, the vine that bears the bitter wild gourd, and laced it to and fro across the temple door in the face of the staring red Hindu image. Then he pushed with his hand in the open air along the road to Khanhiwara, and went back to his Jungle, and watched the Jungle People drifting through it. He knew that when the Jungle moves only white men can hope to turn it aside.
There was no need to ask his meaning. The wild gourd would grow where they had worshipped their God, and the sooner they saved themselves the better.
But it is hard to tear a village from its moorings. They stayed on as long as any summer food was left to them, and they tried to gather nuts in the Jungle, but shadows with glaring eyes watched them, and rolled before them even at mid-day; and when they ran back afraid to their walls, on the tree-trunks they had passed not five minutes before the bark would be stripped and chiselled with the stroke of some great taloned paw. The more they kept to their village, the bolder grew the wild things that gambolled and bellowed on the grazing-grounds by the Waingunga. They had no time to patch and plaster the rear walls of the empty byres that backed on to the Jungle; the wild pig trampled them down, and the knotty-rooted vines hurried after and threw their elbows over the new-won ground, and the coarse grass bristled behind the vines like the lances of a goblin army following a retreat. The unmarried men ran away first, and carried the news far and near that the village was doomed. Who could fight, they said, against the Jungle, or the Gods of the Jungle, when the very village cobra had left his hole in the platform under the peepul-tree? So their little commerce with the outside world shrunk as the trodden paths across the open grew fewer and fainter. At last the nightly trumpetings of Hathi and his three sons ceased to trouble them; for they had no more to be robbed of. The crop on the ground and the seed in the ground had been taken. The outlying fields were already losing their shape, and it was time to throw themselves on the charity of the English at Khanhiwara.
Native fashion, they delayed their departure from one day to another till the first Rains caught them and the unmended roofs let in a flood, and the grazing-ground stood ankle deep, and all life came on with a rush after the heat of the summer. Then they waded out — men, women, and children — through the blinding hot rain of the morning, but turned naturally for one farewell look at their homes.
They heard, as the last burdened family filed through the gate, a crash of falling beams and thatch behind the walls. They saw a shiny, snaky black trunk lifted for an instant, scattering sodden thatch. It disappeared, and there was another crash, followed by a squeal. Hathi had been plucking off the roofs of the huts as you pluck water-lilies, and a rebounding beam had pricked him. He needed only this to unchain his full strength, for of all things in the Jungle the wild elephant enraged is the most wantonly destructive. He kicked backward at a mud wall that crumbled at the stroke, and, crumbling, melted to yellow mud under the torrent of rain. Then he wheeled and squealed, and tore through the narrow streets, leaning against the huts right and left, shivering the crazy doors, and crumpling up the caves; while his three sons raged behind as they had raged at the Sack of the Fields of Bhurtpore.
“The Jungle will swallow these shells,” said a quiet voice in the wreckage. “It is the outer wall that must lie down,” and Mowgli, with the rain sluicing over his bare shoulders and arms, leaped back from a wall that was settling like a tired buffalo.
“All in good time,” panted Hathi. “Oh, but my tusks were red at Bhurtpore; To the outer wall, children! With the head! Together! Now!”
The four pushed side by side; the outer wall bulged, split, and fell, and the villagers, dumb with horror, saw the savage, clay-streaked heads of the wreckers in the ragged gap. Then they fled, houseless and foodless, down the valley, as their village, shredded and tossed and trampled, melted behind them.
A month later the place was a dimpled mound, covered with soft, green young stuff; and by the end of the Rains there was the roaring jungle in full blast on the spot that had been under plough not six months before.
This story was a little long, but I hope you enjoyed it all the same! For new fairy tale, Prince of Prophecy, and Writer’s Corner updates every Wednesday and Saturday, follow this blog!