At the base of one of the old cracked walls of the shrine there was a hole which was the den of a very large, black cobra. Several times it had been seen in the garden, and, when pursued, had glided into this hole and escaped. When Beharilal first heard of it he was much troubled in his mind, but, having consulted a Brahmin, he gave strict injunctions that the reptile should not be molested, and since that time he had never failed to place an offering of milk near to the hole in the morning and in the evening.
Now it happened that at this time there was in Dowlutpoor an English doctor who was generally known as the Jadoo-walla Saheb, because he was believed to practise sorcery and had some mysterious need of snakes. Perhaps he was only making experiments with their venom. At any rate, he wanted live cobras and offered a good price for them. So when Nagoo, the snake-charmer, heard that there was a large one in Beharilal's garden, he thought he might do good business by capturing it for the Jadoo-walla Saheb, and at the same time demanding a reward from the timorous Bunia for ridding him of such a dangerous neighbour. With this intent he repaired to the garden with all the apparatus of his art, his flat snake baskets, his mongoose and his crooked pipe. Having reconnoitred the ground, he commenced operations by sitting down on his hams and producing such ear-splitting strains from the crooked pipe as might have charmed Cerberus to leave his kennel at the gate of hell. Great was his surprise and mortification when he heard the voice of Beharilal raised in tones of unwonted passion and saw a stalwart Purdaisee advancing towards him armed with an iron-bound lathee, who, without ceremony, nay, with abusive epithets, hustled him and all his gear out of the garden. Nagoo was a snake-charmer and by nature a gipsy, and this treatment rankled in his dark bosom.
Some weeks passed and the sun had scarcely risen when Beharilal sat in the ota in front of his house at his daily business, which began as soon as his teeth were cleaned and ended about eleven at night. The place was not tidy. Two or three mats were spread on the floor, a spare one was rolled up in a corner, several pairs of shoes were on the steps, umbrellas leaned against the wall, handles downwards, and a large chatty of drinking water stood beside them. The Bunia himself, bare-headed and bare-footed, sat cross-legged on a cushion, with a wooden stool in front of him, on which lay an open ledger of stout yellowish paper, bound in soft red leather and nearly two feet in length. In this he was carefully entering yesterday's transactions with a reed pen, which he dipped frequently in a brass inkpot filled with a sponge soaked in a muddy black fluid.
Beside him sat his son, aged two years, playing with the red, lacquered cylinder in which he kept his reed pens. Beharilal had two girls also, but they were with the women folk in the interior of the house, where he was content they should stay. This was his only boy, the pride and joy of his heart. Engrossed as he was in recording his gains, he could not refrain from lifting his eyes now and again to feast them on that rotund little body, like a goblet set on two pillars. No clothing concealed the tense and shiny brown skin, but there were silver bracelets on the fat wrists and massive anklets where deep creases divided the fat little feet from the fat little legs, and a representation, in chased silver, of Eve's fig leaf hung from a silver chain which encircled the sphere that should have been his waist. His globular head was curiously shaven. From two deep pits between the bulging brow and the fat cheeks that nearly squeezed out the little nose between them, two black diamonds twinkled, full of wonder, as the small purse mouth prattled to itself softly and inarticulately of the mysteries of life.
Suddenly a startled cry, passing into a prolonged wail of fear, roused old Beharilal, and he saw a sight that nearly caused him to swoon with terror. The little man, a moment ago so placid and happy, was shrinking back with "I don't like that thing" inscribed in lines of anguish on his distorted face, and not three feet from him a huge cobra, just emerged from the roll of matting, eyed him with a stony stare, its head raised and its hood expanded. Its quivering tongue flickered out from between its lips like distant flashes of forked lightning.
For a moment Beharilal stood stupefied, then all the heroism that was in him spent itself at once. Seizing the heavy wooden stool in both his hands, he raised it high over his head and dashed it down on the reptile. The sharp edge of hard wood broke its back, and as it wriggled and lashed about, biting at everything within reach, the Bunia snatched up his boy and waddled into the house at a pace to which he had long been unaccustomed, calling out, in frantic gasps, for help. A rush of excited and screaming women met him in the inner court, and he dropped his precious burden, with pious ejaculations, into the arms of its mother, and stood panting and speechless. Then calling aloud to know if all danger was past, he ventured cautiously out again and saw that the Purdaisee and the Malee had ejected the wriggling cobra and were pounding its head into a jelly with a big stone.
For some seconds he looked on in a strange stupor, and then he realised what he had done. He, Beharilal, the Bunia, who had always removed the insects so tenderly from his own person that they were not hurt, who had never committed the sin of killing a mosquito or a fly; he, with his own hands, had taken the life of the guardian cobra of the shrine! "Urray-ray! Bap-ray!" he cried, "for what demerit of mine has this ill-luck befallen me in my old age? What will happen now?"
"Nay, Sethjkee," said the Malee, "be not afraid. It was in your destiny that this offspring of Satan should come to its end by your hand. We have pounded its head properly, so it will not return to you,"
"But what of its mate?" said Beharilal. "I have heard that, if any man kills a cobra, its mate will follow him by day and by night until it has had its revenge. Is that not so?"