It was January 13 of a good many years ago, in those happy days that have "gone glimmering through the dream of things that were." The sun had scarcely risen, and I was sitting in the cosy cabin of my yacht enjoying my "chota hazree," which, being interpreted, means "lesser presence," and in Anglo-Indian speech signifies an "eye-opener" of tea and toast—the greater presence appears some hours later and we call it breakfast. I will not say that the view from my cabin windows was enchanting. The placid waters of the broad creek would have been pleasant to look upon if the level rays of the sun in his strength had not skimmed them with such a blinding glare, but the low, flat-topped hills that bounded them were forbidding.
The people said truly that God had made this a country of stones, but they forgot that He had clothed the stones with trees of evergreen foliage and a dense undergrowth of shrubs and grass, to protect and hold together the thick bed of loam which the fallen leaves enriched from year to year. It was the axes of their fathers that felled the trees, to sell for fuel, and the billhooks of their mothers that hacked away the bushes and grubbed up their very roots to burn on the household cooking hole. Then the torrential rains of the south-west monsoon came down on the naked, defenceless, parched and cracked soil and swept it in muddy cascades down to the sea, leaving flats of bare rock, strewn thick with round stones, sore to the best-shod foot of man and cruel to the hoofs of a horse. About and among the huts of the unswept and malodorous hamlet just above the shore there were fine trees, mango, tamarind, babool and bor, showing what might have been elsewhere.
On the rounded top of the highest hill frowned in black ruin an old Mahratta fort, covered on the top and sides and choked within by that dense mass of struggling vegetation which always takes possession of old forts in India. The weather-worn stones and crumbling mortar seem to feed the trees to gluttony. First some bird-drops the seeds of the banian fig into crevices of the ramparts, and its insidious roots push their way and grow and grow into great tortuous snakes, embracing the massive blocks of basalt, heaving them up and holding them up, so that they cannot fall. Then prickly shrubs and thorny trees follow, fighting for every inch of ground, but quite unable to eject the gently persistent custard-apple, descended doubtless from seeds which the garrison dropped as they ate the luscious fruit, on account of which the Portuguese introduced the tree from South America. I had penetrated into that fort and had seen something of the snakes and birds of night, but not the ghosts and demons which I was assured made it their habitation by day.
On a level place a little below the fort stood two monuments, telling of the days when the Honourable East India Company maintained a "Resident" at this place. Here he lived in proud solitude, upholding the British flag. But his wife and the little one on whose face he had not yet looked were on their way from Bombay in a native "pattimar" to join him, and as he stood gazing over the sea at the red setting sun one 5th of October, he thought of the glad to-morrow and the end of his dreary loneliness. It fell to him to put up one of these monuments, with a sorrowful inscription to all that was left to him on the following morning, the "memory" of a beloved wife and an infant thirty-one days old, drowned in crossing the bar on October 6, 1853.
We have strewed our best to the weeds unrest,
To the shark and the sheering gull.
If blood be the price of admiralty,
Lord God, we ha' paid in full.
I carried my gun and rifle with me in my yacht. They served to keep up my character as a sportsman, and did not often require to be cleaned. So the morning calm of my mind was lashed into an unwonted tempest of excitement when my jolly skipper, Sheikh Abdul Rehman, came in and told me briefly that a "bag" (which word does not rhyme with rag, but must be pronounced like barg without the r and signifies a tiger or panther) had killed a cow in the village the night before last.
When he added that the villagers had set a spring gun for it last evening and it had returned to the "kill" and been badly wounded, my excitement was turned into wrath. I had been at anchor here all yesterday. The Indian ryot everywhere turns instinctively to the sahib as his protector against all wild beasts. What did these men mean by keeping their own counsel and setting an infernal machine for their enemy? Abdul Rehman explained, and the explanation was simple and sufficient. My fat predecessor in the appointment that I held had no relish for sport and kept no guns, so the simple villagers, when they saw my boat with its familiar flag, looked for no help from that quarter. However, I might still win renown off that wounded "bag," if it was not a myth; but, to tell the truth, I was sceptical. The tiger and the panther are not nomads on rocky plains, like the antelope. I landed, notwithstanding, promptly and visited the scene. Sure enough, there was a young heifer lying on its side, with the unmistakable deep pits where the jaws of the panther had gripped its throat, and a gory cavity where it had selected a gigot for its dinner.
Round the corpse the villagers had arranged a circular fence of thorns, with one opening, across which they had stretched a cord, attached at the other end to the trigger of an old shooting iron of some sort, charged with slugs and looking hard at the opening. The gun had gone off during the night, and the ground was soaked with blood. A few yards off there was another great swamp of blood. The beast had staggered away and lain down for a while, faint and sick. Then it had got up and crawled home, still dripping with blood, by which we tracked it for a good distance, but the trace grew gradually fainter and at last ceased altogether.