Edward Hamilton Aitken.

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specific effect on the condition produced by the poison."

But "anti-venene," as Dr. Fraser calls his immunised blood-serum,
follows the poison into the system, even after the fatal symptoms have
begun to show themselves, and arrests them at once. So the Anglo-Indian
may throw away his ammonia phial and, arming himself with another of
anti-venene and a hypodermic syringe, feel that he is safe against an
accident which will never happen. As for the man who is not nervous, he
will speak of the new antidote, and think of it as most interesting and
valuable, and go on his way as before with no expectation of ever being
bitten by a venomous snake. The medical man of every degree will order
a supply as soon as it is to be had, and conscientiously try to stamp
out the smouldering hope within him that somebody in the station will
soon be bitten by a cobra and give him a chance.

Among the dusky millions of India Dr. Fraser's discovery will create no
"catholic ravishment" because they will not hear of it. And if they did
hear of it they would regard his labours as misapplied and the result as
superfluous. For the Hindu has never shared the Englishman's opinion
that there is no cure for snake-bite. On the contrary, he is assured
that there are not one or two but many specifics for the bite of every
kind of snake, known to those whose business it is to know them. If they
are not invariably efficacious, it is for the simple reason that if a
man's time has come to die he will die. But if his time has not come to
die they will not fail to cure him, and since no man can know when he is
bitten whether his time has come or not, he will lay the odds against
Fate by trying, not one or another of them, but as many as he can hear
of or get. Some of them are drastic in their effects, and so it too
often proves that the poor man's time has indeed come, for though he
might survive the snake he succumbs to the cure.

It is many years now since the news was brought to me one day that a man
whom I knew very well had been bitten by a deadly serpent and was dying.
He was a fine, strongly built young fellow, a Mohammedan, in the employ
of a Parsee liquor distiller, in whose godown he was arranging firewood
when he was bitten in the foot. Without looking at the snake he rushed
out and, falling on his face on the ground, implored the bystanders to
take care of his wife and children as he was a dead man. The news spread
and all the village ran together. The man was taken to an open room in
his employer's premises and vigorous measures for his recovery were set
on foot, in which his employer's family and servants, his own friends
and as many of the general public as chose to look in, were allowed to
take part.

First of all, some jungle men were called in, for the man of the jungle
must naturally know more about snakes than other men. These were
probably Katkurrees, an aboriginal race, who live by woodcutting,
hunting and other sylvan occupations. They proved to be practical men
and at once sucked the wound. An intelligent Havildar of the Customs
Department, who chanced to be present, then lanced the wound slightly to
let the blood flow, and tied the leg tightly in two places above it.
This was admirable. If what the jungle men and the Havildar did were
always and promptly done whenever a man is bitten by a snake, few such
accidents would end fatally.

But this poor man's friends did not stop there. A supply of chickens had
been procured with all haste, and these were scientifically applied.
This is a remedy in which the natives have great faith, and I have known
Europeans who were convinced of its efficacy. The manner of its
application scarcely admits of description in these pages, but the
effect is that the chickens absorb the poison and die, while the man
lives. The number of chickens required is a gauge of the virulence of
the serpent, for as soon as the venom is all extracted they cease to
die. Nobody, however, could tell me how many chickens perished in this
case. They were all too busy to stop and note the result of one remedy
while another remained untried. And there were many yet.

Somebody suggested that the venom should be dislodged from the patient's
stomach, so an emetic was administered in the form of a handful of
common salt, with immediate and seismic effect. Then a decoction of
_neem_ leaves was poured down the man's throat. The _neem_ tree is an
enemy of all fevers and a friend of man generally, so much so that it is
healthful to sleep under its shade. Therefore a decoction of the leaves
could not fail to be beneficial in one way or another. The residue of
the leaves was well rubbed into the crown of the man's head for more
direct effect on the brains in case they might be affected. Something
else was rubbed in under the root of the tongue.

In the meantime a man with some experience in exorcism had brought twigs
of a tree of well-ascertained potency in expelling the devil, and
advised that, in view of the known connection between serpents and
Satan, it would be well to try beating the patient with these. The
advice was taken, and many stripes were laid upon him. Massage was also
tried, and other homely expedients, such as bandaging and thumping with
the fists, were not neglected.

It was about noon when I was told of the accident, and I went down at
once and found the poor man in a woeful state, as well he might be after
such rough handling as he had suffered for four consecutive hours; but
he was quite conscious and there was neither pain nor swelling in the
bitten foot. I remonstrated most vigorously, pointing out that the
snake, which nobody had seen, might not have been a venomous one at all,
that there were no symptoms of poisoning, except such as might also be
explained by the treatment the man had suffered at the hands of his
friends, and that, in short, I could see no reason to think he was going
to die unless they were determined to kill him.

My words appeared to produce a good effect on the Parsees at least, and
they consented to stop curing the man and let him rest, giving him such
stimulating refreshment as he would take, for he was a pious Mussulman
and would not touch wine or spirits. I said what I could to cheer him
up, and went away hoping that I had saved a human life. Alas! In an hour
or so a friend came in with a root of rare virtue and persuaded the man
to swallow some preparation of it. _Post hoc_, whether _propter hoc_ I
dare not say, he became unconscious and sank. Before night he was

All this did not happen in some obscure village in a remote jungle. It
happened within a mile and a half of a town controlled by a municipal
corporation which enjoys the rights and privileges of "local
self-government." In that town there was a dispensary, with a very
capable assistant-surgeon in charge, and in that dispensary I doubt not
you would have found a bottle of strong _liquor ammoniæ_ and a printed
copy of the directions issued by a paternal Government for the recovery
of persons bitten by venomous serpents. But when the man was bitten the
one thing which occurred to nobody was to take him there, and when I
heard of the matter the assistant-surgeon had just left for a distant
place, passing on his way the gate of the house in which the man lay.
This was a bad case, but there is little reason to hope that it was
altogether exceptional. I am afraid there can be no question at all that
hundreds of the deaths put down to snake-bite by village punchayets
every year might with more truth be registered as "cured to death."




Beharil Surajmul was the greatest moneylender in Dowlutpoor. He was a
man of rare talents. He remembered the face of every man who had at any
time come to borrow money of him since he began to work, as a little
boy, in his father's office, so that it was impossible to deceive him.
He had also such a miraculous skill in the making out of accounts that a
poor man who had come to him in extremity for a loan of fifty rupees, to
meet the expenses of his daughter's marriage, might go on making
payments for the remainder of his life without reducing the debt by one
rupee. In fact, it seemed to increase with each payment.

And if the matter went into court, Beharilal never failed to show that
there was still a balance due to him much larger than the original loan.
But so courteous and pleasant was the Seth in his manner to all that
such matters never went into court until the right time, of which he was
an infallible judge, for he knew the private affairs of every family in
Dowlutpoor. Then a decree was obtained and the debtor's house, or land,
was sold to defray the debt, Beharilal himself being usually the
purchaser, though not, of course, in his own name, for he was a prudent

By these means Beharilal had become possessed of large estates, which he
managed with such skill that they yielded to him revenues which they had
never yielded to the former owners of them, while his tenants, who were
mostly former owners, grew daily more deeply involved in their pecuniary
obligations to him, and therefore entertained no thought of leaving him,
for he could put them into prison any day if he chose. Their contentment
gave him great satisfaction, and he treated them with benevolence,
giving them advances of money for all their necessary expenses and
appropriating the whole of their crops at the harvest to repay himself.
He bound them to buy all that they had need of at his shop, so that he
made profit off them on both sides.

And as his wealth increased, his person increased with it and his
appearance became more imposing, so that he was regarded everywhere with
the highest respect and esteem. He was, moreover, a very religious man
and charitable beyond most. By early risers he might be seen in his
garden seeking out the nests of ants and giving them, with his own
hands, their daily dole of rice. It was his benevolent thoughtfulness
which had supplied drinking troughs for the flocks of pigeons that
continually plundered the stores of the other grain merchants. He had
also established a pinjrapole for aged, sickly and ownerless animals of
all kinds. To this he required all his tenants to send their bullocks
when they became unfit for work, and he sold them new cattle, good and
strong, at prices fixed by himself. If any of his old debtors, when
reduced to beggary, came to his door for alms, they were never sent away
without a handful of rice or a copper coin. He kept a bag of the
smallest copper coins always at hand for such purposes.

Beharilal had a fine house, designed by himself and surrounded by a vast
garden stocked with mangoes, guavas, custard apples, oranges and other
fruit trees, and made beautiful and fragrant with all manner of flowers.
The cool shade drew together birds of many kinds from the dry plains of
the surrounding country, and it pleased Beharilal to think that they
also were recipients of his bounty and that the benefits which he
conferred on them would certainly be entered to the credit of his
account with Heaven.

Some he fed, such as the crows, which flocked about the back door, like
a convocation of Christian padres, in the morning and afternoon, when
the ladies of his family gave out their portion of boiled rice and ghee.
The pigeons also came together in hundreds in an open space under the
shade of a noble peepul tree, where grain was thrown out for them at
three o'clock every day; and among them were many chattering sparrows
and not a few green parrots, which walked quaintly among the bustling
pigeons, their long tails moving from side to side like the pointer of
the scale on which the Bunia weighed his rupees. This resemblance struck
him as he reclined against the fat red cushion in his verandah summing
up his gains. There were other birds which would not eat his food, but
found abundance, suited to their respective castes, among the shrubs and
trees that he had planted. Mynas walked eagerly on the lawns looking for
grasshoppers, glittering sunbirds hovered over the flowers, thrusting
their slender bills into each nectar-laden blossom, bulbuls twittered
among the mulberries and the koel made the shady banian tree resound
with its melodious notes.

In a remote corner of the garden, under the dark shade of a tamarind,
there stood a small shrine, like a whitewashed tomb, with a niche or
recess on one side of it containing a conical stone smeared with red
ochre. Some called it Mahadeo and some Khandoba, but no one could
explain the presence of a Mahratta god in a Bunia's garden in
Dowlutpoor, except by quoting an old tradition about one Narayen who had
come from the Mahratta country and lived for many years in this place.
Some said he was a prosperous goldsmith of great piety, but others
maintained that he was a Sunyasee, or saint, and there was no certainty
in the matter. The one point on which all were agreed was the great
sanctity of the shrine, and Beharilal was most careful to perform at it
every ceremony which custom, or tradition, sanctioned for placating the
god and averting any calamity that might arise from his displeasure.

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?"

The Malee answered, "Chh, Chh! There is no mate of this cobra," but his
tone was not confident.

"Go," cried Beharilal - "go quickly and call Nagoo, the snake-charmer. He
has knowledge."

"I will go," said the Malee, and set off at a run; but when he got out
of the gate he lapsed into a leisurely walk, for why should a man lose
his breath without cause? In time he found his way to the little
settlement of huts constructed of poles and mats, where Nagoo sat on the
ground smoking his "chillum," and told his errand.

"Why should I come?" was Nagoo's reply; "I went to take away that cobra
and the Bunia drove me from the garden with abuse. Why does he send for
me now?"

"He is a Bunia," said the Malee, as if that summed up the whole matter;
but he added, after a pause, "If he sees a burning ground, he shakes
like a peepul leaf. The cobra has died by his hand and his liver has
become like water. Whatever you ask he will give. You should come,"

Nagoo replied aloud, "I will come," and to himself, "I will give him
physic." Then he took up his baskets and his pipe and followed the

Beharilal proceeded to business with a directness foreign to his habit,
looking over his shoulder at intervals lest a snake might be silently
approaching. "Good Nagoo," he said, "a great misfortune has happened.
The cobra of the shrine has been killed. Has it a mate?"

"How can a cobra not have a mate?" answered Nagoo curtly.

Then Beharilal employed the most insinuating of the many tones of his
voice. "Listen, Nagoo. You are a man of skill. Capture that cobra and I
will pay you well. I will give you five rupees." Then, observing no
response in the wrinkled visage of the charmer, "I will give you ten

Nagoo would have sold his revenge for a tithe of the wealth thus dangled
before him, but he saw no reason to suppose that there was another cobra
anywhere in the garden, so he answered with the calm confidence of an
expert, "That cannot be done. The serpent will not heed any pipe now. In
its mind there is only revenge."

"Then what will it do?" said the trembling Bunia.

"If its mate died by the hand of a man, it will follow that man until
it has accomplished its purpose."

"But how will it know," asked Beharilal, "by whose hand its mate died?"

Nagoo replied with pious simplicity, "How can I tell by what means it
knows? God informs it."

"But," pleaded Beharilal, "is there no escape? - if a man goes away by
the railway or by water?"

Nagoo pondered for a moment and said, "If a man crossed the sea, the
serpent would be baulked. If he goes by railway it will not leave him.
Let him go to Madras, it will find him."

With a faltering hand the Bunia put some rupees, uncounted, into the
charmer's skinny palm, saying, "Go, make incantations. Do something.
There is great knowledge of mysteries with you"; and he hurried back
into the house.

His arrangements were very soon made. His account books, with a bundle
of bonds and hoondies and cash and his son, were put into a small cart
drawn by a pair of fast trotting bullocks, into which he himself
climbed, after looking under the cushion to see that there was no evil
beast lurking there, and got away in haste while the sun was yet hot.
The rest of the family followed with the household property, and in a
few days the house was empty and only the Malee remained in charge. Many
years have passed and the house is empty still, and the Malee, grown
grey and frail, is still in charge. He gets no wages, but he sells the
jasmine flowers and the mangoes and guavas, and he grows chillies and
brinjals, and so fills the stomachs of himself and his little grandson
and is contented. If you ask him where the Seth has gone, he replies,
"Who knows?" His debt has gone with his creditor, "gone glimmering
through the dream of things that were," and he has no desire to recall

A civil or military officer from the station, taking a solitary walk,
sometimes finds himself at the Cobra Bungalow, and turns in to wander
among its old trees and unswept paths, obstructed by overgrown and
untended shrubs, and wonders how it got its name. Then he pauses at the
whitewashed shrine and notes that the god-stone has been freshly painted
red and that chaplets of faded flowers lie before it. But the old Malee
approaches with a meek salaam and a posy of jasmine and marigolds and
warns him that there is a cobra in the shrine.



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

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Online LibraryEdward Hamilton AitkenConcerning Animals and Other Matters → online text (page 8 of 12)