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Elephants and Orphans

ISSUE:  Winter 1942

Since the morning they had bumped and jarred their way towards the Camp over a road that very often left off being a road and became a desert, or a beach of pebbles that skidded under the tires, or a bamboo bridge covered with straw sinking nearer and nearer the water as the car drew near the middle, or a wood where the trees made bending posts for the car to scamper round, or just two deep ruts in the earth with tons of dust on them. Nearer the station the road occasionally had found itself in a tea-garden, when it abruptly drew itself in and became good, with white railings each side, and a smooth sweet face, but immediately it was through the last gate and out in the open again, it returned to what it was, a true-blood jungle road. It rampaged in and out of gullies, and landslides, and forest; it bumped No. 1 and No. 2 and bruised and shook them, they ate its dust and suddenly it ran out on a cliff and left them there.

The Camp was across the river. The river above the Camp was in Bhutan, the river below the Camp in Assam, and on the Bhutan side the mountains went up, blotting out the Eastern sky, and their colors were deepened by a deep blue haze.

It was one of those wide shallow blue rivers running into rapids, and with flat pebble shoals; on the beaches and the shoals the pebbles were gray, almost white in the sun, but under the water they were brown with sometimes one pebble as green as a marble, or one a bright cabbage red. The banks on each side were covered with tiger grass; behind the grass there was forest; and now, in February, the forest was dry with autumn colors, blackened with jungle fires, and the only flowers in it were red flowering simmel trees and the white tobacco flowers shaped like stars.

The Camp was on a sweep of the bank, bent out so that it had river on the two sides of it and the forest at its back; there was a house on stilts and two tents. In front, by the river, was an enormous flag pole that looked like a splinter under the mountain.


The little she-elephant Mooltiki came wading across to fetch them. She was small and capricious and she did not like the pebbles; the river came up to her shoulders in parts and swept down upon her with all the force of the ice that was melting in the Bhutanese snows, and still she fussed over the pebbles, balancing her feet to find a smooth one, flapping her ears with annoyance. She had one consolation though: she carried the end of her trunk upside down in the water, so that it could be seen to be lined with pink and divided into holes, and she blew cascades of bubbles through it. She had to go back and fetch the luggage; then she had to go back and fetch grass for her supper; it was not until dusk that they saw her small shape climbing out of the water for the last time.

The tents were labeled No. 1 and No. 2; they called themselves after them, No. 1 and No. 2. The tents were very small and at night they seemed much smaller. It is an eerie feeling to lie by yourself in the middle of a large tract of jungle. The front of the tent was folded open to the night but no one could see through the back of the tent and the jungle was behind.

While they were up and round the fire the jungle was quiet; it seemed infinitely ringed off from the Camp by the cleared trees and the fire. The Camp was romantic but it was comfortable; they had easy wicker armchairs, the fire on their feet, a gentle snow-touched wind on their foreheads; they had whiskey and dinner; the hunters, who were called shikaris, talked quietly of excitement tomorrow on the edge of the light and there was a smell of wood flame and dinner and the night scent of the jungle. Then they went to bed.

“You are perfectly safe. Nothing will come near us, except perhaps elephant . . . .”

Elephants. No. 2 was exceedingly frightened of two things, one very large, one small—elephants and kraits.

Kraits are small snakes, whippy, covered in checkerboard yellow and brown. They are deadly poisonous. Once, in Camp, No. 2 put her hand in her shoe to put it on, felt something and pulled out her hand with a krait on her finger. It was asleep, but thereafter in Camp No. 2 shook her bedclothes and her clothes and wore mosquito boots. There is, however, nothing to be done about elephants, except if they come, and you are lucky, to go.

* * * * *

The house was a bungalow. In it was the living room in which no one ever lived. They lived outside; by night round the campfire, by day under a patch of simmel trees. In the simmel trees lived a family of jays with gleaming blue wings and hideous quarrelsome voices. There was a caretaker in a hut at the back, a servants’ room, a kitchen, and a stable. The shikaris had a camp of their own a short way off; they had sleeping tents just large enough to lie in, a shelf made of split bamboos between two trees with their brass plates and lotas on it, a string between two other trees for hanging their spare clothes, and a tiger’s tongue stuck up on a pole to dry. They sold the tiger tongues as a cure for goiter.

The elephants were further off still, their leg chains round two huge trees, the ground a welter of leaves and elephant pats. There were two elephants; the taller, elderly and sage, was Bhata Scully, the little one was Mooltiki. Bhata Scully was ill with stomach trouble, and an elephant with stomach trouble is very impressive indeed; she was too weak to cross the river and Mooltiki waited on her, bringing her loads of a particular grass that grew on the other bank.


The first orphan arrived on the first day.

A cook had been sent on ahead to the Camp, but now he was lying in his bed wrapped in blankets, his face sunk away into its bones, with his skin, brittle and dead yellow, stretched across it. “I have a little fever,” said the cook.

He had jungle malaria; his temperature at that moment was 106; in an hour or two it might be down, an hour after that, up again.

Who was to cook?

“I shall cook,” said Chand Singh, who at home was the butler, “but you must find me a dish-washer.”

No. 2 looked around. Unless a dish-washer dropped from the sky she could not see how she could possibly find one, not even a monkey. “I shall arrange for a dish-washer,” she promised.

She did nothing about it: there was nothing to do. She went and sat down by the river, and at noon the Orphan appeared with the post-runner. No one knew where he came from, or why, not even the post-runner, but he said he had “no father, no mother, no food,” and he remained. He was like his sister and brother, downtrodden scurvy orphans all over the world, with pathetic eyes, large elbows and knees, and thin legs. He was very black, with a distended stomach and a dusty mat of hair and damdim bites all over him. He was given some food and it went straight to his head; after he had eaten he reeled between the house and the kitchen, smiling and showing the whites of his eyes, and then he lay down in the sun and went to sleep.


In the afternoon, No. 2 went to market to buy a clean vest for the Orphan, whose own was such that she did not like the thought of it approaching the plates, The market was in Bhutan, outside Indian territory, but as it was the only market that would be held for weeks or miles, No. 2, Mooltiki, and the Orphan trespassed.

It did not turn out so badly for any of them. The market was in a Bhutanese village built of bamboo matting and bamboo poles, and it appeared not to have seen a tame elephant before, though it must have seen and heard plenty of wild ones. When Mooltiki came splashing her way out of the river, up a narrow gorge into the village square, everyone left their stalls; girls threw themselves squealing off the paths into the jungle and then sat up among the bushes to stare, houses emptied, the men even left their gambling for a moment to come and look. The Orphan was not at ease; he was fig-colored with fright and he seemed all big toes and whites of eye as he clung on, but no one noticed him. No one noticed No. 2 either; though a white woman had not been there before, she was obviously not as interesting as an elephant. When Mooltiki had let them down among cries of admiration, No. 2 marked out from a deserted stall the sort of vest she thought the Orphan needed, and some new white loin-cloths, and went to see the village.

It was the terminus of another rutted dusty road; the market was in the road and the dust was in the market. Every seller had the same things, few and cheap and common, chiefly from Japan. The men were all the same in white cotton breeches and caps and black waistcoats, and the women were nearly the same; their printed skirts had a great deal of stuff in them, they had tight printed bodices, and colored headveils; the children were the same as the men and women, only smaller, and the babies were naked. A great many of the people had goiter. There were no animals except chickens in profusion arid one black kid curled up in the shade of a pumpkin vine on a veranda. There were propaganda posters of the war pasted up on the hut walls. It had reached even here; there was, No. 2 knew, a rise in the price of rice.

Presently the market drifted back to its lazy dusty buying and selling. No. 2 sat down in a teashop to wait and as she sat there a caravan came in. It had come from the hinterland of Bhutan and the people were different from any she had seen. The coolies were more like animals than men, with short thick calves to their legs, short thick brutish bodies, and faces that were flat and cheerful, immensely healthy looking and quite uncomprehending; they had red cheeks and slit eyes that were bright and reflected back everything they saw, like a monkey’s, and huge fuzzes of hair gummed stiff with dirt and vermin; their clothes, that had once been loose thick woollen robes pouched over a sash-cloth, had become a pelt made of a veneer of the original stuff stiffened with a lining of their own grease and lice.

With them were a man and a woman. They came to the teashop and No. 2 had a rare and delicious encounter with them.

He was as fat as King Henry VIII of England, with a flat fat stupid merry face and a skin like a beautiful fruit, cherry-red and lemon. He wore a long inner and outer robe of grey, his hair was cut on his shoulders with a fringe, and he had a crown of one folded green banana leaf.

“Who is he?”

“Oh, he is a king.”

“Where does he come from?”

The teashop hostess, who was the only one who knew Hindustani, did not know that. She shrugged and pointed as if she would point through the mountain.

The woman came and sat on the bench by No. 2, making quick little remarks about the weather and the market to the hostess; No. 2 was sure they were not personal remarks about her, though she must have been very peculiar to meet in a lonely Bhutanese teashop. The woman did not stare, though No. 2 was sure she had taken in all about her, just as she, in a few glances, had taken in all of the woman.

Occasionally—it could not be often or it would have spoiled the taste of them—No. 2 had meetings like this, rare and inexplicably precious; she could not explain them. Sometimes they lasted half an hour, sometimes they lasted for ever, but they never went wrong; the taste stayed good with her for always and they were the most precious buoying possessions in her life. She knew as soon as she looked at the little woman that she liked her, that she could trust and revere and admire her, and she knew that the woman was going to like her too. They could not speak a word of one another’s language, they had come out of separate mysterious pasts and would go into separate mysterious futures, but in the teashop they were together, and No. 2 knew they would never forget it.

The woman looked old, she might have been the beautiful king’s mother, not his wife, and she was obviously a personage. She was little and merry, her eyes sunk flat in her head, and they were a clear amber brown, though she had wrinkles all round them. Her hair was cropped and she had small beautiful ears with square silver earrings.

“May I look at your earrings?” asked No. 2, touching her own ears.

“If I may look at your spectacles,” answered the woman and she touched the dark glasses politely, with the tip of her finger. The earrings could not be taken off but the glasses were handed round and tried on. No. 2 seemed to be funnier to them than to anyone else. “It is because of your skin,” said the hostess pityingly, “it looks so pale and queer.”

No. 2 went on looking at the woman. She was dressed in a blue robe with dark red linings, clear blue sleeves, and a red and blue striped apron, and she had been eating betel to match; her small mouth and her teeth, that were like a child’s, were stained red. She rolled her own leaf and smeared it with paste from a box she carried in the pouch of her robe. No. 2 asked to look at the box; it was little, of carved copper, the top and bottom joined by a chain; the king had another in silver, with a turquoise in the lid. In the end they gave them to No. 2 and No. 2 gave them five rupees and two mirror boxes she bought in the market.

When the villagers saw her give money they took the rings off their fingers and begged her to buy them. They were rough bands of country silver, marked with lucky signs, and No. 2 bought one for five annas from the hostess.

Now the afternoon was growing late; it was beginning to be evening. The teashop fires were burning up in the clay oven; platters of rice were handed round. It was time to go. Reluctantly, No. 2 stood up.

A hubbub rose from the back of the stalls. The Orphan had been arrested for stealing oranges.

To be arrested in Bhutan, especially when your husband thinks you are all in British India, is awkward. It cost a great deal of eloquence and several more rupees to persuade the policeman to release him.

Mooltiki gave trouble as well. She refused to kneel down to let her passengers climb on. The mahout shrieked at her and kicked her behind the ears and drove his goad in her forehead and at last, very ungraciously, she knelt for just one minute and bounced up again, shaking even No. 2 who had been expecting it and almost dropping the Orphan off the edge of the pad; Bangla, who was standing on Mooltiki’s tail, holding on with one hand, just scooped him up in time with the other, and they went off among wails from the Orphan and splutterings from the trunk of Mooltiki.


The second Orphan arrived on the fourth day.

A tiger had taken cattle from the village on the boundary line. It had killed twice in succession and No. 1 determined to get it. He tried for two nights, sitting from afternoon till dawn, but the tiger was as crafty as he and did not come back to its kill. It passed close, it was around all night, but it did not come.

“And I can’t stand the stench,” said No. 1. “It will kill again. I shall tie up a cow.”

They did not tie up a cow, they tied up the second Orphan.

He was a little bull, black, about four feet high, exceptionally solid and heavy; he had a hump and two swellings of horn and they tied a bell round his neck to attract the tiger. No. 2 tried not to look at him as she climbed past him into the new machan.

The guns and the knapsack and pillows and rugs were drawn up by a rope, cut jungle was heaped round the ladder, and the shikaris went away, leaving them alone. Even at half-past four in the afternoon it was very much alone, but the little bull was not perturbed. The sun was lying down the glade, the stems of the trees on the edge of the forest were lit, the light was green and luminous between them; but it was growing darker in the jungle.

No. 2 arranged the machan. It was built high between three trees, a platform of cut branches tied with strips of bamboo and hidden with leaves; the smell of the dying leaves was pungent and for ever after meant excitement for No. 2. In the machan they had rugs and cushions. They needed them; they might stay, without moving, until the morning. Sitting over a live kill is an art in stillness; even the sandwiches were wrapped in plantain leaves that would not rustle, and No. 1 had his, No. 2 hers, so that there should be no necessity for them to speak to one another. Nothing white or conspicuous must show; the pillows had dark covers, they themselves wore khaki. They had thick coats, and string gloves; when the dew came it would be bitterly cold. No. 1 fixed his torch on his rifle, No. 2 had the second gun ready, and all the time the bell tolled below them.

“It is cruel. I don’t care what you say.”

“Of course it’s cruel, but it’s one life against dozens if that tiger is left alive.”

Now it was dusk, there could be no more whispering. Squirrels ran down the tree and looked at them, making them start. It became dark very quickly.

A tiger usually comes early, soon after dusk, or late, near dawn, seldom in the middle of the night. Slowly over the forest settled a listening stillness. The bell sounded, breathlessly loud in one moment, forlornly in another. The forest was tensely still. A leaf fell with a sound loud enough to be a tiger; another fell after it. There was a heavy dot-dot-carry-dot, like hopping, far louder than a tiger; it was a jungle cock and his hens moving round the tree, and all at once there was a noise that paralyzed No. 2 even though she knew what it was; it was a noise like a dog being torn in half, a barking deer. Again there was stillness and the bell.

Then the stillness changed. It was different. There was a cold root of terror in it—somewhere. The tiger was there. She could see nothing, hear nothing. Her eyes strained into the uncertain blackness and pale light below. There was no sign, only that the little bull was absolutely still. The awful expectancy went on. Something touched her cheek and she froze in horror; it was No. l’s finger, pointing.

Where he pointed, with a shock of fear she saw it. If it had been lit by flares she could not have known more certainly what it was—tiger. She saw its shoulder before its head, the outline of its shoulder as it looked down the glade, a gigantic exaggerated symmetry that reached up into the dark, terrorizing even the leaves into stillness. It turned its head and that brought it back into size; it was quite near the ground but she was more deadly afraid of it like that.

“Why was I so afraid?” she asked after. “I was safe. Why was I afraid like that?”

“Because it was a tiger,” said No. 1 simply. “I was afraid, and how many tigers have I shot? I’m afraid every time.” And he added, “A tiger carries fear. That is its power.”

As its shape came forward, she was still but she was shaking. She lost it, saw it, lost it, and then the bell was ringing so violently there was no need for quiet.

No one would waste pity on a tiger if they had seen it kill. One tiger trick with a fighting victim is to spring from behind and hamstring it, making it helpless and, without waiting to kill, begin eating. The tiger tried this with the little bull but he would not be hamstrung; he fought for his life and it had actually to give up this attack and go for the neck; his neck was solid swelling muscle, he fought with all his strength and at that moment No. 1 shot the tiger.

In the light of the torch it lay, its head back in the grass, the white of its stomach curiously lean, one enormous paw in the air, and the sound of the gun seemed to go on and on through the jungle. It did not move again. No. 1 threw stones from the knapsack but it was dead. He let off another two shots close together, the signal for the elephants to come.

Bhata Scully came slowly, and for an hour the little bull had to stay there, tied near the dead tiger, and he bellowed, pawing at the ground like a bull in the bull ring, blood running from his wounds. The kill is usually finished with a shot but, “He is standing up,” said No. 1. “He fought for his life and he shall have it—Horatius.”

It took three men to bring him, still fighting, into Camp, he nearly broke his neck with the rope; but when No. 2 touched his wounds he was quiet, only trembling and breathing loudly through his nose. It was not pleasant for anyone; he was caked with dung and blood and when that was washed off in basins of permanganate carried unwillingly by the Other Orphan, the wounds were terrible: claw slashes down his flanks, deep teeth marks in the thigh, and in each side of the neck holes three or four inches deep.

“It will go septic. It must. What have you to put on it? You are not to take the only iodine.”

There was nothing, only epsom salts for fomentations and lanoline to block the holes from the flies. No. 2 tied one bath towel round his neck, draped another from his hip to his knee; she tied him in the shade and gave him a heap of fresh grass.

The wounds began to swell.


The Other Orphan was so proud of his new vest that he took it off whenever he worked and put on his old one, This was not at all what No. 2 had intended; she told him to take it off, picked it up on the end of a stick, and carried it and cast it into the kitchen fire. The Orphan followed her at the respectful distance due to mad persons, but the stench that rose from it as the fire caught it was so like the smell of a body from the burning ghat that she felt justified.

She watched to see what he would do; he solved the question quite simply by working naked. He was improving; he was clean, his hair was combed, and most of his bites had healed. His chest was coming up and his stomach was going down, and his eyes were settling into assurance and did not roll half as much as they did.

Horatius, the little bull, was not improving. It was the flies; they were in a perpetual swarm round him, they crawled into the wounds as soon as they had eaten off the lanoline. Now the leg from the haunch was bloated and swollen. “I am afraid he will not do,” said No. 1.

No. 2 fetched a loaf of bread and she and Chand Singh boiled a vast bread poultice and tied it on with dusters. Horatius appeared to like it very much.

* * * * *

A message came from the Department telling No. 1 to proceed at once to Paipong village and investigate the death of a female rhinoceros, alleged to have been trapped and shot with blunderbusses and beaten to death with sticks by the villagers. If her young one were still alive he was to bring it in.

“What do they think this is—a creche?” asked No. 1.

“It’s going to be an orphanage,” said No. 2 firmly.

The pirating of rhinoceros is not uncommon, but this appeared to be a village affair, inspired by the big price paid for the horn. Any part of a rhinoceros is valuable as an aphrodisiac, but the horn is fabulous in its power, especially for the Chinese. Now, No. 1 would cause all the prize money and more to be paid back to the Department as a fine.

He was still welcomed quite kindly by the headman and there, in a shed at the back of a hut, half stunned, they found the third orphan, Galahad. No. 2 put him in the car and brought him back to Camp.

He was about the size of a month-old calf but longer and very heavy, and he had an armor of thickened skin all over him that was mottled grey with unexpected patches of pink. He had large ears and blue eyes and a bump where his horn would be. He was horribly plain.

He was put in the stable and the shikaris built him a small stockaded paddock. He was very weak, but soon he was well enough to take milk and mush from a spoon, then from a basin, then from a great many basins.

The Other Orphan was getting sick of basins; basins of permanganate for Horatius, basins of slush for Galahad.

* * * * *

No. 1 had to go back to the village and No. 2 went for a gentle ride on Bhata Scully who was better. She liked Bhata Scully, who was old and wise, and in spite of her enormous bulk, very skilful in going through the jungle. On Mooltiki’s back, if the mahout was not watchful, the passengers were quite liable to be swept off by branches, torn by thorns, squeezed against trees, and Mooltiki obviously did not care if they were. Bhata Scully was gentle and strong, her trunk came up instantaneously and broke off anything that threatened, she smashed and trod down upstarting trees, she pushed her way fearlessly through the thickest grass and she would neither start nor bolt. She was comfortable too, with a pleasant rolling motion, with none of Mooltiki’s bounce, bounce, bounce.


No. 1 had wounded a tiger and it had retreated into a deep patch of grass on the edge of the river.

“I shall go,” said No. 1, “to the opposite side of the river and lie up there and wait till it comes down to drink and shoot it across the water.”

“It could be like that,” said Bangla.

“And what will you do with me?” asked No. 2. “I want to see this.”

“ ‘You can go round on Mooltiki and get up a tree and watch.”

So Mooltiki and the mahout and No. 2 walked round the gully where the grass was, with only a khukri knife between them, and they seemed to take a long and very loud time reaching the tree. It was a bare tree, a little above the river. Mooltiki walked under the lowest branch and stood, swaying from foot to foot, so that No. 2 could climb up. To stand upright on the back of an elephant is difficult, even when it is still, even when there is not a wounded tiger not so very far away; but to step from the back of Mooltiki into that tall and ill-spaced tree was more difficult still, and as soon as No. 2 had lifted her feet, while she still hung from the branch, Mooltiki walked off and left her.

No. 2 always suffered from this, from having to use trees, machans, ladders, and elephants that were intended for people far taller and with longer legs than she. But she gained the tree and was able to sit high above the river, looking up to the mountain, down to the island, watching Mooltiki disappear into a dark little elephant blur on the horizon. Presently she saw No. 1 and Bangla creep into position on the opposite bank.

Now it was very quiet. The river ran loudly between its stones and the sun was disappearing from the shore. Now there was no light in the grass, only on the water, where a shaft of sun lay on the empty space, and on the tops of the trees. Then in the shallows of the river three otters came out and began to play.

They swam in circles after one another with their heads and their teeth and whiskers showing, and long ripples on the water marked the steering of their tails. They came further into the shallows; they were small and exceedingly glossy, almost oily, with wetness; they bounced in and out of the water, and suddenly they all three reared themselves back in a row, and No. 2 looked down and saw the tiger.

At first it was only a shape in the grass, then slowly, very slowly he put out a foot. She and the otters held their breath as he pulled himself slowly after the foot, long and lean, his shoulders hunched, his white undercoat touching the grass. His shoulders were caked with blood. He was suspicious and very angry. He looked up and around and his face seemed large and swollen for the rest of him, wide between the ears, fat in the cheeks, his nose touched with white, his eyes curiously glowing, and he moved his tail with jerks. Across on the other bank, a sun gleam came and disappeared again as the barrel of the rifle came up.

The moment settled into long suspicious stillness; it seemed impossible that the tiger should not be taken in with it: the quiet sky and the bordering trees, the still grass, the river’s cool water and the otters, harmlessly tumbling again, the water drops on their whiskers flashing in the sun, but No. 2 heard a sound almost too familiar to be borne, water lapped in deep thirsty laps.

Now she could see the shape of the tiger reflected in the water from the pale linings of his ears to the tip of his angry conscious tail, the whole beautiful exciting shape, and his stripes slid into one another and changed as he moved. He drank and lifted his head and the rifle fired.

His death was so much in the tradition of tiger deaths that she could hardly believe she had seen it. He gave a roar that sent echoes to the mountain and reared up like a tiger on a crest and fell over backwards into the grass.

* * * * *

They went to the skinning. “You must just come and see it,” said No. 1. “It isn’t disgusting, it’s so perfectly done.” It was. It was not even bloody. The sharp knives slipped between the skin and the tissues, and it was more like an undressing than a skinning. The tail and the legs were slit down the seam and the paws with their claws were peeled off inside out like a glove; the mask was taken off neatly around the jaws and eyes, and the tiger was left naked and gleaming with strappings of white and red muscles and cobwebby white tissues. The skin was cleaned of ticks and lice, and pegged out under the shade of the outhouse and rubbed with salt; the head was taken and boiled until the flesh left it.

“Keep the skin,” said No. 2, “but don’t have it peeled and edged with scallops of flannel and used as a carpet.”

* * * * *

Galahad learned to squeal when he saw the Other Orphan. He was let out in his paddock or outside at the end of a rope, and cantered along clumsily and happily like someone learning to swim.

No. 2 touched Horatius’s wound that morning and a piece of flesh fell into her hand; it was alive with maggots, they were in every hole. “Now he will get better,” said Bangla.


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