Jan in India


A Strange Funeral

Otis Adelbert Kline

WITH his right arm and shoulder imprisoned in the crushing folds of the giant python, and the snarling tiger charging straight for him, Jan thought and acted with that celerity which had saved his life so many times before in his native South American jungle. First he leaned far back, then exerting every ounce of his marvellous strength, hurled his burdened arm and shoulder forward. With the backward movement, the coils of the serpent had loosened for a moment, seeking a new grip. Now, the writhing, hissing reptile hurtled through the air, and its heavy coils fell over the head and neck of the charging feline.

Jan caught up the spear and sprang back, but the precaution was needless, for both of his enemies now found themselves so busily engaged with each other that their intended victim was forgotten. The tiger bit, clawed and roared its anger as it rolled over and over trying to rid itself of those crushing folds. But its terrible teeth and talons made little impression on the armored body of the reptile, only dislodging a few superficial scales.

In contrast to the lightning-like movements of the great cat, those of the serpent seemed slow and deliberate. The coils which encircled the tiger’s neck tightened into a thick scaly collar. Others slid around its body, the mighty muscles rippling beneath the gleaming skin, constricting, crushing.

Presently, exhausted by its terrific exertions, the tiger ceased its struggles and fell on its side, where it lay breathing heavily.

Watching breathlessly, Jan spoke to the brown boy who stood at his side.

“It kills as kill the boa and the anaconda in my jungle,” he said. “The bagh is doomed.”

“Yes, the bagh is doomed,” the boy replied, “for the spirit of a Naga dwells in the serpent, and it may not be slain. It is invincible.”

“As to that,” replied Jan, “I am doubtful. Let us see.”

With the spear held in readiness, he warily approached the two combatants. The tiger shuddered convulsively and suddenly ceased to breathe. It was dead, its ribs crushed to splinters; and blood from its fractured windpipe mingled with the foam that drooled from its jaws.

But the serpent was very much alive. As the jungle man drew close, the great spade-shaped head flashed out at him. He eluded it by leaping sideways, then, as it was retracted, sprang in and pinned it to the ground with the long steel blade of the spear. Swiftly the heavy coils of the serpent released the dead tiger. Then it writhed in its death agony while Jan and the brown boy looked on.

“The spirit of the Naga has left it,” said Jan. “Its brain is split in two. But it will continue to move for some time. That is the way of serpents.”

“It is because the spirit of the Naga has not really left its body,” replied the boy. “It may yet slay us.”

But Jan only laughed. Then, when the convulsive thrashings of the python began to subside, he seized the tiger by the tail and dragged its limp carcass out of range of the writhing, scaly folds.

“Now we will gather wood,” he told the boy, “and cremate your father in accordance with the custom of your ancestors.”

The two worked swiftly at their task of building a funeral pyre, and when it was ready, laid the remains of the tiger upon it. Then, after a small fire had been kindled near at hand, the boy walked seven times round the pyre muttering strange words and making queer signs, none of which Jan understood. This done, he thrust a flaming brand from the small fire beneath the heap of wood, which was soon crackling loudly as the flames leaped up around the marauding feline’s body, showers of sparks mounting skyward with the smoke.

“What were those strange words you used?” Jan asked.

“I will try to translate for you,” the boy replied. “I said: ‘O you who are now without a home on the earth, on the rivers or in the sea, depart, and seek not to clothe yourself in flesh again. Go! Go and be with our ancestors! Follow the path of silence where the sun travels, seeking ultimate truth! Go to where the gods await you, for now you must play upon the flute of silence, as death is purified by song.’”

“A most fitting ceremony,” said Jan. “And what will you do with the ashes?”

“I will take them to the Ganges, mix them in a pitcher of water, then break the pitcher above the water and say, while I watch the ashes float down the river: ‘Travel down with the yellow Ganges into that vast and turbulent entity, the Sea.’”

The two fed the fire until the tiger was reduced to ashes. These the boy gathered in a large leaf, which he bound with a bit of bark fiber. By this time the movements of the python had subsided to nothing but occasional tremors, and Jan recovered the spear.

“It will soon be dark,” he told the boy. “Where would you like to go?”

“If we can cross the river,” the lad replied, “I should like to return to the camp where there are rice and curry, and from which I can continue on the trail of Rangini, the she-elephant.”

“We can cross the river again,” Jan assured him, “so let us start.”

Taking the boy on his back as he had before, Jan managed the leap across the narrow stream in the opposite direction, much to the disgust of the hungry muggers that waited beneath. Before they reached camp the sun had set, and the brief dusk was quickly followed by darkness, the moon having not yet risen.

On their arrival at camp they kindled a fire, and the boy quickly prepared a dish of curried vegetables and rice from the meager stores left by his father. Then disdaining the flimsy, makeshift hut, Jan carried the boy with him into the branches of a tall tree, and there they spent the night.

The following morning Jan, whose jungle appetite was not satisfied by the meager Hindu fare, speared a small hog deer which added delicious grilled venison steaks to their breakfast menu. Having eaten their fill and drunk a satisfying draught from the river, they set out on the trail of Rangini, the she-elephant. After a half day’s travel it was evident from the freshness of the tracks that they were getting very close to the great pachyderm. And toward midafternoon they suddenly sighted not one, but two elephants, standing side by side waist deep in the river, enjoying a shower bath, spraying their huge bodies with water sucked up in their trunks. One was a tall female, and the other a tremendous male with long, gleaming tusks.

“It is Rangini!” exclaimed the boy, “and she has come to meet her lover as my father suspected.”

“Is this other a wild elephant?” Jan asked.

“No, I recognize him now,” the boy replied. “He is Malikshah, the mightiest bull in the herd of the Maharaja of Rissapur.”

“Then Malikshah must have broken away also, to meet this she-elephant. Is it not strange that each should know where to meet the other, and when?”

“It may seem strange to one unfamiliar with elephants,” the boy replied, “but we who have been born and raised with them do not consider it so.”

Fearlessly the boy waded out to the two giant beasts. Then he spoke to Rangini, whereupon she extended her trunk and elevated him to a seat on her broad head. He spoke again, and she lumbered up out of the water, the huge bull keeping pace beside her. Jan, unacquainted with the ways of elephants and ever cautious, kept back out of reach of the two powerful trunks. He closely watched both beasts, endeavoring to determine whether they were friendly or unfriendly toward him, but so far as he was able to tell, both were utterly oblivious to his presence. The boy, however, more experienced and hence keener to observe small indications, said:

“You need not fear Rangini, for she is very gentle, and Malikshah, though he is quick-tempered, seems to like you.”

“I do not fear any man or beast,” Jan replied. “But these animals are new to me, and caution is the first law of the jungle.”

Without further hesitation, he walked up to the giant bull and patted its shoulder; then stood while the great beast sniffed and investigated him with its sinuous trunk. When this investigation was completed, the observant boy said: “Malikshah likes you. I will command him to take you up.”

He spoke sharply to the giant bull, and Jan for the first time experienced the strange sensation of being lifted through the air to an elephant’s head. He enjoyed it thoroughly, and, once seated on the broad neck, scratched Malikshah behind his great, flopping ears.

“Now that you have your elephant,” said Jan, “where do you want to go next?”

“It is my duty to return her at once to my master, the Maharaja of Varuda,” replied the boy.

“But what of Malikshah?” asked Jan.

“He should be returned to Rissapur,” the boy answered. “Yet it is probable that we will not be able to separate these two at once. They might obey, but would be likely to run away again.”

“In that, case,” Jan replied, “let us take both of them to Varuda. Then Malikshah can be returned to his owner later.”

“That seems the only thing to do,” the boy told him after some thought. Then he spoke to Rangini, and the two elephants ambled off through the jungle.

Jan greatly enjoyed the novelty of his ride across grassy plains, over rocky and sparsely tree-grown hills, and through hot, moist valleys luxuriant with jungle vegetation.

Up to this time the boy seemed to have taken Jan rather as a matter of course, but now, with the first part of his duty to his deceased father accomplished, and the elephant with which he had been reared from babyhood safely beneath him, his natural childish curiosity asserted itself.

“O mighty hunter,” he asked, “are you of the sahibs of England?”

“I am not of the English sahibs,” Jan replied.

“Yet you speak their language, and your hair is colored like that of another sahib I once knew—O’Malley Sahib. Though he was a soldier in the English army he swore he was not from England, either, but from the Imraldile. Are you from the Imraldile?”

“I have never heard of it,” Jan replied.

“Also, he referred to his country as the Owled-sahd.”

Jan shook his head in puzzlement. Then a light dawned upon him. He recalled that one of the sailors on his father’s yacht had often spoken longingly of the Emerald Isle and the Auld Sod.

“He must be Irish,” he said.

“Ah, that is it!” the boy exclaimed. “I could not think of the word. And are your Irish?”

“I am an American,” Jan replied. The boy looked disappointed.

“I have only seen one American before, a memsahib,” he said. “She had a long, pointed nose and small beady eyes like a crow. I heard that she went back to her country and wrote horrible things about India. Is that what you intend doing?”

“I do not intend to write anything about India,” Jan replied. “But if I did it would not be horrible. I like your country very much.”

“I am glad,” the boy replied, naïvely, “because I like you very much. Will you tell me your name?”

“My name is Jan Trevor, but I am better known as Jan of the Jungle.”

“Of the jungle? Then the jungle is your home?”

“Not this jungle,” Jan replied, “but another on the opposite side of the earth.”

“Yet you can climb even better than the gibbons and monkeys. Do all men in your jungle climb so well?”

“No, they do not climb nearly so well as even the smallest monkeys. You see I had special training, because I was stolen from my parents when a baby by a very wicked man and raised by a chimpanzee. We both escaped from the man who stole me, but were captured by other men who took us to sea.”

“And then what happened?”

“We were shipwrecked on the coast of South America, and escaped into the jungle.”

“And didn’t you ever see your parents after that?”

“For a few months I was with them. But now I have lost them again.”

“That is sad.” A tear trickled down the brown cheek, and Jan sensed that the boy was thinking of his recent bereavement, so he quickly changed the subject.

“You have not told me your name, and how it happens that you speak English,” he said.

“My name is Sharma,” the boy replied, rubbing away the tear with a small brown fist, “and I learned English in a mission school. Also, my father has worked for many sahibs—always he worked for sahibs until the maharaja bought Rangini. Then we came with her to Varuda.”

Near nightfall they came to a small stream, which the elephants immediately entered. Jan and his small companion left them there and set out in search of food.

Presently Jan succeeded in knocking over a pheasant with a stone, and they soon had it grilling over a fire. When they had eaten, the jungle man constructed a small sleeping platform in a tree. Then, leaving the boy with the two elephants, which showed no signs of wanting to leave their bath, he set off on a journey of exploration on his own account.

He had covered not more than a couple of miles when he suddenly emerged into an open, flooded space where a number of men were at work ploughing, while women followed them, setting out plants in the shallow, muddy water. At some distance behind them he saw the huts of a small village.

The people were chatting and laughing, and he succeeded in approaching within a few feet of the nearest workers without attracting their attention. What he did not notice was the small, mangy cur, which had been ranging in the surrounding jungle. It suddenly sighted him, and then charged for him, barking loudly.

Though he could easily have slain it, Jan was never a wanton destroyer of life. He killed only for food and in self-defense, and this yapping cur was beneath his notice. But the barking of the dog attracted others, as well as their human masters. A number of men came running, carrying long bladed spears, and the jungle man was soon surrounded by hostile dogs and equally hostile villagers. The latter, who had not yet seen him, evidently thought the dogs had brought some jungle beast to bay and approached warily, their spears held ready for the cast.

Jan let them approach until the circle narrowed to less than a hundred feet. For a moment he was undecided whether to reveal himself and attempt to make friends by means of sign language, or to make good his escape while there was yet time. But the menace of that tightening ring of spears decided him on the latter course.

Suddenly springing from his place of concealment, he clambered up the nearest tree with apelike agility. Instantly a dozen spears flashed round him, but so swift and elusive were his movements that none took effect. The villagers cried out in amazement at sight of this naked white man, who swung off through the interlacing vines and tree trunks with the ease and agility of a gibbon or monkey. They set out in frenzied pursuit of him, but he quickly outdistanced them.

When all sight and sound of the hostile villagers was lost in the distance, he descended once more and made his way back to camp. He called to the boy as he approached the smoking embers of their fire, but received no reply. A moment later he saw to his consternation that both the boy and the two elephants were gone.

The ground was trampled by the tracks of other elephants, many of them, mingled with the tracks of men. Much concerned as to what had happened to his small friend during his absence, Jan made a minute examination of the tracks in order to try to learn just what had taken place.

Jan in India    |     VIII - The Black Pagoda

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