Chapter 47


We must have had some vague idea of exploring the little known parts of China, for we had certainly intended to visit Allan in Rangoon. It was probably at Colombo that Rose made up her mind that she was pregnant; for I remember that our shooting expedition in Hambantota, in the south-eastern province of Ceylon, was faute de mieux. We thought we had better get back to Boleskine for the event; and yet we had to justify our journey by some definite accomplishment. So we left Colombo for Galle and thence up country. It is strange that I fail entirely to remember how we got to the jungle. But rough notes tell me that it was by coach, and that we left the base village in four bullock carts on Monday the fourteenth of December. I quote my entry of January 1st, 1904 (some lines are carefully erased. I cannot tell why or imagine what I had written).

Jan. 1st.

Began badly: missed dear and hare. So annoyed. Yet the omen is that the year is well for works of love & union; ill for those of hate. Be mine of love!

This entry does not sound as if I were still wholly lunatic in the rays of the honeymoon. The explanation is that the mere fact of getting back to camp life reawakened in me the old ambitions and interests. It may be part of my feeling for ritual that to put on certain types of clothes is to transform my state of mind. However lazy I may be, I have merely to change trousers for knickerbockers to feel athletic at once. There is also the point that I make a profession of virtue when reminded of certain dates, just as a totally irreligious man might go to church at Christmas. The subsequent entries give no hint that my mind was really turning to its ancient masters. The sole entries concern sport and camp life; and they are very meagre.

I have never been able to enjoy reading chronicles of slaughter, and I do not propose to inflict any such on the world. They are as monotonous and conventional as those of mountaineering. Sportsmen and climbers follow the fashion with frightful fidelity. Norman Collie wrote the only book on mountains which possesses any literary merit. Mummery's is good because he really had something to say, but his style shows the influence of Collie. Owen Glynne Jones produced a patent plagiarism of Mummery's style; and when it came to the brothers Abraham, the bottom was reached. And what a bottom! In fact, two. {374}

Of the older writers, Leslie Stephen is the only one worth mentioning, and to him mountaineering was of secondary interest. Tales of hunting, shooting and fishing are equally tedious. They are only tolerable in fiction such as Mr. Jorrocks and The Pickwick Papers. Travelers having wider interests are more readable. Sir Richard Burton is a supreme master; the greatest that ever took pen. He has not one dull paragraph. Cameron and Mary Kingsley must not be forgotten for a proxime assessit.

Certain incidents of this shoot are worth passing notice. Rose had an attack of fever on the seventh of January. For the first time since my marriage I had a moment to spare from celebrations of Hymen. I sat at my camp table in my Colonel Elliot's chair and wrote the poem Rosa Mundi, the first for many months. I sing to her, recall the incidents of the birth of our love, hint at the prospect of its harvest, and weave the whole of the facts into a glowing tapestry of rapture. It was a new rhythm, a new rime. It marks a notable advance on any previous work for sustained sublimity.

Physically and morally, Rose exercised on every man she met a fascination which I have never seen anywhere else, not a fraction of it. She was like a character in a romantic novel, a Helen of Troy or a Cleopatra; yet, while more passionate, unhurtful. She was essentially a good woman. Her love sounded every abyss of lust, soared to every splendour of the empyraean. Eckenstein adored her. When I published this poem, which I did privately under the pseudonym of D. H. Carr, from the feelings of delicacy, Eckenstein was actually shocked. He did not care much for my poetry as a rule; but he thought Rosa Mundi the greatest love lyric in the language. (As a cold fact, its only rival is Epipsychidion.) But he held it too sacred to issue. “It ought,” he said, “to have been found among his papers after his death.”

I can understand the sentiment of this view, but cannot share it. I wanted to make humanity holier and happier by putting into their hands the key of my own success.

And in my diary there is no allusion to the poem. (It may in fact have been written during an earlier illness of rose — on December 15th — but I don't think so, because I connect the inspiration with eating buffalo steak, and on the earlier date I was only eating snipe.) I have only noted, “Rose ill, one bloody birdling, bread arrived in P.M.”

I am not by any means a mighty hunter before the Lord, but I am certainly very fond of big game shooting. I thoroughly enjoy the life which goes with it and I like the high moments of excitement and danger; they atone for the tedium of the stalk. I have no use whatever for the battue, even if it is a matter of bears and tigers. As for grouse and pheasants, my pleasure in the exercise of my skill is marred by the subconscious feeling that I am dependent on others for my sport. Moreover, the element of combat is missing. I can get a great deal of amusement out of rough shooting for the {375} pot; but artificiality of any kind is the very devil in sport. I do not even care for shooting from a machan. I like to be just one of the jungle folk and challenge any fellow animal I meet. I suppose that, logically, I should disdain the use of weapons. I never did.

My most amusing adventures have been always when I strolled alone into the jungle without trackers or bearers, met a boar, a bear or a buffalo by chance or the exercise of native wit, and conquered him in single fight. My native servants used to be horrified at my proceedings, very much as orthodox mountaineers have been at my solitary climbs. They did not doubt my prowess with the rifle; they respected it because they understood it. But they had been accustomed to white men relying on them for light and leading, and they made sure that I should be hopelessly lost without them in the jungle. Perhaps the chief part of my pleasure consisted in the problems presented by having to find my way home, very likely in the dark, after having pursued some quarry by a devious route, by virtue of my sense of direction, especially as impenetrable undergrowth, uncrossable patches of water, or marshes, may complicate matters very seriously.

The most dangerous animal in Ceylon (there are no tigers, and if there were, the statement would stand) is the buffalo. One can distinguish a wild from a tame buffalo by his psychology. If he is wild, he runs away; if he is tame, he charges you. Yet these fanatical partisans of “Asia for the Asiatics” permit themselves to be ridden, cursed and bullied by brats not six years old. The buffalo is always savage and always intelligent enough to know who has wounded him. He is also infinitely courageous and vindictive. Many tigers will turn tail even when slightly but painfully wounded. But the buffalo never gives in morally or physically, and shows almost human powers of strategy and tactics in his vendetta. His vitality is incredible; the gaur (a not dissimilar species) which killed Captain Sayers in Burma had seventeen bullets from heavy rifles in him while he was goring and trampling the aggressor. The other Englishmen present could no nothing to save him.

One evening I shot a sambhur; the great stag (miscalled elk) of Ceylon. He was standing some three hundred yards away, across a small lagoon. He went off like a streak of lightning. It was impossible to follow him and I thought I had missed him. But two days later I came on him by accident, twenty-five miles from where I had shot him. My bullet had penetrated the lungs and grazed the heart. I cannot help thinking that there is something in the apparently absurd contention of certain mystics that life does not depend wholly on the integrity of the physiological apparatus, but on the will to live. I have dropped the most powerful animals stone dead with a single shot in the right place; but if that first shot happens not to kill him outright, he is so inflamed with fury that you can riddle him with bullets {376} in the most vital spots without further disabling him. I know it sounds like utter nonsense, but I have seen it again and again. The sambhur above mentioned is only one case.

One day I was told of an exceptionally fine wild buffalo bull who was so lost to all principles of propriety that he used to come down every evening to enjoy a heard of tame cows. I felt that I could never face Exeter Hall1) in the future if I allowed this sort of thing to go on. The only sign of grace in this bull was that he had a guilty conscience and departed for the Ewigkeit at the first hint of human proximity. The cows were accustomed to feed in a wide flat country. It was impossible to approach them in the open. I crawled out to the edge of the jungle and law low, hoping that they would come near enough for a shot. They did. But I misjudged the range; and my bullet, by the most curious luck, pierced the near fore hoof of the bull. He made off indignantly for the jungle at a point some three or four hundred yards from my ambush.

Ten minutes later “I stood tiptoe upon a little hill” and looked around me “with a wild surmise”. I knew where I had hit him by the way he limped, and that he was no more put out of action than Battling Siki, if I had trod on his pet corn. I knew that a buffalo bull can conceal himself in the Ceylon jungle as effectively as a bug in a barracks, and I knew that he was perfectly informed of my character and intention. I knew that I was nervous by the way I gripped my rifle (my principal battery, by the way, was a 10-bore Paradox with lead and also steel core bullets, and a .577 Express, both double barrelled). As I stood, I realized for the first time the responsibility of the white man. I had to exhibit perfect aplomb. No sign of the bull!

Presently, the trackers found the trail. My bullet having pierced his hoof, there was no blood. The only signs of his passage were bruised and broken twigs, and occasional footprints. We came up with him pretty soon. He was standing stock still, listening for his life, with his back turned to us. I was not thirty yards away and I aimed at the bull's eye —pardon the introduction of a euphemism from ancient Egypt. It is the most effective shot possible. If your bullet rises, it will smash the spine; otherwise it must pass through the soft vital parts. But the bull merely bolted. I could not even fire my second barrel. Again and again we came up with him. The track was easy to follow. He was bleeding profusely and going slowly. Again and again I fired, but he always got away. Nothing seemed to cripple him, though one would have thought that he must have been more hole than bull by this time.

At last he turned at a small clearing. As I came out from the thick jungle, I saw him not ten yards away. He lowered his head to charge. My bullet struck him again in the Ajna Cakkra, if a bull has such a thing; anyway, in {377} the middle of the forehead just above the eyes. This time he dropped. It was my nineteenth bullet and only the first had failed to strike him in a vital spot.

Talking of being charged: the one beast I really fear is the leopard. The tiger gives one a chance, but the cheetah is like an arrow; he is practically invisible as a mark, and one feels that it is impossible either to stop him or get out of his way. He is hard enough to see at any time; but end on in dim thick undergrowth, he is the limit. I feel, too, that his anger is mean and ignoble, and I have never been able to oppose this type of attack. I can respect the rage of the tiger, but the hatred of the leopard is somehow servile and venomous. The bear is a deadly enemy if he gets to grips and he is nearly as hard to kill as the buffalo. One feels, too, rather sorry to kill a bear; one can never forget that he is at heart a friendly fluffy comfortable brute.

The wild boar, which one may shoot in Ceylon, as pig-sticking is impossible owing to the nature of the country, is a furious and dangerous quarry, but it gives one a peculiar satisfaction to out him, to stand

Right in the wild way of the coming curse
Rock-rooted fair with fierce and fastened lips,
Clear eyes, and springing muscle and shortening limb —
With chin aslant indrawn to a tightening throat,
Grave, and with gathered sinews like a god,
and biff him

Right in the hairiest hollow of his hide
Under the last rib, sheer through bulk and bone
Deep in —
and see

The blind bulk of the immeasurable beast
… bristling with intolerable hair

lying in front of one, and feel that one has done a good turn to Venus. One of my boars, by the way, gave me a lesson in literature. I came across his body two days after the battle and it hit me in the eye — to say nothing of the nose — with Baudelaire's “Charogne”.

Beside the path, an infamous foul carrion,
….Stones for its couch a fitting sheet.

Its legs stretched in the air, like wanton whores
….Burning with lust, and reeking venom sweated,
Laid open, carelessly and cynically, the doors
….Of belly rank with exhalations fetid. {378}

Upon this rottenness the sun shone deadly straight
….As if to cook it to a turn,
And gave back to great Nature hundred-fold the debt
….That, joining it together, she did earn.

The sky beheld this carcase most superb outspread
….As spreads a flower, itself, whose taint
Stank so supremely strong, that on the grass your head
….You thought to lay, in sudden faint.

The flies swarmed numberless on this putrescent belly,
….Whence issued a battalion
Of larvae, black, that flowed, a sluggish liquid jelly,
….Along this living carrion.

All this was falling, rising as the eager seas,
….Or heaving with strange crepitation —

There was an utterly unspeakable fascination in watching the waves of maggots. The surface undulated with the peculiar rhythm of the ocean.

To Baudelaire, as we know, a similar sight suggested his “Inamorata”. I was presumably too blindly in love with Rose to see the resemblance; the main impression on my mind was more impersonally philosophical. I thought of the 13th Key of the Tarot, of the sign of Scorpio, the invincible persistence of life perpetuating itself by means of that very putrefaction which seems to shallow minds the star witness against it. Here were vermin feeding on corruption, yet the effect was of lambent vibrations of white brilliance, disporting themselves in the sunlight — here, quit! Am I a sportsman describing his heroic feats, or am I not?

The elephant, “the half reasoner with the hand”, is in an entirely different category from any other animal. I felt much more like a murderer when potting a hathi than when it is a monkey, though I perfectly understood the emotion of the average Englishman in this conjuncture. Nor is the elephant easy to shoot. The odds against hitting him in the vital spot are very great; and strange as it may sound, in country like Hambantota, he is very difficult to see at all. In the whole province there are really very few trees of notable stature, yet the undergrowth (including smaller trees) is so think and so high that it is rarely possible to see an animal even when one is close to him. I remember once being so near to an elephant that I could have prodded him with a salmon rod; but I could not see one inch of all his acres. He was feeding on small twigs; I could hear every gentle snap; I could hear his breathing; I could smell him. If he had taken it into his head to turn or if the wind had shifted, my number would have been up. He could have trampled his way to and over me without an effort, while I could not {379} have forced my way to him in five minutes. He went off quietly and I never had a chance for a shot.

One elephant whose track I followed took the camp of a Frenchman in his morning stroll. The man's wife had taken him out to Ceylon to keep him way for alcohol, but prohibition forgot the proverb, “Out of the frying-pan into the fire”. The elephant got him before I got the elephant.

One of our most beautiful camps was a sort of dak baghla near the shores of a superb lake. Open on its principal arc, the further shore merged into marshes. In the shallow waters at the edge grew magnificent trees whose branches were festooned with legions of flying foxes, as they call the species of bat whose breast is furred with marvellous red and white. I thought I would kill a few dozen and make my wife a toque and myself a waistcoat. We went out in a boat not unlike a clumsy variety of punt to catch them in their sleep. They keep no guard; but at the firs gunshot they awake and the air literally becomes dark with their multitude. One has merely to fire into the mass. One of the bats, wounded, fell right on my wife and frightened her. It may have been thirty seconds before I could detach her from his claws. I thought nothing of the matter; but it is possible that her condition aggravated the impression. Our beds in the baghla were furnished with four stout uprights and a frame for mosquito curtains. I suppose in so remote a district they had been made of unusually strong poles. I was awakened in the dead of night by the squeal of a dying bat.

I remember debating whether I was in fact awake or not, whether the noise, which was horribly persistent, might not be part of a dream evoked by the events of the day. I even called to Rose to resolve my doubts. She did not answer. I lighted the candle. She was not there. My alarm completed my awakening. The bat squealed hideously. I looked up. I could not see any bat. But there was Rose, stark naked, hanging to the frame with arms and legs, insanely yawling. It was quite a job to pull her down. She clung to the frame desperately, still squealing. She refused utterly to respond to the accents of the human voice. When I got her down at last, she clawed and scratched and bit and spat and squealed, exactly as the dying bat had done to her. It was quite a long time before I got her back to her human consciousness.

It was the finest case of obsession that I had ever had the good fortune to observe. Of course it is easy to explain that in her hypersensitive condition the incident of the day had reproduced itself in a dream. She had identified herself with her assailant and mimicked his behaviour. But surely, if there be anything in Sir William Hamilton's law of parsimony, it is much simpler to say that the spirit of the bat had entered into her.

(As I revise these pages for the press, I find myself constantly annoyed {380} by having to try to find long roundabout “rational” explanations for all the wonders I have seen and heard. It is silly, too, now that we are getting clear at last of the obsession of Victorian cocksure materialism — science disguised as a fat hausfrau!) {381}

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