The Serpent-Charmer

A. Sarath Kumar Ghosh

"Kill it not, sahib! kill it not!"

A thin, brown hand darted forth and snatched up the long, writhing band from under the heap of stones.

With infinite tenderness he stroked and smoothed the speckled head, and hugged the loathsome reptile to his naked breast. It was a hideous black cobra that I was killing, when this strange, semi-naked Hindu had rushed forth and come between me and my prey.

He fondled it, hugged it, kissed it—muttering incoherent words of endearment the while. The cobra lay motionless in his arms, its head well-nigh battered with the many stones I had cast upon it. But if perchance it was not quite dead, and happened to bite the old man, I knew for certain he would fall a corpse the next instant; for the black cobra is the most savage, malicious, and poisonous snake in all India.

"This is foolishness," I exclaimed; "the cobra may bite you!"

His black, glistening eyes were raised for a moment upon my face, and then seemed to look beyond me into the distance. It was a vacant, glassy stare—as if the words were unheeded or lost in some bygone recollection. His lips quivered—met in a frown—then melted in a smile.

"They love me, sahib—cobras do!" The words came soft and low, almost in a whisper.

And again he fondled that hideous, deadly, loathsome reptile against his naked skin. Then, with a swift turn he hurried away and was gone in an instant.

The next evening, just at sunset, I was sitting comfortably in the veranda of my bungalow and smoking the pipe of peace and solitude, when suddenly I saw a dark shadow bending before me. It was my quondam acquaintance. A moment later he squatted down on the veranda and brought out a small wicker basket and a short flute with a large bulb in the middle. Cautiously he tilted up the lid of the basket, and began playing a low, monotonous tune upon the flute. In a few seconds something began to emerge from the basket—two black, tiny wires they looked, vibrating rapidly to and fro. Then gradually a black round disc followed, with two shining points of light behind the darting wires. The whole seemed to rise in the air under a long black column, marked with speckled bands of a lighter hue.

It was a black cobra.

At that moment a thought struck me. I looked at the hooded head as it waved gracefully to the music; the usually clear spectacled markings were blurred and torn as if by some recent wound. I understood what the cobra was.

"How did you do it?" I asked.

My question was unheeded. Without a word the man went on playing. I understood again; he could not stop while the cobra was still so near him. Then I also realized: the cobra was still fanged.

In a few minutes, in the midst of his playing, he suddenly darted out his other hand, seized the cobra from behind, just under the head, and thrust it into the basket.

"It does not know me—yet," he muttered, apologetically. Then he added, suddenly, as if recollecting my question, "Yes, I revived it. Very simple—bathed it in cold water, the cool dew of night did the rest."

"But what did you mean by saying that the cobra did not know you as yet? Do you expect to tame it—so that it won't use its fangs? But this is foolish talk."

He thought for a moment in hesitation. Then slowly he rose up and came nearer. Turning his naked shoulder to me, he silently placed his finger there.

A long, deep scar ran down in a furrow from the shoulder to the elbow.

"A cobra? Impossible!"

He answered in deep, solemn words:—

"No!—A tiger!"

It was my turn to pause—and wonder. Here was a man, sixty if a day, standing before me quietly as if he were no better than one of the ten thousand villagers that digged and toiled around me—and died off like flies at the first touch of sickness or famine. And yet what deep tragedies lay hid beneath those dimmed and aged eyes! Those matted locks, that wrinkled brow, that snowy beard—what a life history had they witnessed and enacted! Verily, in mystic wisdom, a child was I beside him.

"Tell it to me," I asked, at last—not in curiosity, not as one asking for a tale; but rather as one eager to learn the wonders of Nature in this strange and unknown land.

He regarded me steadily for a moment, his eyes glistening under his shaggy, over-hanging brows. His lips curled, as if framing a refusal, then slowly relaxed. A faint smile played about them.

"I see. The sahib is not—as the others; he wants to learn. It is well."

It was said in scarce a whisper. The sound of words seemed to jar upon his ears, and speech to be an ungodly practice. In truth he was unwonted to break silence—leastwise, about himself.

I felt honoured by this exception, and listened to his tale with due appreciation.

"Many winters have passed, sahib, since I was—but that is nothing. Didst ever hear of the Temple of Kali, at Lucknow? No; that was before thy time; a stray shell from the British guns fired it when—thou knowest when."

Here he paused awhile in deep thought; his brow darkened, his eyes flashed. For a moment he hesitated—then the lowering cloud dispersed, the lightning faded.

"I was the serpent charmer of that temple. Didst never hear of Narayan Lal? No matter; I am dead these forty years (this in a whisper hissed into my ear). Narayan Lal played before the goddess with his cobras and pythons on days of festivals, and the faithful votaries knew him as well as the high priest. No worship was complete without me—even as the goddess was unadorned without the black serpent coiled in marble around her blacker breast. Many the offerings I received, much the honour—but, no matter.

"Then came the dreadful day. The priests harangued the multitude before the goddess that her worship was threatened by the foreign rulers of the land. I knew they lied—but the murmuring crowd drowned my voice ere it was raised. I knew that the end of such madness was the very loss to Kali that they threatened; but the frenzy of the multitude swept me away as a feather on the winds. I was powerless to avert the doom.

"The day of wrath came. It was the dark night of Kali; ten thousand votaries thronged that temple. The incense waved, the conches blared, the bleating he-goats poured their blood in sacrifice beneath the sacred axe. But Narayan Lal was not there. The cobras and pythons danced not in honour of Kali.

"I had shaken the dust of Lucknow from my feet, and was on my way to Jhansi to serve with my brother in the temple there. My serpents I carried in two baskets slung over my shoulder—save one. It was a black cobra—female—fanged.

"She was my only love: that cobra I had reared from its birth. It grew to love me as a child its father—nay, a wife her husband. I was both to her.

"Her fangs were never broken. She coiled around my arm, and playfully snatched away the fish from my hand at feeding time, and never so much as bared her teeth. She often slept coiled upon my bosom at night.

"Could I, then, hurt her affections and thrust her ignominiously into the basket? No, sahib; I placed her in my cummerbund against my flesh. There, coiled around my body for warmth, she slept in peace when I struggled on with that heavy load upon my shoulder.

"On we marched for many a day through village and jungle—my love and I. At last the plains of Bundelkhand were reached. Tall, waving grass, as high as my shoulder, swept before my gaze; here and there a stunted tree, burnt and withered, dotted the horizon; dense jungles of short undergrowth marked the course of struggling rivulets now fast drying under that flaming heat. It was silent desolation everywhere.

"One day, just before sunset, we struggled on wearily after the day's march—my love and I. We longed to reach some level plain, some tiny hamlet, some woodman's hut, for repose and shelter. But jungle and grass, jungle and grass, lay in an eternal stretch before us. We plodded wearily on—my love and I.

"Suddenly a soft rustling sound in front aroused the echoes of that vast solitude. The tall grass, not ten yards away, shook and trembled, waved and fluttered, as if some gigantic body rolled beneath.

"I stood in a small open space before that surging wave. On and on came the motion, now rising, now falling—still sweeping across the grass from left to right, not ten yards away.

"A low, deep purr caught my ear; a harsh, deep, rasping, grating sound—half a breath, half a snarl. The tall grass suddenly ceased to move—then waved again. Slowly they moved, wider and wider—parted—a gap—a flaming yellow head filled that enormous gap.

"It was a gigantic tiger!

"My heart stood still. My limbs trembled, then lay rigid and motionless. My eyes were fixed on those yellow, blinking orbs in glassy terror. My parched tongue clove to my mouth, my fingers clutched my moistened palms in a death-like grip. I was paralyzed with fear.

"Thus we stood awhile—I was too deadened in agony to know how long,. Those frothy, crunching fangs, those hanging, sawing jaws, kept hideous time with the blinking eyes. A gradual torpor seemed to be stealing over me in that terrible presence. I struggled in silent anguish against the coming oblivion.

"Suddenly a low, deep growl issued from those cruel jaws, the enormous, shaggy head bent low upon the ground; the blinking eyes flashed forth in unblinking fury; a yard of tail lashed out into the air. A snarl—a growl—a roar—

"The spell was broken. I slipped the basket-pole from my shoulder and dropped aside to avoid the tiger's spring. An enormous shadow bounded forth into the air above me; a sudden shock—a singeing pain along my arm—and I was cast aside, staggering, ten feet away.

"I fell on my face, my injured arm doubled up under me. The shock crazed me awhile, and I lay motionless in dim consciousness. Doubtless the tiger would spring again, and then——. But, enough—my manner of death was written on my forehead at my birth. It was fate.

"Thus I lay on the ground, helpless and at the tiger's mercy. How long it was I know not; it seemed like a horrible nightmare in which I had lost all conception of time. For a while I might have even relapsed into torpor; I know not.

"And so I lay doubled up on the ground, my face pressing against the beaten grass. A horrible silence reigned around. I almost heard the thumping of my heart against my bared ribs. I felt that the cruel brute was playing with me, as a cat plays with a mouse, before putting me out of my misery. The agonizing suspense grew and grew in intensity like a dull, black cloud of nightmare, till I almost longed for the tiger's blow to end the torture.

"Suddenly a strange sound struck my ear. It was a hiss—sharp and piercing. It came again—low and continuous. It rose to a shrill, angry crescendo.

"It was answered by a deep, rasping growl. There was a momentary crackling of rotten twigs, as if a heavy body had suddenly risen and relapsed upon them. Then another low growl, a short, sharp snarl, and the angry hiss again sounded above it in defiance. Growl and hiss, hiss and growl, arose above each other in alternate passion. It was a terrible duet of mutual hate and challenge that rang forth in the stillness of the jungle.

"As one in a dream I vaguely lifted up my head. A wondrous sight met my gaze. Not five yards away stood the tiger, his head towards me, his fore-feet planted, his huge back arched in a curve behind, as if about to spring and yet hesitating. Those fiery eyes glared in impotent fury towards me, but not at me.

"Yes! Facing the tiger, and just before me, stood my black cobra! Her hood was expanded, her tongue darted in and out like forked lightning, her sparkling eyes glistened like black diamonds. Full half her length was reared in the air, and stood like an ebony column between me and the tiger.

"I understood. In that furious onslaught of the tiger that had sent me sprawling over the ground my love had been rudely awakened from her peaceful slumber, and had thrown herself between me and my terrible foe ere he could recover from his own impetus to spring again.

"I watched in breathless anxiety—unmindful, or unconscious, of the stream of blood that was pouring down my arm and reddening the ground. My limbs were paralyzed for action, or even for movement—and, forsooth, I could have done little to help my love in that mortal combat.

"I could only watch and watch, as one fascinated—and pray to Kali to remember the garland around her breast and befriend her serpent brood.

"Thus they faced each other. Now the growl, now the hiss, arose above the other in hatred and defiance. Now the tail lashed in fury against the yellow stripes; now the uplifted coil swung backwards and forwards as if about to launch forth at the tiger's throat.

"Each knew and felt the power of the other—Nature had taught them that. One sweep of the tiger's paws would have crushed the serpent's head to a mangled mass; one touch of the cobra's fangs on the tiger's skin would have turned that fierce and mighty beast to a blackened corpse—even though the cobra had been torn to shreds in the tiger's death-agony. The tiger's mighty paw that had often perchance smashed a buffalo's skull at a single blow was not more formidable than the serpent's tooth; one sweep of the former, one touch of the latter, were death to either.

"Each stood outside the range of the other; each awaited the other's onslaught—the black column against the tawny mass. Suddenly the tiger reared his head, lashed his tail, then pressed his jaws low to the ground. No, it was not a spring. Even as the stiffened legs relaxed from their curved tension, even as the head poised momentarily in the air, he swerved aside with a shambling lounge to rush past the cobra. But to no purpose. The black, swinging column paused in mid-air for the hundredth part of a second, then plunged forth sideways like a lightning flash. A hand's breadth more, and the ivory fangs would have reached the yellow mass; but, with a lurch, the tiger shrank back from those poisoned fangs just in time. A speck of foam, hissed through the air, marked the spot on the tiger's skin where the blow was aimed.

"And now it was a subtle fencing—parry and thrust, lunge and recovery—between these deadly weapons. The tiger's paw was raised, held in the air, about to strike the cobra down from above at one blow. But the swinging curve that had waved backwards and forwards now instantly stopped, then slowly began to oscillate sideways; it was out of the tiger's reach, but still guarding every exit, still at an even distance from that threatening paw that hung in the air. The impending blow, if to come at all, must be instantaneous and on the speckled head; the tiger knew that by instinct. He stood intent with head raised and paw uplifted, like a huge cat watching a butterfly that circles around its head. He sought an opening in the fence to strike and yet escape the serpent's tooth.

"Suddenly the paw subsided, the tiger bent low upon the ground with a savage growl but again the spring was checked. With an ominous hiss the oscillating coil had stiffened in mid-air into a rigid column before the crouching mass, and the glistening eyes revealed the suppressed vitality that lay beneath the watchful search-light that followed the tiger's every action. The tiger's feint had failed.

"Slowly his back relaxed its arch; his head was raised from the ground, his tail ceased to lash. The whole yellow mass became a lazy, flabby, indifferent heap of inertia. Even the glaring eyes began to blink, as the tiger stretched his length indolently upon the ground with a purr of contentment. He seemed to resign the combat—or abide his time.

"For a moment the cobra seemed puzzled by this manœuvre. That the tiger would really yield up his prey, snatched away from his very jaws, and resign a battle once begun, seemed unprecedented and contrary to the animal's nature. No; it was but a cunning design to allay the cobra's suspicions, exhaust her strength, and carry the position by a sudden rush.

"She seemed to realize this by a serpentine instinct almost akin to reason. And yet she was now at a terrible disadvantage. To hold up half her length in the air by sheer muscular action was weary work, and would soon tell upon her strength. She must reserve that for the final grapple when it came.

"Gently and cautiously the uplifted curve began to sink upon the ground, the hood still expanded, the glistening eyes still fixed upon the yellow mass in front. So slow was the movement that the black column seemed to hang in the air on an invisible pivot; so infinitesimal the descending angle that the rigid rod hovered over the ground like a dark shadow ere it fell parallel with the tiger's body. The curved tail, on which the full weight of the uplifted column had rested, now slowly uncoiled, and with a graceful sweep lay peacefully along the grass. Only the hooded head and sparkling eyes kept watch and ward over the lying mass in front—"lying" in both senses of the term. It was an armed truce—a mere breathing time before the deadly battle for life and death.

"For a moment there was an ominous stillness. Not a movement not a quiver, betrayed the slumbering fire in either combatant. But for those glowing eyes, the cobra might have been a painted line upon the green; but for that massive chest, rising and falling with each suppressed breath, the tiger might have been a sculptured effigy. It was the lull before the storm, the deep, oppressive silence before the thunderclap.

"Slowly, silently, the striped paws that had lain flat upon the ground beside the shaggy head began to curve inwards—inwards under the sweating nose, inwards under the whiskered jaw, inwards under the heaving chest—and there lay still. Slowly and gradually the hind legs that had sprawled on the ground drew inwards under the huge belly—coiled and slid and scraped, till they bore the weight of the mass above. The painted tail swished off a fly from the striped side—and swished again.

"But—the cobra answered him, movement for movement—perhaps unnoticed by the tiger. The rigid column that had lain like a piece of black rubber began to coil and coil at its lover extremity. Soon half its length was coiled. With an almost imperceptible quiver the other half raised itself slightly, as if feeling the support of this solid base—then gently relapsed along the ground in confidence. Only the hooded head, the forked tongue, the glistening eyes marked the extreme tension at which the bolt rested, ready to be shot into the air.

"A terrific roar rent the sky—a huge, dark mass loomed above in a black cloud—down, down it came upon me—my glazed eyes refused to close over my death-agony.

"Hé Bhugwan! What was that? Like a bolt from a cross-bow the cobra sprang from the unfolding coil—met the tiger's throat in midair. The unwinding coil coiled anew around the tiger's neck. With a heavy thud both reached the earth, not a yard from my head.

"A cloud of dust obscured the scene. The tiger rolling along the ground, clawing frantically at his throat, was all I saw; a low, gurgling, choking sound was all I heard. I waited for no more; with one supreme effort I tottered to my feet and fell headlong over the tall grass—outside the arena. A sudden gush of blood from my wounded arm, and I remembered no more. The last recollection I had was that of a vague, mingled sound of tearing grass and crackling twigs, of rending flesh and stifled groans. Then I remembered no more.

"When I came to myself the cool dew of night was lying thick upon me and the bright moonlight playing upon the scene. A vague, indefinable emotion surged in my heart as consciousness grew upon me—a feeling of true thankfulness indeed, and yet of mingled pain and anguish. The battle-picture stood before me—suddenly I remembered my black cobra, my love, my only love. A horrible fear clutched at my heart, a deep, over-mastering anxiety swept over me. In frantic haste I arose, and tottered—crawled—to the arena.

"My worst apprehensions were fulfilled. The tiger indeed was dead; he lay on his back, his feet in the air. Already he was a blackened, putrid corpse. The poison indeed had done its work.

"But in that terrible, frantic struggle the tiger's claws had torn the cobra's body into shreds of ribbon, had torn and mangled them piecemeal, till they hung in strings from his claws and strewed his chest. Only one piece remained. The cobra's head, though cut off at the neck by the tiger's claws, still lay buried deep in the tiger's throat. Not all the savage strength of the gigantic brute could tear away that fatal grip. It lay there, jaw to jaw, fang to fang, embedded in the now putrid flesh—all that remained of my once beautiful black cobra.

 

"No, sahib. I could not rear this one to take her place. Her soul still lives! And they are jealous—like women!" With a hasty salaam the tall figure vanished into the darkness.