The infinitely-bored garrison of a smart desert outpostapparently forgotten of God and manwas engaged in what Hank Vanbrugh called 'a lie-swapping feste'.
Inasmuch as each man was relating what he considered the most remarkable experience of his life, there may have been a certain amount of truth in Hank's gibe; and undoubtedly some of the story-tellers were story-tellers in the worse sense of the worldBarons Munchausen, or at the best, collateral descendants.
(And yet Tant de Soif's story of witnessing Captain Battreau's finding of his old gun in Dahomey, albeit one of the most incredible of all, proved to be plain, unvarnished, historical fact.)
Also, paradoxically, the longer one lives and the more one sees, the more credulous one becomes: in other words, the slower one is to say,
'That is impossible.'
When my own turn came to contribute, I also told the simple truth, partly because I am aware that Truth is stranger than Fiction, and partly because I was interested to see whether my truth would be scouted and jeered at, as the biggest lie of all.
It is by no means an easy matter to decide, with promptness and certitude, which has been the strangest adventure of one's life.
If, casting prudence to the winds, one goeth forth and seeketh sorrow, one's strangest experience is apt to be concerned with the little puddle of muddy water that is not there at the end of a long desert ride, and a day of dreadful thirst; or with those tiny insects known to their victims as the spirillum tick, the tsetse fly, the anopheles mosquito, the chigoe (or 'jigger'), and the sandfly.
One's adventures, indeed, are apt to be monotonous, the level of their monotony depending upon one's way of life.
There is to the ivory poacher, in the routine pursuit of his profession and his elephants, the oft-repeated humdrum adventure of the earth-shaking charge of the wounded beast; to the sailor the over-familiar sea-shaking charge of the terrible typhoon; to the city clerk the far deadlier onslaught of the hundred-headed hooting hydra of the traffic.
In deciding which of my experiences has been the strangest I chose extensive rather than intensive strangenessthat which lasted longer, rather than that which was strangest for a brief period.
The following curious adventure lasted for a whole day.
It happened some years ago that, in going about my lawful occasions in India, I found myself the temporary occupant of a somewhat lonely bungalow, not very far from a small cantonment in a rather wild and hilly part of a Native State.
It was by no means a bad spot.
Grouse, partridge, hare, and, in due season, quail, duck, and snipe, afforded a certain amount of rough shooting.
There were panther and occasional rumours of tiger and, near the cantonment, earthen tennis courts and a golf course, throughout the length and breadth of which there was not a solitary blade of grass.
The tees were plinths of earth-topped stone; the fairway bare, sandy, gravelly earth; the bunkers were rocky nullahs; and the 'greens' circular tracts of clay and cow-dung which the sun had baked as hard as stone, and in which the rains had channelled little riverbeds that meandered down to the holea sunken jam-pot.
Of one of these, more anon.
My domestic staff at the bungalow included, among others, my butlera Surti (a Hindoo from Surat), a good and faithful servant to whom I sometimes said 'Well done!' and a Pathan sycea huge, brawny, powerful man, who was something of an enigma.
I frequently wondered what this free-born, independent mountaineer (who 'trod the ling like a buck in spring and looked like a lance in rest') was doing among my servants. I came to the conclusion that he was either badly wanted on the Frontier, or else was in India on quite other business than mine.
Anyhow, he was a fine horseman and horse-master, and he was a man.
One peaceful Sabbath morn, I was seated in a long chair on my verandah, enjoying my cheroot, reading a three-weeks-old newspaper from Home, and digesting my eleven o'clock tiffin of curried chicken.
I had risen at five, had chota-hazri (tea, toast, and fruit), ridden some twenty miles or so, had a bath, and given reasonable satisfaction to an excellent appetite.
I was comfortable, somnolent, at peace with all the world, and desired nothing less than to be disturbed.
Anon I flung away the end of my cheroot, let the paper fall, and was just dropping off into the delightful nap that I had justly earned, when a voice said,
'Huzoor! Huzoor!' and brought me back from the very edge of slumber and of peace.
I cannot honestly say that I was pleased, or that the eye I opened regarded the countenance of the speaker with favour. In fact, lovely and beautiful as is my nature, I was annoyed.
'G'way,' I murmured, closing the eye of disfavour.
'Huzoor! Huzoor!' insisted the voice.
'G'w'out,' I breathed, as the barque of consciousness slipped its moorings from the bank of reality, and floated down the river of oblivion.
'Huzoor! Huzoor!' more loudly insisted the voice, and I shot up from my chair, frankly angry.
This was presumptionimpudenceinsolence. The fellow had no right to be there at all, much less to dare to wake me up after he had intruded.
'What do you want?' I said quietly, and with the courtesy due to myself and the anger that I felt.
'I am a snake-charmer,' said the man who stood before me, at the bottom of the three or four steps that led up to the low, wide verandah of the bungalow.
He was a tall, lean Hindoo, wearing a ragged and dirty white coat, white dhoti (voluminous loin-cloth), large roughly-wound turban, and clumsy curly-toed slippers.
He carried a long, heavy staff in his right hand, and his left steadied a bamboo rod which, resting on his shoulder, supported at either end a large closely woven basket.
I stared coldly, and without love or welcome, at the man's eyes, which gave back as good a stare as my owna most unusual thing. There was nothing shifty, humble, or servile about this mendicant.
Far from servile, his attitude and conduct were barely civil.
'I am a snake-charmer, Huzoor,' he repeated.
'Well, go and charm them,' I requested, 'and don't bother me. I don't want to see your show. Go away.'
'I do not wish to give a show, Huzoor,' replied the man, without budging. 'I will charm away all the snakes from your bungalow and compound.'
'Charm yourself away,' I said. 'And at once.'
And I settled back in my chair, closed my eyes, and strove to let the sun of peaceful contentment dissipate the red mist of anger.
'Huzoor! Huzoor!' came the insistent voice, a few moments after I had closed my eyes.
I opened them slowly.
'I really think you'd better go,' I said gently, and added slowly, firmly, and distinctly, 'Idonotwanttoseeanysnake-charming.'
The man did not move.
I closed my eyes again.
Was it possible that I closed them in relief from the steady hypnotic stare of the snake-charmer? Absurd!
But he certainly had most remarkable eyesbrilliant, compelling, mesmeric.
And the man undoubtedly had that indescribable quality of manner that comes from a sense of powersomething authoritative, assured, and self-possessed. This could not arise from physical, external, and concrete authority of any kind, but must come from within, and from a sense of some personal powerperhaps some example of that knowledge which is power.
'Huzoor! Huzoor!' said the voice again.
'Will you gowhile the going's good?' I said. 'For the last time, I do not want to see any snake-charming.'
'The Presence need not see it,' was the immediate reply. 'Let the Presence give me five rupees and I will remove the snakes that he may live in peace.'
I am a patient man.
'Give you five rupees to charm away all the snakes that are not in my compound and garden and under my bungalow?' I said.
'I haven't seen a snake since I've been here, and I haven't seen a dozen since I've been in India.'
The man smiled indulgently.
'The Presence will see more now, I think, unless he has them removed.'
'I'll risk it,' I said.
'The Presence is in great danger,' was the reply.
'Then I am not the only one,' I answered. "Will you go?'
'Better five rupees than terrorfeartremblinghorror death,' was the reply. 'The Huzoor is in great danger, and I alone can save him. Let him beware of the silent poisoned death.'
And not only was there a menacing note in the voice, but a note of superiority!
Was this ragged wanderer actually warning and threatening mespeaking from a higher plane of psychic knowledge and occult power?
Was he actually daring to extort money by threatsto blackmail me by playing upon my supposed fear?
I admire courageand this sublime impudence amounted to it.
'Look here,' I said, 'you're playing a very foolish and dangerous game, and you've been luckier with me than you would have been with some people. Now, for your own sake, and for the last time, go away.'
He did not move an inch.
Leaning his great staff against his shoulder, he extended his right hand towards my face, and then, with a writhing motion, made passes, to and fro, in the air.
'The poisoned death,' he said. 'The gliding death. Secret, silent, hiddenbeneath the chair, beneath the bed, in the darkened room, in the rafters above, in the shadowy corners below.'
Very impressive, no doubt. Very clever. Very hypnotic and all that. And perhaps I did go a little cold, and feel a little uncomfortable.
I had always been interested in the Indian juggler's tricks, 'occultism' and miracle-mongering, because I believed hypnotism to be the explanation of his performance of the impossible; and I had decided mass-hypnotism to be his secret.
Otherwise, how could a number of people see a man throw a rope up into the air, the rope become as rigid as a rod, a small boy climb up it and then vanish into thin air?
Anyhow, this gentleman certainly was not going to hypnotize me, nor conjure five rupees out of my pocket.
Had he come in different style and at a suitable time, I might have given him a chance to show what he could do in the hypnotic line, and have backed my will-power against his hypnotic power, with the small sum of five rupees in the balance.
But impudence and blackmail were quite another story.
I rose to my feet, yawned and stretched, descended the three or four steps to where he stood.
The snake-charmer did not move as I advanced upon him.
'Go,' I said, and pointed down the drive.
'Does not the Huzoor value his reason and his life at five rupees even?... Or perhaps they are worth only four? Perhaps the Huzoor's is not a valuable life?...'
And there was actual mockery in the man's voice.
Now I have never struck nor hustled a native, for it is a cowardly thing to do, as well as being undignified and unworthy. On those very rare occasions when I hear or read of a European striking a native, I feel pretty certain that the latter is neither very big nor strong, and that I should like to ask the bully if he would care to strike Roshan Khan, my Pathan syce.
But I admit I was sorely tempted. The man was tall and strong and carried an iron-shod lathi, which was both a weapon and a staff. He had intruded where he had no right to be; he had refused to go when asked; he had been insolent and threatening, both in words and in manner, and moreover, he had attempted blackmail.
I put my hands in my pockets to keep them obedient.
'Will you goor will you be thrown out?' I asked.
'Three rupeesfor the Huzoor's life. Only three rupees. Very cheap,' was the answer.
But behind the impudent jeer there was a threat, and there was nothing of jest, flippancy or mere impudence in the burning eyes that held mine.
Going back to the verandah, I called 'Boy' at the top of my voice. (In India one's servant is always one's 'boy' though he be a white-haired grandfather.)
My butler came hurrying from one of the rooms that opened on to the verandah.
'Send this man out of the compound, and see that he doesn't come back,' I said, as I returned to my chair.
'Dao, tum!' said Sukharam Raoji, bustling forward importantly and speaking as a beadle to a small boy. 'Go away! Get out of it.'
And he went to take the man by the arm, to conduct him from the Presence.
But he did not take the snake-charmer by the arm, or conduct him anywhere.
On the contrary, the intruder looked at him and he wilted; hissed a sharp word and he fell back; made a motion or sign with his hand and he swiftly retreated up the steps of the verandah and stood cowering behind my chair.
This was interesting, but really beyond a joke.
'You are certainly looking for trouble, my friend,' said I to the snake-charmer, 'and you're going to find it. If you get hurt, you will have only yourself to thank.'
And turning to the trembling Sukharam, I said,
'Call Roshan Khan.'
Nothing loth, the butler hurried off, and did not return.
Not so the snake-charmer.
'Two rupees,' he said, smiling impudently. 'Two rupees for the Huzoor's life! Surely it's worth that much! Two rupees to save the Huzoor from being frightened.'
I lit another cheroot as Roshan Khan strolled round the corner of the bungalow, tall, erect, swaggering, a curled and oiled love-lock in front of his ear, his pugaree set at a truculent angle, its fringed and embroidered end depending between his mighty shoulders.
'Sahib?' he said, approaching and saluting in military fashion. He never salaamed, as an Indian does.
'Put this man out,' I said. 'And help him a little way on his journey!'
The big Pathan smiled, with a flash of white teeth beneath his clipped moustache, and joyously advanced upon the sturdy rogue.
What I expected to see was that Roshan Khan, seizing him by the scruff of the neck, would run him down the drive and propel him into the road, with a little help from a large and useful hoof.
But this was not what happened.
The man's extraordinary glowing eyes fixed those of Roshan Khan. His hand shot out and made weaving passes. He uttered a harsh, peremptory 'Stand still!' and Roshan Khan stood still, a look of puzzled bewilderment on his face.
The fellow then repeated the word he had spat at Sukharama word which I did not understand.
I rose from my chair, but he turned to me and, half-menacingly, half-jeeringly, said,
'One rupee for the Huzoor's life! One rupee to save the Huzoor from being frightened! Only one rupee! Last offer!... No?' he added, and backed away. 'On the Huzoor's head be it.'
And turning, he strode down the drive, the while I felt somewhat ashamed of the self-control of which I had, perhaps, more reason to be proud.
At the gate he turned and, having raised both hands, appeared to be calling down blessings upon me and my house.
I turned to the Pathan, a striking figure in his long, white, shirt-like garment, with its silver studs and chains, gold-embroidered red-velvet waistcoat, enormous baggy white trousers, fitting tightly at the ankle, and curly-toed shoes.
'Why didn't you do as I told you, Roshan Khan?' I asked coldly.
'Sahib?' was the reply.
He was like a man waking from sleep.
'Why didn't you throw that man out as I told you?' I asked. 'He was a budmash.'
'What man, Sahib?' asked Roshan Khan.
'The man who was here just now,' I said sharply.
'Where, Sahib? What man?' asked the Pathan, staring round, and looking about as puzzled as I felt.
'Oh, go away,' I replied, and went back to my chair, feeling thoroughly disgruntled and annoyed, and with half a mind to call for my horse and, taking a whip, ride after my gifted visitor and give him a rupee's worth of the fear he talked about.
As I sat pondering the extraordinary incident, and marvelling at the way the fellow had handled Roshan KhanRoshan Khan, brave as a lion, strong as an ox, swift as a buck and wily as a foxI became increasingly conscious of the heat.
It was about time to go inside the bungalow and close doors and shutters until such time as the sun had begun to sink.
Rising from my chair, I shouted for a servant, and unfastened a cord from the nail over which the looped end of it was slipped, thereby releasing the big uprolled 'chick' or curtain, made of thin parallel strips of bamboo.
This heavy green curtain of bamboo and string was some ten feet in length and breadth, and rolled up into a cylinder a foot or more in thickness.
As the 'chick' moved to descend, something fell from the top of it, striking me on the head and shoulders, curling itself about my neckwrithingtwisting, and I realized that it was a snake.
Instantly I snatched at it, seized it, and dashed it heavily upon the ground before it had time or opportunity to strike.
As I flung it down, I stamped hard with my right foot, and bitterly regretted that I was not wearing my riding-boots. If the reptile had time to strike, socks and tussore silk trousers above thin shoes would be no protection.
But my luck was inmy foot was firmly planted a few inches behind the snake's head, and it could only lash and writhe in furious impotence.
Putting my weight on my right foot, and slightly bending my right knee, I got a comfortable balance and slowly raised my left foot from the ground.
My task would have been easy enough had the ugly head, with its darting tongue, protruded from the inner side of my foot, but, as it was, I managed quite satisfactorily.
Bringing the left foot across the right, I held it poised for a second, and then stamped heavily. To be on the safe side, I then jumped clear, but found that the snake was in that condition in which it is best for poisonous reptiles to be.
Giving him one more stamp on the head to 'mak' siccar,' I bade the approaching hamal remove this bauble, and retired into my darkened roomand before long discovered that, for the first time, I did not like the darkened roomfor there were too many shadows.
The corners were altogether too dark.
The high-pitched raftered roof disappeared into impenetrable gloom.
Yes, that was the wordgloom. The whole place had become gloomy, depressing, inimical.
And what an extraordinary coincidence about that snake!
It was coincidence, of course, but...
I lay down in my long chair to think, and immediately bounded to my feet, and I'm not sure that I didn't utter a yell as I sprang up.
My head had touched something cold, softish, springy, alive, horrible.
I struck a match and found that I was shakingnot so much from fear, I think, as from disgust, horror, anger.
There was nothing on the back of the chair where my head had rested.
I sat down again....
What was that?
A dry rustle, a sound of a slow, quiet movementacross the floor, like well, like the soft, gentle sound of a snake gliding across the palm-leaf matting.
Where was it?
Was it behind me?
I leapt up and threw the door open, letting in a flood of light and a wave of superheated air.
There was no snake in the room.
I opened the slatted shutters.... No, nothing.
It was a terribly hot day, and the room was getting like an oven.
Well, the heat was real enough, if the snakes were not, so I once more closed the door and shut it. Having done so, I was strongly tempted to open it again.
What about a lamp?
Ridiculous! What was the matter with me, that I should think of such a thing? I would retire to my bedroom for the siesta that is forced upon one in the hottest part of the day, in the hot weather.
My bedroom adjoined this central living-room. As I opened the door to enter its slightly cooler darkness, I heard behind me a soft thuda perfectly unmistakable sound of something dropping on to the matting.
I fairly sprang round, and stared in the direction whence the sound had come.
There was no illusion about this. I had heard it as distinctly as I had ever heard anything in my life, and I knew what had caused the sound. A snake had fallen from one of the crossbeams that supported the high-pitched, thatched roof. I stepped swiftly into the bedroom and closed the door.
There was, beside my bed, an electric torch which might yet possess a ray of vitality.
It did, and with its help I found a leather-covered cane which I sometimes carried. Not too light and not too pliant, it would be an excellent weapon for dealing with any but a big snake, such as a python.
Armed with torch and stick, I opened the door, and, turning; the beam of light in the direction whence the sound had come, I saw, as I had expected, something coiled, slender, tapering.
With a couple of strides and a swift stroke, I brought down my stout cane heavily uponthe thong of my hunting crop, which had for some reason, or for no reason, fallen down from the nail over which I had hung it when I removed it from its broken handle!
With feelings too deep for words, I returned to my bedroom, changed into pyjamas, and remarking,
'Let it rain snakes,' threw myself down on the bed.
I must have fallen asleep almost immediately, and in that sleep I suffered one of the most ghastly nightmares conceivablebeing slowly crushed by a great python, being swallowed alive, and remaining buried alive in its interior.
I awoke, bathed in perspiration, trembling with horror, and feeling very ill indeed.
I felt that a whisky-and-soda was indicated, and, breaking my hitherto Medean-Persian law of no drinks before sunset, I treated myself to a strong one.
'And now a cold bath, I think,' said I, refreshed and enheartened.
Going to the bathroom, a built-out, brick-walled room with a stone floor, furnished with nothing but a large bath-tub and a quart-pot for pouring water over oneself, I threw off my pyjamas, and went to step into the bath which, as usual at this time of day, was almost full of cold, or rather tepid, water.
Where the outer wall met the floor, was a hole through which the bath-water ran away out into the garden when the bath was emptied.
As I stepped towards the bath, I noticed that the hamal or the bhisti, or some other fool, had laid a rope round the bottom of it, outside it and close up to it.
With my mind obsessed with snakes I thought to myself, 'Ah, snakes will never cross a rope.'
Now, if the fool had laid a rope in a complete circle round the bath, and a foot or two away from it, no snake would crawl over it and attack me, defenceless, in my bath.
A silly sort of idea, of course, because no snake would attack anyone in his bath.
There's only one snake in India which will take the offensive, and attack you wantonly and deliberately, and that's the hamadryad.
It is only when a snake falls on you, or you tread on it, or unintentionally touch it, or in some way give it the impression that you are going to molest it, or when it feels it is cornered, that it will attack.
Nevertheless, tens of thousands of people and domestic animals are killed by snakes, in India, every year.
I splashed about in my bath for a while, stood up and poured the more-or-less cold water over my head, stepped out of the bath, the quart-pot still in my hand, and yanked at the rope with my toe.
For the sake of coolness, presumably, the bathroom was but dimly lit by one small window, and that a very dirty one.
There was ample and sufficient light, however, for me to see the rope leap into life, galvanized by the touch of my foot.
In a second, a great cobra had whirled into a coil, reared a quarter of its length from the floor and thrown back its head to strike.
I struck first, and probably am alive today only because I still had that heavy quart-pot in my hand.
Instinctively and mechanically as the rope turned into a snake, I leapt back, raised my arm and flung the pot with all my might.
I believe it struck the snake just below the head, on the throat of its spreading 'hood,' but of this I'm not certain, because almost in the act of hurling the pot, I again leapt backward, and then dashed through the door, slamming it behind me.
In record time, I slipped a couple of Number Four cartridges into my shotgun, and returned to continue the argument.
Flinging open the bathroom door,
'Now, you devil,' said I, 'where are you?'
Echo answered, 'Where?'
There was no snake.
I think this upset me more than if there had been one. Or two, for the matter of that.
I threw the outer door open, letting in a flood of sunlight.
No, there was no sign of a snake. Nor was there any conceivable hiding-place for so much as a garden worm, let alone a great cobra.
'I'm going mad,' thought I, 'or gone mad. That damned snake-charmer has put a hoodoo on me, a curse, a spell.'
Then I realized that the heavy dipper was dented.
Of course I'd thrown it. It wasn't a hallucination. There was the pot, giving clearest evidence of the great force with which I had flung it.
Yes, but what did that prove? Only that I had thrown it.
It didn't prove that I'd thrown it at a snake or any other actual concrete living thing. It might quite well have been hallucination. I might have thrown it at a non-existent figment of my bewitched imagination.
Of course, the snake might have escaped through the drainage-hole in the wallbut it struck me as highly improbable that the cobra should have found the hole and escaped through it in so short a time.
'Seeing snakes!' I groaned aloud. 'Literally seeing snakes.'
Then healthy human anger came to my help.
'Let me get hold of that snake-charmer,' said I, 'and he'll see stars.... Non-existent figments of his imagination, but he'll see 'em all right....'
What about another spot of whisky?
No. Wrong treatment for the patient altogether. A pot of good strong tea would be a much better prescription.
Tea, and the sounds of life and movement, as the servants opened the doors and shutters of the bungalow, made me feel a good deal better.
I would pull myself together, ride over to the golf links, and forget this silly nonsense in a mighty endeavour to beat bogeya curiously appropriate phrase in the circumstances, for this bogy certainly had to be beaten.
Having finished tea in the sitting-room, I returned to my bedroom with a magazine, at which I had been glancing, in my hand.
I flung the book on to the bed, half noticing in the dim light, as I did so, that the hamal had moved a round black cushion from my chair to the bed. He had not opened the shutters of this room, as the late afternoon sun was shining full upon them.
As I changed into riding kit, I sat on the edge of the bed, and when I went to the dressing-table mirror to brush my hair, I partly opened one side of a shutter that was just behind it.
This let a flood of light into the room, and as I turned from the dressing-table, the cushion on the bed also turned. It turned into a snakeor else it had been a snake the whole time. And I had sat within two feet of it!
I wasn't afraid of the snake, but I was very terribly afraidof fear: and I earnestly hoped it was a snake, and that I was not 'seeing things'.
A bright idea! My camera was hanging on the wall. I would find out whether that 'saw things' too.
Turning, I slipped it from its case and focused it on the snake, which promptly raised its head and posed in profile.
'Look pleasant,' I said, 'and keep still.'
It kept very still and so did I, until I heard the satisfying click.
From force of habit, I wound another film into place, and then put the camera on the chest of drawers.
I then picked up my cane and advanced upon mine enemy. As I came within striking distance he raised his head and drew it back to strike. I struck first, howevera beautiful, horizontal swipe, bringing the cane from behind my left shoulderand the evil head dropped as the reptile writhed with broken neck.
Giving him another, I tipped him off the bed on to the floor, and set my heel upon his headand that was that.
My chief sensation as I saw his body carried forth, limply dangling across a stick, was satisfaction that it was a snake and not the mere figment of a disordered mind; but, almost as strong, was that of wonder at the extraordinary coincidence of my encountering three snakes within a few hours of the snake-charmer's baleful prophecy!
As I rode to the golf links, followed by Roshan Khan, I wondered what I should do if I encountered that charmer of serpents.
I did not do so, perhaps fortunately for both of us.
What I did encounter, however, at the end of my ride, was a lonely golfer earnestly seeking a companion and opponent for a game.
Curiously enough, I have absolutely forgotten his name. What I have not forgotten is that which happened at the last hole.
My ball was lying in a little rocky depression on the edge of the cracked uneven clay 'green'. My opponent's ball lay, very comfortably placed in life, on a sandy patch of hard earth a few yards from the 'green'. Taking his putter, he struck it a gentle blow which would land it in the nearest winding dry water-channel that sloped gently down from the edge of the 'green' to the sunken three-pound jam-pot that was the flagless hole.
Laughing aloud as the ball meandered inevitably down the rain-made gulley, I put my hand into the jam-pot to receive it on its arrival. For it could not go astraythe putt had achieved success as soon as the ball entered the mouth of this safe-delivery route to its goal.
Gathering speed and momentum, the ball arrived, and fell into the pot and my awaiting hand.
As it did so, the dusty bottom of the pot swirled into life, a kind of big watch-spring uncurled, as it were, and became a kraitthe smallest and deadliest snake in the world.
My hand had touched it, aroused it, and was holding it down. While it did so, the snake could not strike.
As I clenched my fist with the foolish idea of killing it with a crushing pressure, its head darted up between my hand and the side of the jam-jar, and, in a second, it was over the edge and darting off. The speed with which it moved was astounding, but I had my putter in my right hand and promptly used it for an unorthodox but satisfying strokesatisfying to me, anyhow.
'By Jove! that was a near thing,' said my friend, and added, 'First snake I've seen for months.'
But it was the fourth I had seenand killedthat day. What about the next?
I rode home feeling very thoughtful indeed, and the night I spent was, perhaps, the worst night of my life. And yet I slept the whole time. But when I awoke I decided that the nightmare I had had made that of the previous afternoon, by comparison, a deep dream of peace.
It was an astonishing dream. Not only for its appalling agony, but for its coherence and consecutiveness.
As I lay, half awake and half asleep, I heard that dry rustling sound againthe sound of a snake moving across palm-leaf matting. The sound seemed to come from under my bed, and I was seized with terror, filled with horror, frightened almost to death; my heart throbbed audibly, and I burst into a cold perspiration.
That devilish sorcerer! This was no coincidence. Five actual snakes within twenty-four hours, and the whole time a constant threat and menace and fear of snakes unseen!
And the worst feature of the whole astounding business was he fact that I was really getting frightened.... I was frightened.
Fear was overcoming me; dominating my mind....
I realized that this wouldn't do, and that I must not allow myself to become a victim of fear, which was precisely what the snake-charmer intended, no doubt.
One must maintain, at all costs, one's sense of proportion, end compel one's mind to keep rats, mice, beetles, spiders, mosquitoes, snakes and snake-charmers, in their proper placeas minor nuisances and drawbacks in an otherwise well-arranged Universe.
As these thoughts flashed through my mind, the snake moved again.
Philosophy faded to nothingness, and I quailed.
And then, happily, the fear of being afraid triumphed, and I sprang out of bed, regardless of the fact that my feet were bare and my thin pyjamas rolled up above my knees.
Yes, there he was, the beasta cobra, sinuously gliding along by the wall, apparently looking for an outlet.
The door was ajar, and both the snake and I appeared to realize the fact simultaneously, for, as I stood erect, he quickened his leisurely glide and darted straight for the opening.
So did I, and what followed had a delightful and efficient neatness for which I take no credit.
I acted almost automatically and as though impelled by the subconscious rather than by the conscious mind.
With one bound, I reached the door, a fraction of a second later than the snake's head, and slammed it sharply.
Did ever living creature devise for itself a simpler trap? The situation was changed, and with it my whole mental attitude to snakes. They were ridiculous creatures that one trapped in doors, smacked with canes, crushed with one's heel!
Stooping down, I slightly relaxed the pressure of the door that held the reptile squirming, writhing and thrashing about, and, seizing it with my right hand, drew it slowly and gradually into the room, inch by inch, until my hand was safely and comfortably behind its head.
Holding it thus, I picked it up and endeavoured to treat it with that familiarity which breeds contempt. A feeling of contempt for the adversary is much more satisfactory than one of fear.
I also treated it with unkindness, gripping it with all my strength, and thrusting my thumb against its throat.
It became limp and quiescent, its tremendous strugglings, coilings, writhings and wrigglings dwindling into mere spasms and constrictions of its seven-foot body.
From that day I never saw another snake in India. So ended the incident of the truculent snake-charmer, decidedly the most remarkable, interesting and strange incident of my life....
My hearers received the story with enthusiasmand my statement that it was true, with contempt.