Keeping the Tryst by E. Cockburn Reynolds
Maharaj was a very big elephant and Alec was a half-grown boy—an
insignificant human pigmy—in spite of which disparity they were great
pals, for Alec admired that mountain of strength as only an imaginative
boy can, and elephants can appreciate admiration.
When Alec came across Maharaj he had taken up his quarters temporarily
in the mango tope opposite the bungalow. He was pouring dust upon his
head and blowing it over his back, both because he enjoyed a dust bath
and because it helped to keep off the flies. With the quick perception
of a boy, Alec noticed he had used up all the dust within reach, so he
got him a few hatfuls from the roadside, for which he was very grateful,
and immediately sent a sand blast over his back that annihilated quite a
colony of mosquitoes. Then he admitted Alec to his friendship, and they
Hard by the mahout was cooking his dinner under a tamarind-tree.
"Did the Sahib ask if he was clever? Wait, and the Sahib shall see. Here
are his six chapaties of flour that I am baking. Out of one only I
shall keep back a handful of meal. How should he detect so small a
quantity missing? But we shall see."
The elephant driver put on the cakes to bake—pancake-shaped things,
eighteen inches across and an inch thick. They took their time to cook,
for the fireplace was small, being only three bricks standing on the
ground. When they were ready he placed the cakes before Maharaj, who
eyed them suspiciously.
"He has been listening," explained the driver. "Those big ears of his
can hear talk a mile away. Go on, my son, eat. What is there wrong with
Maharaj slowly took up a chapatie in his trunk, carefully weighed it and
put it on one side, took up another and did the same. The fourth
chapatie was the light one; this he found out at once and indignantly
threw it at the feet of the mahout, grumbling and gurgling and swinging
his head from side to side and stamping his forefoot in anger.
"What! son of a pig! is not the flour I eat good enough for thee also?
Well, starve then, for there is no better in the bazaar."
They walked away; the small restless eyes followed anxiously; yet the
elephant made no attempt to eat, but swung angrily from side to side in
his pickets. Presently they returned, but he had not touched a chapatie.
"It is no use, Sahib," said the mahout, "to try and cheat one so wise as
he, and yet folks say that we mahouts keep our families on the
elephants' food, which words are base lies, for is he not more precious
to me than many children?"
Then the mahout drew out an extra chapatie he had hidden in his clothes.
"Oh! Maharajah, King of Kings, who can deceive thee, my pearl of wisdom,
my mountain of might?" and the mahout caressed the huge trunk as it
wound itself lovingly around him and gently extracted the chapatie from
his hands. Having swallowed this, the elephant picked up the scattered
cakes and, piling them up before him, gave himself up to enjoying his
After that Maharaj and Alec grew great friends. Alec used to bring him
bazaar sweets, of which he was very fond, and sugar-cane. He was a great
wonder to the elephant, who could never understand why his pockets were
full of all sorts of uneatable things. He loved to go through them,
slowly considering each in his elephantine way. The bright metal handle
of Alec's pocket-knife pleased Maharaj, and it was always the first
thing he abstracted from the pocket and the last he returned, but the
bits of string and the ball of wax he worried over. The key of the
pigeon-house, a peg-top, marbles, etc., I believe made him long to have
pockets of his own, for he used to hide them away in the recesses of his
mouth for a time, then, finding they were not very comfortable, he used
to put them all back into Alec's pockets. The day the boy came with
sweets Maharaj was delighted, for he smelt them a long way off, and
never made a mistake as to which pocket they were in.
It was wonderful to see how gently he could play with the little brown
baby of the mahout. He loved to have it lying between his great
fore-feet, and would tickle it with the tip of his trunk for the
pleasure of hearing it laugh, then pour dust upon it till it was buried,
always being careful not to cover the face. But like a great big selfish
child he always kept his sweets to himself, and would pretend not to see
the little outstretched hand, and little voice crying for them, till he
had finished the last tit-bit.
Tippoo—the cook's son, Alec's fag and constant companion, who was
mostly a pair of huge pyjamas, was also admitted to the friendship of
Maharaj. But there was one man that the elephant disliked, and that was
the mahout's nephew, one Piroo, who was a young elephant-driver seeking
a situation—a man not likely to be successful, for he was morose and
lazy, and drank heavily whenever the opportunity came his way, and was
very cruel to the beast he rode.
Sometimes the mahout would take Alec down to the river-side, he driving,
while Alec lay luxuriously on the pad. There Maharaj had his bath, and
the boy used to help the mahout to rub him over with a lump of jhama,
which is something like pumice-stone, only much harder and rougher, and
the old skin rolled off under the friction in astonishing quantities,
till the look of dried tree-bark was gone, and the dusty grey had become
a shining black. After the bath there was usually a struggle with
Maharaj, who, directly he was clean, wanted to plaster himself all over
with wet mud to keep cool and defy mosquitoes. This he was not allowed
to do, so he tore a branch from a neem-tree instead, and fanned himself
all the way home.
Now there was to be a marriage among some of the mahout's friends who
lived in a village a day's journey from the station, across the river,
and he promised that Alec, Tippoo, and his nephew were to accompany him.
When the day came the mahout had a slight touch of fever and couldn't
go, but he told his nephew to drive the boys there instead. Maharaj
didn't like Piroo at all, and made a fuss at having to go without the
mahout, for which he got a hot scolding. Then there were tears and pet
names and much coaxing before Maharaj consented to go.
"Thou art indeed nothing but a great child that will go nowhere unless I
lead thee by the hand, with no more heart in thy big carcase than my
babe, who without doubt shall grow big and thrash thee soundly. Now
hearken, my son, thou art going with Piroo to the village of Charhunse,
one day's journey; thou art to stay there one day, when there will be
great feasting, and they will give thee surap wine in thy food; and on
the day following thou must return (for we start the next morning for
the Cawnpore elephant lines); bring the boys back safely—very
safely—or there will be very many angry words from me, and no food.
Now, adieu, my son, salaam Sahib, Khoda bunah rhukha" (God preserve
you). And the mahout passed into his hut with a shiver that told of the
It was a grand day and the road was full of people of all sorts and
conditions; and the boys, proud to be so high above the heads of the
passing groups, greeted them with all the badinage of the bazaar they
could remember, which the natives answered with good-natured chaff. The
road was one long avenue, and in the branches overhead the monkeys
sported and chased each other from tree to tree; birds sang, for it was
nesting-time; and the day was as happy as it was long.
At nightfall they reached the village, and the head man made them very
comfortable. The next day the wedding feast was spread, and quite two
hundred people sat down to it. After the feast there was racing,
wrestling, and dancing to amuse the guests.
They enjoyed themselves very much. The wedding feast was to last several
days, and instead of returning the following day as they had promised
the mahout, Piroo determined to stay a day longer, in spite of all that
Alec had to say against it.
Piroo was in his element, and sang and danced with great success, for
the arrack was in his veins, and at such times he could be the antipodes
of his morose self. His dancing was much applauded. But there was
Bhuggoo, the sweeper, from the city, who had a reputation for dancing,
and was in great request at weddings in consequence, and he danced
against Piroo, and so elegant and ingenious were his contortions that he
was voted the better. Then he changed his dance to one in which he
caricatured Piroo so cleverly in every turn and gesture that the people
yelled and laughed.
This so incensed Piroo that he struck the man; but the sweeper, who was
generally accustomed to winding up his performance by a grand broom
fight with some brother of the same craft, was quite ready for an affair
that could only increase his popularity. Catching up his jharroo, or
broom, he began to shower blows upon the unfortunate Piroo, yet never
ceasing to dance round him so grotesquely that the fight was too much of
a farce for any one to think of interfering. Yet the blows went home
pretty hard, and as the broom was a sort of besom made of the springy
ribs of the palm-leaf it stung sharply where it found the naked flesh.
It is a great indignity to be beaten by the broom of a sweeper, and
Piroo, maddened with rage, flew at the throat of his rival. But Bhuggoo,
the sweeper, was very nimble, and as the end of a jharroo in the face
feels like the back of a porcupine, you may guess it is the most
effective way of stopping a rush. So Piroo, baffled and humiliated, left
the sweeper victor of the field and fled amid great shouts of laughter.
But his rage had not died in him, and more arrack made him mad; else
why should he have done the foolish thing that followed?
Finding Maharaj had pulled up one of his picket pins, he took a heavy
piece of firewood and dashed it upon his tender toe-nails, while he
shouted all the abuse that elephants know only accompanies severe
punishment. Now Maharaj, who would take punishment quietly from Buldeo,
the old mahout, would not stand it from any other; besides, he was
already excited with all the shouting and tamasha going on, and he had
had a good bit of arrack in his cakes that evening; so when the log
crashed down on his feet he trumpeted with pain, and, seizing Piroo in
his trunk, lifted him on high, preparatory to dashing him to earth and
stamping his life out.
SEIZING PIROO IN HIS TRUNK, HE LIFTED HIM ON HIGH.
But fortune was in favour of Piroo for a time, and the big cummerbund he
wore had got loose with dancing, so it came undone, and Piroo slipped
down its length to the ground, while Maharaj was left holding the loose
cloth in his trunk.
Then Piroo fled for his life, and ran into a grass-thatched hut that
stood close by; but the elephant, pulling out his picket pins like a
couple of toothpicks, reached the hut in a stride, and, putting his
trunk through the thatch as if it had been a sheet of paper, felt round
for the man inside and, seizing him, dragged him forth. The people
yelled, and some came running with fire-brands to scare him, but before
any could reach him Maharaj had knocked one of his great fore-feet
against the head of the unfortunate Piroo, and he fell to the ground
The villagers were terror-stricken and ran to hide in their huts.
Tippoo, who was nearest the elephant, ran also, and Alec was about to
run when he saw Maharaj single out Tippoo and chase him. The boy fled,
and his flying feet hardly seemed to touch the earth, but Maharaj with
long swinging strides covered the ground much faster, and in a few
moments there followed a shriek of despair and Tippoo was struggling
helplessly fifteen feet in the air in the grasp of that terrible trunk.
"Save me! Sahib, save me!" he shrieked, while Alec looked on powerless
Maharaj seemed undecided whether to dash him to pieces or not. Alec
seized the opportunity to imitate the driver's voice and cry, "Bring the
boys home safely—very safely—my son." The elephant's great fan-shaped
ears bent forward to listen, and he lowered Tippoo till he hung swinging
at the end of the huge proboscis. Alec felt he dared not repeat the
words, as the elephant would find out the cheat.
The great beast stood a few minutes thinking, and then, swinging Tippoo
up, placed him on his neck, and came straight for the tree behind which
Alec was hiding.
For a moment a wild desire to escape came to the boy, and the next he
saw how hopeless it would be. The sal-tree he had sheltered behind was
too thick to climb, and the lowest branch was twenty feet from the
ground. To run would be just madness, for Maharaj would have caught him
before he could get to the nearest hut. So, taking confidence from the
fact that he had not hurt Tippoo, Alec came out from behind the tree and
ordered Maharaj to take him up.
He was surprised at the exceeding gentleness with which he did so, but
when Alec was once seated astride of his neck with Tippoo behind him, he
did not know what to do. He thought he would walk the elephant round the
village and then tie him up in his pickets again. So he cried, "Chalo!
Bata!" (Go on, my son), and tried to guide him with his knees; but
Maharaj would not budge an inch, and stood stock still, considering.
Then he seemed to have made up his mind, and started forward suddenly
with a lurch that nearly threw the boys off.
He walked straight to the dead mahout and, carefully gathering him up in
his trunk, wheeled round and set off stationwards. He had remembered his
master's commands, and the journey to Cawnpore he must commence on the
It was about eight o'clock in the evening, and Alec had no desire to
start travelling homeward at that hour. Besides, he had no food with
him, and the pad was not on the back of Maharaj. It is almost impossible
to ride an elephant bare back, and though these were only slips of boys
there wasn't room enough for two to sit comfortably on the neck. Alec
drove his knees into the elephant's head behind the ears and tried to
turn him round, shouting, "Dhutt, dhutt, arrea!" (Go back!), but it was
no use; the elephant had made up his mind to go home, and took not the
least notice of the boy's commands.
The head man of the village ran after them, crying—
"Where are you taking him, Sahib?"
"We take him nowhere," Alec answered. "He is master to-night, and
carries us home, I believe."
"But you cannot ride without the pad, Sahib, or the driving-hook, and
there are other things you leave behind."
"We will stick on his neck till we drop," he answered (for an elephant
is worth many thousand rupees to the Government, and must not get lost).
"At least command him to drop the dead body before he mangles it, so
that we may burn it with decent ceremony," was the last request of the
But Maharaj would not listen to the command, and made certain noises in
his throat by which he meant Alec to understand that he was going to
carry the dead man home whether he liked it or no.
The lights of the village were soon lost in the distance, and Maharaj
strode into the empty darkness, trailing a picket pin behind him and
carrying that horror in his trunk.
Till that day Alec had loved Maharaj for his great strength and
docility, his wisdom, and his endearing ways with children, but when he
saw him in anger extinguish the life of a man as easily as one could
pulp a gooseberry in the fingers, the elephant changed at once in his
eyes, and Alec saw in him nothing but the grim executioner of the
Moguls, and stamping out lives his daily task. The boy felt the touch of
the beast almost loathsome, and longed to escape from his situation on
Soon the cramped position began to tell, for they were jammed together,
and Tippoo felt like a mustard-plaster upon Alec's back. Alec tried to
vary the discomfort by lying forward on the head of the elephant, and
Tippoo tried leaning back as far as he could without being in danger of
falling off, but they both felt they could not hold on the eight hours
that the journey would take.
By-and-by they noticed that something was making Maharaj restive; twice
he swung his trunk as if trying to drive away that something, after
which he quickened his pace, then he turned round once in his tracks and
faced his unseen tormentor. Alec wondered greatly what was worrying him,
but he heard and saw nothing in the blackness that reigned. The
elephant's restiveness increased, and again he swung round suddenly and
charged that invisible thing in the dark; again Alec strained both eyes
and ears to no avail. The only sound on the air came from the trailing
"Whatever is worrying Maharaj?" he said anxiously.
"He sees that which our eyes can't see—an evil thing," answered
"What! do you mean the ghost of Piroo?" Alec asked.
"No, Sahib," said Tippoo. "It is a churail, an evil spirit that eats
dead men, and it wants the body of Piroo."
"Nonsense," Alec replied.
"It is true, Sahib. Many have seen it at work in the graveyards of the
Mussulman, but to-night no one may see it but the elephant."
Alec laughed. Yet, ghoul or not, there was something the huge beast
seemed afraid of and hurried to get away from, or attempted to frighten
back, without success.
It was a most weird and uncanny situation, and the boys longed for it to
But a pleasant change was at hand. The heavens were rapidly lighting,
and soon the moon commenced to rise on the scene. A feeling of relief
grew with the strengthening light, for they were sure the ghostly terror
would disappear with the dark. The moon had partly risen when Tippoo
said, "Look, Sahib, there is the thing."
Alec looked, and in the uncertain light saw a shadowy something keeping
pace with the elephant, but what it was he could not say.
Then on the other side of the road they saw there was another moving
shadow as mysterious as the first. But they were not kept in suspense
much longer, for the light suddenly brightened, and they saw each weird
shadow transform itself into a number of jackals. The smell of blood
had attracted the pack, and they had made an attempt to get the dead
body away from Maharaj. The reaction on their strained nerves was so
great that the boys laughed aloud in pure joy at the sense of relief,
and wondered they had not guessed the cause of the elephant's
For nearly four hours they had been on that apology for a neck, and
their limbs were painful and stiff from the discomfort of sitting so
close, when, without any warning, Maharaj came to a stop under a big
neem-tree, and they recognised it as the place at which they had taken
their midday meal going down to the village. Maharaj carefully placed
the body of Piroo on the ground and knelt down beside it, and the boys,
only too pleased at the chance, scrambled off as fast as their cramped
legs would permit. It needed some walking up and down to get rid of
their stiffness, so they chased the jackals and pelted them with stones,
which restored their circulation quickly, whilst Maharaj stood sentry
over the dead man.
Tired out and exhausted, the boys were anxious for a little sleep, but
they could not lie under the same tree as that gruesome thing, so they
lay down under a neighbouring sal. Alec was on the way to dreamland when
he felt he was being carried gently in some one's arms. He woke up and
found that Maharaj had lifted him in his trunk and that he was taking
him back to the tree where the dead lay. Here he placed Alec on the
ground alongside the mahout, on the other side of which was Tippoo
snoring peacefully. How he had managed to move the boy without waking
him was a marvel. As soon as Alec was released he tried to get away, but
Maharaj would not allow it, and forced him to lie down again while he
stood guard over all three.
They say boys have no nerves, but even at this distance of time Alec
shudders to recollect his sensations on that night of horror caused by
the poor crushed thing he lay shoulder to shoulder with. He feigned
sleep and tried to roll a foot or two away, but Maharaj had grown
suspicious, and rolled him back, so that he lay flat on his
shoulder-blades between the forelegs of the elephant, watching the
restless swing of the trunk above him. This was better than looking at
what lay beside him, and he wanted no inducement to keep his gaze
averted. A hyena laughed like an exultant fiend. Great flying foxes
slowly flapped across the face of the moon, like Eblis and his
satellites scanning the earth for prey, and the pack of jackals sat
silently waiting for the body of the dead.
Maharaj was very quiet and vigilant, and seemed to understand the
seriousness of his crime. The usual gurgling, grunting, and rocking with
which he amused himself at night were wanting, and though there was a
large field of sugar-cane near by, and he must have been hungry, he
never tried to help himself as he would have done on any other occasion.
In spite of the feeling of repulsion Alec began to feel a little pity
for the remorseful giant, for it was most probable he would be shot for
killing Piroo, whose drunken madness had brought about his own death.
But all things have an end, and even that night passed away like the
passing of a strange delirium. About four o'clock Maharaj became very
restless, thinking it was time to start, and pulled and pushed Tippoo
till he sat up, rubbing his eyes and looking about in a dazed way. The
elephant went down on his knees, and the boys took advantage of the
invitation and were soon in their places. Then Maharaj slowly picked up
his burden and they recommenced their journey home. The jackals were
much disappointed, and followed listlessly for a short distance, then
slunk off down a nullah to avoid the light of day.
A sleepy policeman was the first to notice the dead man in the trunk of
the elephant. With a yell of alarm he sprang from the footpath where he
stood, panting and staring till Maharaj had passed; then some confused
notion that he should make an arrest seemed to occur to him, and he made
a few steps forward, but the magnitude of the task made him halt again,
dazed and bewildered, and thus they left him. The consternation they
caused in the bazaar is beyond words to describe. It is sufficient to
say that the better part of the population followed Maharaj at a safe
distance, looking like some huge procession, wending its way to the hut
of the mahout. Maharaj walked slowly to the door of the hut and laid
the corpse down.
"Hast thou brought them back safely, my son?" cried a fever-stricken
voice from the depths of the hut.
"Goor-r-r," said Maharaj in his throat.
"That is well; but why didst thou not arrive last evening? Didst travel
all night? Piroo, thou wilt find his sugar-cane in the shed; give him a
double measure and drive his pickets in under the mango-tree."
But there was no answer from Piroo, only the frightened whisperings of a
great number of people assembled outside. The old mahout, in alarm,
staggered to the door, and saw the body at the feet of Maharaj and the
crimson stains upon the trunk and feet of the elephant.
"Ahhi! ahhi! ahhi!" cried the old man aloud, "what madness is this? What
hast thou done, my son? Now they will shoot thee without doubt—thy life
for his, and he was not worth his salt. Ahhi! ahhi!"
Then the old man wept, embracing the trunk of the elephant, which was
coiled round his master, while the people looked on, and the boys, worn
and tired by the strain of that awful night, could barely cling to their
seats on the neck of Maharaj.
Then the mahout, weak as he was, helped them off, and set about washing
the dark red stains away.
"Ahhi! ahhi!" he sobbed. "I have lost a nephew. I have lost also my
son, who will surely be shot by the sirkar for this deed. My Maharaj, my
greatest of kings! What shall I do without thee! I will return to my
country and drive no more. Ahhi! ahhi!"
But this happily was not to be, for a strange thing happened. The nephew
recovered. Piroo had only been stunned by the blow, and the blood that
covered his face had come from his nose. He was, after a time, himself
again, but a wiser man, and Maharaj was not shot after all. Yet the boys
do not like to think of that adventure even to-day.