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Tent Life in Tigerland
Chapter XV. - Perils by Flood

Native characteristics — Pioneer work — Riverside Villages — The harvest of the flood—The cousins—Bad blood—A murderous blow—My arrival on the scene—We must find the body—The boat—The river in flood —Swept away by the torrent—Shooting the rapids—Straining every nerve to avoid the main stream—One spot of refuge amid the raging waters—The deserted cattle camp—The floating island—Teeming with fugitive life—Unexpected flotsam—A babe in strange company—The mangy tiger—Rescue—Return to factory.

It will surely be pretty evident by now, that in these wild outlying districts, life presents many tragic features, and with all the savage elements of paganism that exist, there is no lack of sensation. The difficulty indeed is to present pictures of frontier life in such guise as not to excite the incredulity of the ordinary stay-at-home reader.

Many stories of the hunting-field I have purposely abstained from telling, knowing that they would be received with derisive unbelief. Tragedies of "horrid cruelty" and of the most- melodramatic character are of daily occurrence in the village life of the East—at all events, in such a wild district as that in which I lived for some years.

Opportunity is almost daily given to the administrator of the affairs of a large indigo concern, demanding the most decisive and prompt action, and calling into play every atom of reserve strength of character with which he may be endowed.

Indeed, a weak man is of no use as an indigo planter.

There are no keener observers of character than the astute, calculating, scheming denizens of a frontier village, whose native wits are polished to preternatural brightness in the atmosphere of constant intrigue with which they are always surrounded.

They are ever on the alert to defeat some cunning plan concocted against themselves or their neighbours by some inimical agency, and they are constantly cudgelling and racking their brains to devise some dodge to be put into effect against the factory or neighbouring landholder, or some hereditary or caste enemy over whom they wish to take some unfair advantage.

Doubtless there are exceptions.

Happily there are many large districts where the usual farming avocations of the peasantry are pursued as peacefully and honestly as in the Lothians or in Devonshire; but it must be remembered that for many years Lutchmeepore factory, which was now under my management, had been almost entirely neglected. It had been under the management of natives. Rents had fallen into arrears, village cultivation had been given up, the whole population had become disaffected; and when I first went there, a small standing army had been kept, of between two and three hundred fighting men, who regularly harried the country, and were a perpetual source of annoyance to the more peacefully disposed villagers, and were, in fact, a regular horde of human locusts doing no good either to the factory or to themselves.

I need not repeat the story here which I have already told, of how patiently I strove to bring back a better state of things.

My work as a pioneer planter "on the Nepaul frontier" I have already spoken of, but it is only proper that I should again impress the mind of the reader with a knowledge of this state of things, else he might accuse me of trying to fill up sensational records, when as a matter of fact I am only extracting from my diary the points of greatest interest which seem to me to illustrate some of the wilder phases of "Tent Life in Tigerland."

One morning, during the rains in 1874, a man came running into the factory to tell me that a foul murder had been committed in the small village of Khoohec, near the Ghat, and asking me to hurry down to make an inquiry. Accordingly, getting on the elephant, I started for the scene.

It appeared that most of the villagers had turned out, as was their custom in nearly all these riverside villages during floods, to save the wreckage which was being brought down by the flood waters from the villages higher up.

In these great Koosee dyarns or riverine plains, of course firewood is very scarce, but during the floods enormous epiantities of drift wood come floating down stream, sometimes valuable logs of cedar or Sal, or other hard woods, that have been cut in the Terai during the dry weather, and have been lying on the banks of the creeks there until the annual rains would till the channels and allow the rafts to be floated down.

The hardier riverside villagers then look upon these floods as quite a favourable harvest time for them. and sometimes they actually secure boats which have broken adrift, occasionally floating granaries full of grain, and other flotsam.

As the Koosee is a most Arctic stream, hot weather causes the snows to melt in the distant highlands, and the volume of water thereby set free comes down with a sudden impetuous rush, and being swollen by the heavy rains which at this season flood the Terax, the river sometimes completely overtops its banks, and rushes tumultuously through cultivated lands, making fresh channels for itseslf sweeping away whole villages, devastating whole tracts of country and even sometimes cutting away big factories, and thus in many of the poorer villages a class of hardy semi-savage men exist, not unlike the wreckers of our own wild coast in former times, and it was to such a village that I was now making my way.

Two men, named respectively Ragoober and Kunchun, both of the Mandal caste, had got into a dispute over a log of wood which had come down the river, and which they had both seized simultaneously.

They happened to be cousins, but were not any the better friends on that account.

Ragoober was a great big powerful fellow, had often been to the factory, and was rather a favourite of mine; as, although a bluff, outspoken rather rough-and-ready fellow, I had always found him fairly honest, and ever ready to give me assistance in any of my hunting expeditions. In fact, he had often brought me news of "tiger," and I was exceedingly sorry now to hear that in the struggle which had taken place between the two men for the possession of the flotsam log, Kunchun, according to the testimony of several witnesses, had struck Ragoober over the head with a jagged piece of wood, both men being up to their middle in the water at the time, and then pushing the end of the log against Ragoober's chest, the poor fellow had missed his footing, had fallen back into the turbid stream, and in a moment had disappeared in its rapid flood.

Of course an outcry was at once raised.

The village Chowkedhar had rushed up to the factory to tell me, and Kunchun had retired to his own house, where several of his relations were watching over his safety, and a crowd of the village friends of Ragoober were waiting outside, ready either to cut him down if they could get hold of him, or hand him over to myself or to the police, whichever might make their appearance first.

I was met, as usual, with the customary voluble outburst of excited comment and narration; each one trying to give his version of the story first, and out of the Babel of conflicting sounds, I arrived at a pretty correct understanding of the facts.

Every narrator was unanimous in stating that Kunchun had struck the fatal blow, that poor Ragoober's head had been split open; and several witnesses testified that they had seen the poor fellow, with blood streaming from a wound in his head, throw up his arms and fall hack into the swift swollen torrent that was rushing rapidly past.

It immediately struck me that the man might only have been stunned, and as I knew him to be a powerful swimmer, in that event I knew there was a possible chance of his escaping, as he might have been swept into some eddy and then have contrived to crawl ashore; and wishful to divert, the attention of the missing man's friends and relatives from the object of their revengeful fury, I suggested this phase of the matter, and I was rather glad to find that they took it up at once.

Several of the young men immediately rushed off to secure a boat, which was moored to the tall bamboo pole which marked the ford in ordinary times, but which was now deep in water reaching nearly up to the men's necks.

The boat was one of the usual flat-bottom high-stemmed river craft, possibly capable of carrying twenty or thirty tons of produce, and having a little thatched hut-like cabin in the middle.

They brought the boat down to where my elephant was standing, and I got in, accompanied by half-a-dozen lusty fellows, and pushing off with our long bamboos, we were soon fully out in the swift stream. Keeping a careful watch as we went along, we commenced to make a search for the body of poor Ragoober, scarcely daring to hope that we would ever see him alive again, but still knowing it to be important for the purpose of investigation, that the body, dead or alive, should be found.

Well! we did not get the body of poor Ragoober. He was never seen again.

Doubtless he made a meal for some grim alligator, or possibly the jackals by the river's brink may have had an unholy feast off his poor carcase. But in searching for the dead, we succoured the living. A most strange and romantic adventure befell us.

We succeeded in saving one innocent life, that but for Kunchun's murderous blow must have perished by an awful fate. But you shall hear. I had never seen the Koosee in such a flood. Great rolling undulations of water—yellow turbid billows— were hurrying madly down towards the mighty Ganges.

For leagues on either side, the yellow flood sped swiftly past.

Far away, almost on the verge of the horizon, little indistinct specks betokened the locality of some tall mango grove, or bamboo clump, or village, perched high above the level of the plain, but for miles and miles between, a tremendous volume of tortured and distracted water, swished and swilled, and rushed madly down to the far distant plains; there to mingle with the kindred waters of "Gunga's sacred stream." Our lumbering boat, albeit specially constructed for such river navigation, was swept along, as might have been an infant in a giant's grasp.

We had instantly lost all control over our own motion, and the men could only, by putting out their long heavy bamboo poles on each side, endeavour to keep our unwieldy craft stem on to the course of the river.

Sometimes we spinned round and round like a teetotum. Anon we plunged, and rocked and wildly swayed as the fierce current tossed us hither and thither.

Had we come upon a snag, which was not at all an unlikely thing, we would have been drowned to a dead certainty.

Never in all my life did I feel how absolutely impotent and helpless in the presence of the fierce uncontrolled forces of nature. My men, although accustomed to the river, born on its banks and acquainted with its every mood, were, I could see, terribly frightened, and I am ashamed to confess that I bitterly repented having set foot in the boat, and wished myself well out of the adventure.

Down we went—round we spinned—rocking, rolling, heaving, rushing at headlong pace. Past the factory like an arrow we went—I could see the smoke from the boiling house loom up like a dark cloud before me for one minute, and the next it was far behind us. Speedily it faded from our view. Very soon I could see the tall feathery bamboos, marking the site of my gomastah's village.

Next the roar of the flood waters rushing in mod exodus from the swollen Dhaus, and leaping up like hungry wolves upon their prey, as they met the fiercer rush of the swollen Koosee, made us set our teeth and hold our breath, to meet the impending shock; and we knew that our lives depended on the result of the next few minutes.

The boat rose and fell on the crest of the tumultuous waves; dashed down again as some frail shallop might be in the midst of an angry sea,—and for a few thrilling minutes our lives were not worth the purchase of an obolus,—and then we glided calmly and softly into a long smooth reach of water, the eddy or back wash from the Dhaus,—and we breathed easier once more.

The men strained now their swarthy bodies,—tossing their black hair back from their wet shoulders—their gleaming eye-balls and set teeth showing how tense and strung was every nerve, as they strained and laboured to propel the boat away from the main centre of the rushing river, to the safer neighbourhood of the hither shore.

But presently we seemed to have got over the shallow bar, and were again whisked by the impetuous rush of another current, and away once more we were hurried on our mad career, and now I really began to feel exceedingly alarmed, as to the ultimate issue of our desperate progress.

The men however assured me that there was not so much danger now, and I found that they had been in a terrible fright lest we should be caught and overturned in the ugly "rip" or rapid that had been caused by the meeting of the Dhaus waters and the main stream.

They told me that now for some ten or twelve miles, as far as beyond Fusseah, there was likely to be deep water, and though, of course, it was dangerous in such a flood, it was not nearly so bad as what we had just passed through.

One of the men, Bouhie Mandal, and his brother, Hunooman, now grasped the long tiller, and while the others got out their poles and a couple of sweeps, we tried to make for the long low line of distant bank, which we could faintly see over the wide expanse of flooded country.

We had nothing to eat in the boat, and in any case now, we were in for a very unpleasant time of it.

The men struggled and strained, and tried with might and main to put what distance they could between the heaving raging line of tumultuous billows, which marked the fierce strength of the mid stream, and which looked at from our boat suggested to me the figure of the back of some great yellow serpent.

Here and there the roof of a thatched hut and other debris which had been swept down by the tremendous current could be seen. The whole effect was magnificent and awe-inspiring.

A long way ahead we could see the waving tops of a wide low line of partly submerged jungle grass, swaying as the water rushed through it, and to this point the men were making the most desperate efforts to propel the boat.

If we could once get within poling reach of ground, we could manage to pole ourselves across the long ridge of flooded plain, and get out at one of the villages of the high land beyond, from whence we could make our way back to the factory.

And now befell an adventure which I consider one of the most extraordinary which, in the long course of a not uneventful career in India, ever occurred to me; but which, as it happened, resulted most happily for all concerned.

The persistent efforts of our crew had been so far successful that we were now well out of the main stream, and drifting at a slower rate although still rapidly, down on the bank of drift-wood, and waving grass which I have just referred to. As we got nearer, I was able to recognize the spot as the site of a favourite batan, which was usually resorted to in the cold weather by a family of gwallas from northern Tirhoot.

There were seven brothers—well-to-do men, having a pretty large patrimony near Singhessur—and for many years they had been in the habit of taking out a grazing lease in my dehat on the subsidence of the annual rains.

This was a favourite camp of theirs, it being the highest land in the dehat, for many miles around, and in the cold weather it was surrounded on all sides by dense growths of jungle grass; and amid their shady recesses, large numbers of cattle and buffaloes belonging to the seven brothers were wont to graze. Of course where the cattle came there also were sure to be tigers, and I had often got valuable information from these men, and had not infrequently visited their camp and received their valuable assistance in some of our hunting expeditions.

To any one who reads between the lines, and looks for a little more than a mere record of sport in these pages, they cannot but be struck with the numerous analogies which my journals record, between old patriarchal life in scriptural times and that which is still the ride in these remote Eastern localities.

Here we have a perfect counterpart of a scriptural scene— a picture of the sons of the household leaving the old father and the younger children at home, while they take the flocks and herds to some distant locality for change of pasture.

I have myself seen, many a time and oft, some such stripling carrying news from the old ancestral homestead, to the brethren in the far-off pastures, as Joseph must have been, or as David, when he visited his brethren at the time when the giant Philistine was defying the armies of Israel.

The ordinary routine of everyday life is not much changed in the East since those old times, and a host of these associations are stirred up, and historic biblical incidents are illustrated, by what one sees every day in his usual experiences in these remote frontier tracks.

But a truce to these reflections. You doubtless want to hear my adventure.

Our boat was now steadily bearing down on the great heaving, swaying mass of flood debris, which had been caught upon the fringe of these small islands; and knowing from past experience what we might expect, everyone of our party was on the look-out to see that we might not be boarded by snakes or wild animals, which were certain here to have taken refuge in greater or fewer numbers, owing to the suddenness and severity of the flood.

I have landed dozens of times, myself, on these isolated elevations in the midst of the surging waters during a great flood such as I am describing, and the seething mass of fugitive life would afford a rich ground for the investigations of a naturalist.

Here are collected representatives of all the denizens of the great valley, through which ordinarily the attenuated current of the river runs, but which in time of flood sweeps everything before it; and so creeping crawling insects, reptiles, and beasts of all descriptions, get cast up on some such refuge as this, and there, under the pressure of a common fear, their natural antipathies and predatory instincts are held in check; and you may see the snake and the hare, and even the tiger and the lamb cower together; each seemingly oblivious of the other's presence.

On every stem of every reed that surmounts the tide, great clusters of ants, and winged and creeping insects of all kinds, swarm thickly together.

In amongst the brush and drift-wood you may find snakes innumerable, and so thick is the swarm of life, that you might stock a museum from the different genera found on one of these small prominences during flood time.

It was not however to my feelings as a naturalist or as a sportsman that an appeal was about to be made.

As we got closer to the floating, swaying bank of drifted wreck, one of the men in the bow called out something in a very excited tone to one or two of the others, and immediately all hands rushed forward, and my curiosity being roused I followed them.

Right in front of us, on the very extreme point, poised on the mass of jammed up drift and dead wood—rocking to and fro with every surge of the flood water; swaying and bending, now on this side and now on that, as the current preponderated this way or that way; seemingly hesitating and halting, as if it were a sentient thing, not knowing which channel to make for; now and then being momentarily submerged 'neath the yellow foam—was a fragile ragged piece of fiail roof, from some village hut, which had been swept down stream by the sudden rising of the river ;—and right in the ternce of this, swathed in voluminous folds of cotton cloth, lay a chubby little infant, with its fat little arms stretched out to us in mute supplication, and its great black eyes looking at us with a wistful appealing look; and the poor little thing, like a second Moses in his ark of bulrushes, seemed to have been abandoned by God and man; and but for our timely and providential arrival, must undoubtedly have proved a prey to the raging elements around. No other sign of living human being was apparent.

Already the Chupper or roof on which the babe lay had been invaded by several snakes, desperately struggling to extricate themselves from the mass of brush-wood and half-submerged flotsam in which they had become entangled.

Two mangy-looking jackals crouched and cowered and trembled in one corner of the triangular patch of ground, which stood above the level of the flood, the earth being blackened and charred with the marks of numerous fires; and in the far off corner, crouching on his belly, amid floating leaves and twigs, and the bending stems of the insect-laden reeds, crouched a lank, mangy, hungry-looking tiger, evidently in deadly fear, with his lips pale and retracted, showing the very gums to be of a deathly pallid colour, and the yellow fangs, worn almost to a stump.

And there he crouched, with his baleful, cruel eyes glowering at us, abject fear struggling in his expression, with the native ferocity and hatred of human kind, which was only held in check by the desperateness of his position.

Such was the picture.

The reader can perhaps realize the whole scene from my description.

It is certainly not an uncommon occurrence for children to be thus swept away by floods in some such manner, but here are, surely, all the elements of a first class sensational romance. And yet such events are happening every day in the remote wilds of an Indian frontier. I need not weary the reader by piling incident upon incident. I shot the tiger. The skin was mangy and worthless.

The two poor devils of jackals at the sound of my rifle took to the water with a most melancholy howl, and were presumably drowned. We rescued the baby—the poor little thing chuckling and crowing, and little conscious of the terrible death from which we had rescued it—and I might give you another chapter, detailing all the efforts that we made to discover its paternity, but ever without avail. I never knew from what village it had been taken.

I know not whether some poor mother may not have for weary years consumed her soul in sadness thinking of the loss of the bonnie bairn which the angry goddess Koosee Mai had selected as a victim.

Possibly the infant may have been the sole survivor of some little jungle nook, every soul of which may have been swept away by the sudden rising of the angry waters.

At all events, the child found a loving guardian in the person of my old Keranie and his half-caste wife.

And to make a long story short, we got safely to shore, got back to the factory all right, and I could not help thinking that there was some sort of poetic justice in our having rescued from the hungry embrace of Koosee Mai one young life in return for the strong Pagoober whose blood had dyed the stream in the morning, and to recover whose body had led us into such a perilous adventure.

Kunchun, during our absence, had managed to steal away. He was never brought to justice as far as I know. He compounded with Ragoober's relatives. Possibly married the widow for all I know to the contrary. At all events the murder—for such it undoubtedly was—blew over, and I heard no more about it.

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