A DAY'S HAWKING

One of my best Indian days was that on which Colonel Sir Umar Hayat Khan took us out a-hawking. Sir Umar is himself something of a hawk - an impressive figure in his great turban with long streamers, his keen aquiline features and blackest of hair. All sport comes naturally to him, whether hunting or shooting, pig-sticking, coursing or falconry; and the Great War found him with a sportsman's eagerness to rush into the fray, where he distinguished himself notably.

We found this gallant chieftain in the midst of his retainers on the further bank of the Jumna, at the end of the long bridge. Here the plains begin - miles of fields of stubble, with here and there a tree and here and there a pool or marsh, as far as eye can reach, an ancient walled city in the near distance being almost the only excrescence. Between the river and this city was our hunting ground.

With the exception of Sir Umar, two of his friends and ourselves, the company was on foot; and nothing more like the middle ages did I ever see. The retainers were in every kind of costume, one having an old pink coat and one a green; one leading a couple of greyhounds in case we put up a hare; others carrying guns (for we were prepared for all); while the chief falconer and his assistants had their hawks on their wrists, and one odd old fellow was provided with a net, in which a captive live hawk was to flutter and struggle to attract his hereditary foes, the little birds, who, deeming him unable to hit back, were to swarm down to deride and defy and be caught in the meshes.

I may say at once that hawking, particularly in this form, does not give me much pleasure. There is something magnificent in the flight of the falcon when it is released and flung towards its prey, but the odds are too heavy in its favour and the whimperings of the doomed quarry strike a chill in the heart. We flew our hawks at duck and plovers, and missed none. Often the first swoop failed, but the deadly implacable pursuer was instantly ready to swoop again, and rarely was a third manoeuvre necessary. Man, under the influence of the excitement of the chase, is the same all the world over, and there was no difference between these Indians moving swiftly to intervene between the hawk and its stricken prey and an English boy running to retrieve his rabbit. Their animation and triumph - even their shouts and cries - were alike.

And so we crossed field after field on our gentle steeds - and no one admires gentleness in a horse more than I - stopping only to watch another tragedy of the air, or to look across the river to Delhi and see the Fort under new conditions. All this country I had so often looked down upon from those high massive walls, standing in one of the lovely windows of Shah Jahan's earthly paradise; and now the scene was reversed, and I began to take more delight in it than in the sport. But at a pond to which we next came there was enacted a drama so absorbing that everything else was forgotten, even the heat of the sun.

Upon this pond were three wild-duck at which a falcon was instantly flown. For a while, however, they kept their presence of mind and refused to leave the water - diving beneath the surface at the moment that the enemy was within a foot of them. On went the hawk, in its terrible, cruel onset, and up came the ducks, all ready to repeat these tactics when it turned and attacked again. But on one of the party (I swear it was not I), in order to assist the hawk, firing his gun, two of the ducks became panic-stricken and left the water, only of course to be quickly destroyed. It was on the hawk's return journey to the pond to make sure of the third duck that I saw for the first time in my life - and I hope the last - the expression on the countenance of these terrible birds in the execution of their duty: more than the mere execution of duty, the determination to have no more nonsense, to put an end to anything so monstrous as self-protection in others; for my horse being directly in the way, he flew under its neck and for a moment I thought that he was confusing me with the desired mallard. Nothing more merciless or purposeful did I ever see.

Then began a really heroic struggle on the part of the victim. He timed his dives to perfection, and escaped so often that the spirit of chivalry would have decreed a truce. But blood had been tasted, and, the desire being for more, the guns were again discharged. Not even they, however, could divert the duck from his intention of saving his life, and he dived away from the shot, too.

It was at this moment that assistance to the gallant little bird arrived - not from man, who was past all decency, but from brother feathers. Out of a clear sky suddenly appeared two tern, dazzling in their whiteness, and these did all in their power to infuriate the hawk and lure him from the water. They flew round him and over him; they called him names; they said he was a bully and that all of us (which was true) ought to be ashamed of ourselves; they daunted and challenged and attacked. But the enemy was too strong for them. A fusillade drove them off, and once again we were free to consider the case of the duck, who was still swimming anxiously about, hoping against hope. More shots were fired, one of the boys waded in with a stick, and the dogs were added to the assault; and in the face of so determined a bombardment the poor little creature at last flew up, to be struck down within a few seconds by the insatiable avenger.