A TIGER

To have the opportunity of hunting a tiger - on an elephant too - which by a stroke of luck fell to me, is to experience the un-English character of India at its fullest. Almost everything else could be reproduced elsewhere - the palaces, the bazaars, the caravans, the mosques and temples with their worshippers - but not the jungle, the Himalayas, the vast swamps through which our elephants waded up to the Plimsoll, the almost too painful ecstasies of the pursuit of an eater of man.

The master of the chase, who has many tigers to his name, was Sir Harcourt Butler, whose hospitality is famous, so large and warm is it, and so minute, and it was because he was not satisfied that the ordinary diversions of the "Lucknow Week" were sufficient for his guests, that he impulsively arranged a day's swamp-deer shooting on the borders of Nepaul. The time was short, or of elephants there would have been seventy or more; as it was, we were apologised to (there were only about six of us) for the poverty of the supply, a mere five and twenty being obtainable. But to these eyes, which had never seen more than six elephants at once, and those in the captivity either of a zoo or a circus, a row of five and twenty was astounding. They were waiting for us on the plain, at a spot distant some score of miles by car, through improvised roads, from the station, whither an all-night railway journey had borne us. The name of the station, if I ever knew it, I have forgotten: there was no room in my heated brain for such trifles; but I have forgotten nothing else.

It was after an hour and a half's drive in the cool and spicy early morning air - between the fluttering rags on canes which told the drivers how to steer - that we came suddenly in sight of some distant tents and beside them an immense long dark inexplicable mass which through the haze seemed now and then to move. As we drew nearer, this mass was discerned to be a row of elephants assembled in line ready to salute the Governor. The effect was more impressive and more Eastern than anything I had seen. Grotesque too - for some had painted faces and gilded toes, and not a few surveyed me with an expression in which the comic spirit was too noticeable. Six or seven had howdahs, the rest blankets: those with howdahs being for the party and its leader, Bam Bahadur, a noted shikaree; and the others to carry provisions and bring back the spoil. On the neck of each sat an impassive mahout.

To one to whom the pen is mightier than the gun and whose half a century's bag contains only a few rabbits, a hedgehog and a moorhen, it is no inconsiderable ordeal to be handed a repeating rifle and some dozens of cartridges and be told that that is your elephant - the big one there, with the red ochre on its forehead. To be on an elephant in the jungle without the responsibilities of a lethal weapon would be sufficient thrill for one day: but to be expected also to deal out death was too much. In the company of others, however, one can do anything; and I gradually ascended to the top, not, as the accomplished hunters did, by placing a foot on the trunk and being swung heavenwards, but painfully, on a ladder; by my side being a very keen Indian youth, the son of a minor chieftain, who spoke English perfectly and was to instruct me in Nimrod's lore.

And so the procession started, and for a while discomfort set acutely in, for the movement of a howdah is short and jerky, and it takes some time both to adjust oneself to it and to lose the feeling that the elephant sooner or later - and probably sooner - must trip and fall. But the glory of the morning, the urgency of our progress, the novelty and sublimity of the means of transport, the strangeness of the scene, and my companion's speculations on the day's promise, overcame any personal want of ease and I forgot myself in the universal. Our destination was a series of marshes some six miles away, where the gonds - or swamp-deer - were usually found, and we were divided up, some elephants, of which mine was one, taking the left wing, with instructions on reaching a certain spot to wait there for the deer who would move off in that direction; others taking the right wing; and others beating up the middle.

We began with a trial of nervous stamina - for a river far down in its bed below us almost immediately occurred, and this had to be crossed. I abandoned all hope as the elephant descended the bank almost, as it seemed, perpendicularly, and plunged into the water with an enormous splash. But after he had squeeged through, extricating himself with a gigantic wrench, the ground was level for a long while, and there was time to look around and recollect one's fatalism. Far ahead in a blue mist were the Himalayas. All about were unending fields, with here and there white cattle grazing. Cranes stretched their necks above the grass; now and then a herd of blackbuck (which were below our hunting ambitions) scampered away; the sky was full of wild-duck and other water-fowl.