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Rudyard Kipling >> The Jungle Book (page 14)


Teddy shouted to the house: ''Oh, look here! Our mongoose is killing a snake.'' And Rikki-tikki heard a scream from Teddy's mother. His father ran out with a stick, but by the time he came up, Karait had lunged out once too far, and Rikki-tikki had sprung, jumped on the snake's back, dropped his head far between his forelegs, bitten as high up the back as he could get hold, and rolled away. That bite paralyzed Karait, and Rikki-tikki was just going to eat him up from the tail, after the custom of his family at dinner, when he remembered that a full meal makes a slow mongoose, and if he wanted all his strength and quickness ready, he must keep himself thin.

He went away for a dust bath under the castor-oil bushes, while Teddy's father beat the dead Karait. ''What is the use of that?'' thought Rikki-tikki. ''I have settled it all;'' and then Teddy's mother picked him up from the dust and hugged him, crying that he had saved Teddy from death, and Teddy's father said that he was a providence, and Teddy looked on with big scared eyes. Rikki-tikki was rather amused at all the fuss, which, of course, he did not understand. Teddy's mother might just as well have petted Teddy for playing in the dust. Rikki was thoroughly enjoying himself.

That night at dinner, walking to and fro among the wine-glasses on the table, he might have stuffed himself three times over with nice things. But he remembered Nag and Nagaina, and though it was very pleasant to be patted and petted by Teddy's mother, and to sit on Teddy's shoulder, his eyes would get red from time to time, and he would go off into his long war cry of ''Rikk-tikk-tikki-tikki-tchk!''

Teddy carried him off to bed, and insisted on Rikki-tikki sleeping under his chin. Rikki-tikki was too well bred to bite or scratch, but as soon as Teddy was asleep he went off for his nightly walk round the house, and in the dark he ran up against Chuchundra, the musk-rat, creeping around by the wall. Chuchundra is a broken-hearted little beast. He whimpers and cheeps all the night, trying to make up his mind to run into the middle of the room. But he never gets there.

''Don't kill me,'' said Chuchundra, almost weeping. ''Rikki-tikki, don't kill me!''

''Do you think a snake-killer kills muskrats?'' said Rikki-tikki scornfully.

''Those who kill snakes get killed by snakes,'' said Chuchundra, more sorrowfully than ever. ''And how am I to be sure that Nag won't mistake me for you some dark night?''

''There's not the least danger,'' said Rikki-tikki. ''But Nag is in the garden, and I know you don't go there.''

''My cousin Chua, the rat, told me-'' said Chuchundra, and then he stopped.

''Told you what?''

''H'sh! Nag is everywhere, Rikki-tikki. You should have talked to Chua in the garden.''

''I didn't-so you must tell me. Quick, Chuchundra, or I'll bite you!''

Chuchundra sat down and cried till the tears rolled off his whiskers. ''I am a very poor man,'' he sobbed. ''I never had spirit enough to run out into the middle of the room. H'sh! I mustn't tell you anything. Can't you hear, Rikki-tikki?''

Rikki-tikki listened. The house was as still as still, but he thought he could just catch the faintest scratch-scratch in the world-a noise as faint as that of a wasp walking on a window-pane-the dry scratch of a snake's scales on brick-work.

''That's Nag or Nagaina,'' he said to himself, ''and he is crawling into the bath-room sluice. You're right, Chuchundra; I should have talked to Chua.''

He stole off to Teddy's bath-room, but there was nothing there, and then to Teddy's mother's bathroom. At the bottom of the smooth plaster wall there was a brick pulled out to make a sluice for the bath water, and as Rikki-tikki stole in by the masonry curb where the bath is put, he heard Nag and Nagaina whispering together outside in the moonlight.

''When the house is emptied of people,'' said Nagaina to her husband, ''he will have to go away, and then the garden will be our own again. Go in quietly, and remember that the big man who killed Karait is the first one to bite. Then come out and tell me, and we will hunt for Rikki-tikki together.''

''But are you sure that there is anything to be gained by killing the people?'' said Nag.

''Everything. When there were no people in the bungalow, did we have any mongoose in the garden? So long as the bungalow is empty, we are king and queen of the garden; and remember that as soon as our eggs in the melon bed hatch (as they may tomorrow), our children will need room and quiet.''

''I had not thought of that,'' said Nag. ''I will go, but there is no need that we should hunt for Rikki-tikki afterward. I will kill the big man and his wife, and the child if I can, and come away quietly. Then the bungalow will be empty, and Rikki-tikki will go.''

Rikki-tikki tingled all over with rage and hatred at this, and then Nag's head came through the sluice, and his five feet of cold body followed it. Angry as he was, Rikki-tikki was very frightened as he saw the size of the big cobra. Nag coiled himself up, raised his head, and looked into the bathroom in the dark, and Rikki could see his eyes glitter.

''Now, if I kill him here, Nagaina will know; and if I fight him on the open floor, the odds are in his favor. What am I to do?'' said Rikki-tikki-tavi.

Nag waved to and fro, and then Rikki-tikki heard him drinking from the biggest water-jar that was used to fill the bath. ''That is good,'' said the snake. ''Now, when Karait was killed, the big man had a stick. He may have that stick still, but when he comes in to bathe in the morning he will not have a stick. I shall wait here till he comes. Nagaina-do you hear me?-I shall wait here in the cool till daytime.''

There was no answer from outside, so Rikki-tikki knew Nagaina had gone away. Nag coiled himself down, coil by coil, round the bulge at the bottom of the water jar, and Rikki-tikki stayed still as death. After an hour he began to move, muscle by muscle, toward the jar. Nag was asleep, and Rikki-tikki looked at his big back, wondering which would be the best place for a good hold. ''If I don't break his back at the first jump,'' said Rikki, ''he can still fight. And if he fights-O Rikki!'' He looked at the thickness of the neck below the hood, but that was too much for him; and a bite near the tail would only make Nag savage.

''It must be the head"' he said at last; ''the head above the hood. And, when I am once there, I must not let go.''

Then he jumped. The head was lying a little clear of the water jar, under the curve of it; and, as his teeth met, Rikki braced his back against the bulge of the red earthenware to hold down the head. This gave him just one second's purchase, and he made the most of it. Then he was battered to and fro as a rat is shaken by a dog-to and fro on the floor, up and down, and around in great circles, but his eyes were red and he held on as the body cart-whipped over the floor, upsetting the tin dipper and the soap dish and the flesh brush, and banged against the tin side of the bath. As he held he closed his jaws tighter and tighter, for he made sure he would be banged to death, and, for the honor of his family, he preferred to be found with his teeth locked. He was dizzy, aching, and felt shaken to pieces when something went off like a thunderclap just behind him. A hot wind knocked him senseless and red fire singed his fur. The big man had been wakened by the noise, and had fired both barrels of a shotgun into Nag just behind the hood.

Rikki-tikki held on with his eyes shut, for now he was quite sure he was dead. But the head did not move, and the big man picked him up and said, ''It's the mongoose again, Alice. The little chap has saved our lives now.''

Then Teddy's mother came in with a very white face, and saw what was left of Nag, and Rikki-tikki dragged himself to Teddy's bedroom and spent half the rest of the night shaking himself tenderly to find out whether he really was broken into forty pieces, as he fancied.

When morning came he was very stiff, but well pleased with his doings. ''Now I have Nagaina to settle with, and she will be worse than five Nags, and there's no knowing when the eggs she spoke of will hatch. Goodness! I must go and see Darzee,'' he said.

Without waiting for breakfast, Rikki-tikki ran to the thornbush where Darzee was singing a song of triumph at the top of his voice. The news of Nag's death was all over the garden, for the sweeper had thrown the body on the rubbish-heap.

''Oh, you stupid tuft of feathers!'' said Rikki-tikki angrily. ''Is this the time to sing?''

''Nag is dead-is dead-is dead!'' sang Darzee. ''The valiant Rikki-tikki caught him by the head and held fast. The big man brought the bang-stick, and Nag fell in two pieces! He will never eat my babies again.''

''All that's true enough. But where's Nagaina?'' said Rikki-tikki, looking carefully round him.

''Nagaina came to the bathroom sluice and called for Nag,'' Darzee went on, ''and Nag came out on the end of a stick-the sweeper picked him up on the end of a stick and threw him upon the rubbish heap. Let us sing about the great, the red-eyed Rikki-tikki!'' And Darzee filled his throat and sang.

''If I could get up to your nest, I'd roll your babies out!'' said Rikki-tikki. ''You don't know when to do the right thing at the right time. You're safe enough in your nest there, but it's war for me down here. Stop singing a minute, Darzee.''

''For the great, the beautiful Rikki-tikki's sake I will stop,'' said Darzee. ''What is it, O Killer of the terrible Nag?''

''Where is Nagaina, for the third time?''

''On the rubbish heap by the stables, mourning for Nag. Great is Rikki-tikki with the white teeth.''

''Bother my white teeth! Have you ever heard where she keeps her eggs?''

''In the melon bed, on the end nearest the wall, where the sun strikes nearly all day. She hid them there weeks ago.''

''And you never thought it worth while to tell me? The end nearest the wall, you said?''

''Rikki-tikki, you are not going to eat her eggs?''

''Not eat exactly; no. Darzee, if you have a grain of sense you will fly off to the stables and pretend that your wing is broken, and let Nagaina chase you away to this bush. I must get to the melon-bed, and if I went there now she'd see me.''

Darzee was a feather-brained little fellow who could never hold more than one idea at a time in his head. And just because he knew that Nagaina's children were born in eggs like his own, he didn't think at first that it was fair to kill them. But his wife was a sensible bird, and she knew that cobra's eggs meant young cobras later on. So she flew off from the nest, and left Darzee to keep the babies warm, and continue his song about the death of Nag. Darzee was very like a man in some ways.

She fluttered in front of Nagaina by the rubbish heap and cried out, ''Oh, my wing is broken! The boy in the house threw a stone at me and broke it.'' Then she fluttered more desperately than ever.

Nagaina lifted up her head and hissed, ''You warned Rikki-tikki when I would have killed him. Indeed and truly, you've chosen a bad place to be lame in.'' And she moved toward Darzee's wife, slipping along over the dust.

''The boy broke it with a stone!'' shrieked Darzee's wife.

''Well! It may be some consolation to you when you're dead to know that I shall settle accounts with the boy. My husband lies on the rubbish heap this morning, but before night the boy in the house will lie very still. What is the use of running away? I am sure to catch you. Little fool, look at me!''

Darzee's wife knew better than to do that, for a bird who looks at a snake's eyes gets so frightened that she cannot move. Darzee's wife fluttered on, piping sorrowfully, and never leaving the ground, and Nagaina quickened her pace.

Rikki-tikki heard them going up the path from the stables, and he raced for the end of the melon patch near the wall. There, in the warm litter above the melons, very cunningly hidden, he found twenty-five eggs, about the size of a bantam's eggs, but with whitish skin instead of shell.

''I was not a day too soon,'' he said, for he could see the baby cobras curled up inside the skin, and he knew that the minute they were hatched they could each kill a man or a mongoose. He bit off the tops of the eggs as fast as he could, taking care to crush the young cobras, and turned over the litter from time to time to see whether he had missed any. At last there were only three eggs left, and Rikki-tikki began to chuckle to himself, when he heard Darzee's wife screaming:

''Rikki-tikki, I led Nagaina toward the house, and she has gone into the veranda, and-oh, come quickly-she means killing!''

Rikki-tikki smashed two eggs, and tumbled backward down the melon-bed with the third egg in his mouth, and scuttled to the veranda as hard as he could put foot to the ground. Teddy and his mother and father were there at early breakfast, but Rikki-tikki saw that they were not eating anything. They sat stone-still, and their faces were white. Nagaina was coiled up on the matting by Teddy's chair, within easy striking distance of Teddy's bare leg, and she was swaying to and fro, singing a song of triumph.

Title: The Jungle Book
Author: Rudyard Kipling
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