''Umph!'' said Big Toomai. ''Thou art a boy, and as wild as a buffalo-calf. This
running up and down among the hills is not the best Government service. I am getting
old, and I do not love wild elephants. Give me brick elephant lines, one stall to
each elephant, and big stumps to tie them to safely, and flat, broad roads to exercise
upon, instead of this come-and-go camping. Aha, the Cawnpore barracks were good.
There was a bazaar close by, and only three hours' work a day.''
Little Toomai remembered the Cawnpore elephant-lines and said nothing. He very
much preferred the camp life, and hated those broad, flat roads, with the daily
grubbing for grass in the forage reserve, and the long hours when there was nothing
to do except to watch Kala Nag fidgeting in his pickets.
What Little Toomai liked was to scramble up bridle paths that only an elephant
could take; the dip into the valley below; the glimpses of the wild elephants browsing
miles away; the rush of the frightened pig and peacock under Kala Nag's feet; the
blinding warm rains, when all the hills and valleys smoked; the beautiful misty
mornings when nobody knew where they would camp that night; the steady, cautious
drive of the wild elephants, and the mad rush and blaze and hullabaloo of the last
night's drive, when the elephants poured into the stockade like boulders in a landslide,
found that they could not get out, and flung themselves at the heavy posts only
to be driven back by yells and flaring torches and volleys of blank cartridge.
Even a little boy could be of use there, and Toomai was as useful as three boys.
He would get his torch and wave it, and yell with the best. But the really good
time came when the driving out began, and the Keddah-that is, the stockade– looked
like a picture of the end of the world, and men had to make signs to one another,
because they could not hear themselves speak. Then Little Toomai would climb up
to the top of one of the quivering stockade posts, his sun-bleached brown hair flying
loose all over his shoulders, and he looking like a goblin in the torch-light. And
as soon as there was a lull you could hear his high-pitched yells of encouragement
to Kala Nag, above the trumpeting and crashing, and snapping of ropes, and groans
of the tethered elephants. ''Mael, mael, Kala Nag! (Go on, go on, Black Snake!)
Dant do! (Give him the tusk!) Somalo! Somalo! (Careful, careful!) Maro! Mar! (Hit
him, hit him!) Mind the post! Arre! Arre! Hai! Yai! Kya-a-ah!'' he would shout,
and the big fight between Kala Nag and the wild elephant would sway to and fro across
the Keddah, and the old elephant catchers would wipe the sweat out of their eyes,
and find time to nod to Little Toomai wriggling with joy on the top of the posts.
He did more than wriggle. One night he slid down from the post and slipped in
between the elephants and threw up the loose end of a rope, which had dropped, to
a driver who was trying to get a purchase on the leg of a kicking young calf (calves
always give more trouble than full-grown animals). Kala Nag saw him, caught him
in his trunk, and handed him up to Big Toomai, who slapped him then and there, and
put him back on the post.
Next morning he gave him a scolding and said, ''Are not good brick elephant lines
and a little tent carrying enough, that thou must needs go elephant catching on
thy own account, little worthless? Now those foolish hunters, whose pay is less
than my pay, have spoken to Petersen Sahib of the matter.'' Little Toomai was frightened.
He did not know much of white men, but Petersen Sahib was the greatest white man
in the world to him. He was the head of all the Keddah operations-the man who caught
all the elephants for the Government of India, and who knew more about the ways
of elephants than any living man.
''What-what will happen?'' said Little Toomai.
''Happen! The worst that can happen. Petersen Sahib is a madman. Else why should
he go hunting these wild devils? He may even require thee to be an elephant catcher,
to sleep anywhere in these fever-filled jungles, and at last to be trampled to death
in the Keddah. It is well that this nonsense ends safely. Next week the catching
is over, and we of the plains are sent back to our stations. Then we will march
on smooth roads, and forget all this hunting. But, son, I am angry that thou shouldst
meddle in the business that belongs to these dirty Assamese jungle folk. Kala Nag
will obey none but me, so I must go with him into the Keddah, but he is only a fighting
elephant, and he does not help to rope them. So I sit at my ease, as befits a mahout,-not
a mere hunter,-a mahout, I say, and a man who gets a pension at the end of his service.
Is the family of Toomai of the Elephants to be trodden underfoot in the dirt of
a Keddah? Bad one! Wicked one! Worthless son! Go and wash Kala Nag and attend to
his ears, and see that there are no thorns in his feet. Or else Petersen Sahib will
surely catch thee and make thee a wild hunter-a follower of elephant's foot tracks,
a jungle bear. Bah! Shame! Go!''
Little Toomai went off without saying a word, but he told Kala Nag all his grievances
while he was examining his feet. ''No matter,'' said Little Toomai, turning up the
fringe of Kala Nag's huge right ear. ''They have said my name to Petersen Sahib,
and perhaps-and perhaps-and perhaps-who knows? Hai! That is a big thorn that I have
The next few days were spent in getting the elephants together, in walking the
newly caught wild elephants up and down between a couple of tame ones to prevent
them giving too much trouble on the downward march to the plains, and in taking
stock of the blankets and ropes and things that had been worn out or lost in the
Petersen Sahib came in on his clever she-elephant Pudmini; he had been paying
off other camps among the hills, for the season was coming to an end, and there
was a native clerk sitting at a table under a tree, to pay the drivers their wages.
As each man was paid he went back to his elephant, and joined the line that stood
ready to start. The catchers, and hunters, and beaters, the men of the regular Keddah,
who stayed in the jungle year in and year out, sat on the backs of the elephants
that belonged to Petersen Sahib's permanent force, or leaned against the trees with
their guns across their arms, and made fun of the drivers who were going away, and
laughed when the newly caught elephants broke the line and ran about.
Big Toomai went up to the clerk with Little Toomai behind him, and Machua Appa,
the head tracker, said in an undertone to a friend of his, ''There goes one piece
of good elephant stuff at least. 'Tis a pity to send that young jungle-cock to molt
in the plains.''
Now Petersen Sahib had ears all over him, as a man must have who listens to the
most silent of all living things-the wild elephant. He turned where he was lying
all along on Pudmini's back and said, ''What is that? I did not know of a man among
the plains-drivers who had wit enough to rope even a dead elephant.''
''This is not a man, but a boy. He went into the Keddah at the last drive, and
threw Barmao there the rope, when we were trying to get that young calf with the
blotch on his shoulder away from his mother.''
Machua Appa pointed at Little Toomai, and Petersen Sahib looked, and Little Toomai
bowed to the earth.
''He throw a rope? He is smaller than a picket-pin. Little one, what is thy name?''
said Petersen Sahib.
Little Toomai was too frightened to speak, but Kala Nag was behind him, and Toomai
made a sign with his hand, and the elephant caught him up in his trunk and held
him level with Pudmini's forehead, in front of the great Petersen Sahib. Then Little
Toomai covered his face with his hands, for he was only a child, and except where
elephants were concerned, he was just as bashful as a child could be.
''Oho!'' said Petersen Sahib, smiling underneath his mustache, ''and why didst
thou teach thy elephant that trick? Was it to help thee steal green corn from the
roofs of the houses when the ears are put out to dry?''
''Not green corn, Protector of the Poor,-melons,'' said Little Toomai, and all
the men sitting about broke into a roar of laughter. Most of them had taught their
elephants that trick when they were boys. Little Toomai was hanging eight feet up
in the air, and he wished very much that he were eight feet underground.
''He is Toomai, my son, Sahib,'' said Big Toomai, scowling. ''He is a very bad
boy, and he will end in a jail, Sahib.''
''Of that I have my doubts,'' said Petersen Sahib. ''A boy who can face a full
Keddah at his age does not end in jails. See, little one, here are four annas to
spend in sweetmeats because thou hast a little head under that great thatch of hair.
In time thou mayest become a hunter too.'' Big Toomai scowled more than ever. ''Remember,
though, that Keddahs are not good for children to play in,'' Petersen Sahib went
''Must I never go there, Sahib?'' asked Little Toomai with a big gasp.
''Yes.'' Petersen Sahib smiled again. ''When thou hast seen the elephants dance.
That is the proper time. Come to me when thou hast seen the elephants dance, and
then I will let thee go into all the Keddahs.''
There was another roar of laughter, for that is an old joke among elephant-catchers,
and it means just never. There are great cleared flat places hidden away in the
forests that are called elephants' ball-rooms, but even these are only found by
accident, and no man has ever seen the elephants dance. When a driver boasts of
his skill and bravery the other drivers say, ''And when didst thou see the elephants
Kala Nag put Little Toomai down, and he bowed to the earth again and went away
with his father, and gave the silver four-anna piece to his mother, who was nursing
his baby brother, and they all were put up on Kala Nag's back, and the line of grunting,
squealing elephants rolled down the hill path to the plains. It was a very lively
march on account of the new elephants, who gave trouble at every ford, and needed
coaxing or beating every other minute.
Big Toomai prodded Kala Nag spitefully, for he was very angry, but Little Toomai
was too happy to speak. Petersen Sahib had noticed him, and given him money, so
he felt as a private soldier would feel if he had been called out of the ranks and
praised by his commander-in-chief.
''What did Petersen Sahib mean by the elephant dance?'' he said, at last, softly
to his mother.
Big Toomai heard him and grunted. ''That thou shouldst never be one of these
hill buffaloes of trackers. That was what he meant. Oh, you in front, what is blocking
An Assamese driver, two or three elephants ahead, turned round angrily, crying:
''Bring up Kala Nag, and knock this youngster of mine into good behavior. Why should
Petersen Sahib have chosen me to go down with you donkeys of the rice fields? Lay
your beast alongside, Toomai, and let him prod with his tusks. By all the Gods of
the Hills, these new elephants are possessed, or else they can smell their companions
in the jungle.'' Kala Nag hit the new elephant in the ribs and knocked the wind
out of him, as Big Toomai said, ''We have swept the hills of wild elephants at the
last catch. It is only your carelessness in driving. Must I keep order along the
''Hear him!'' said the other driver. ''We have swept the hills! Ho! Ho! You are
very wise, you plains people. Anyone but a mud-head who never saw the jungle would
know that they know that the drives are ended for the season. Therefore all the
wild elephants to-night will-but why should I waste wisdom on a river-turtle?''
''What will they do?'' Little Toomai called out.
''Ohe, little one. Art thou there? Well, I will tell thee, for thou hast a cool
head. They will dance, and it behooves thy father, who has swept all the hills of
all the elephants, to double-chain his pickets to-night.''
''What talk is this?'' said Big Toomai. ''For forty years, father and son, we
have tended elephants, and we have never heard such moonshine about dances.''
''Yes; but a plainsman who lives in a hut knows only the four walls of his hut.
Well, leave thy elephants unshackled tonight and see what comes. As for their dancing,
I have seen the place where-Bapree-bap! How many windings has the Dihang River?
Here is another ford, and we must swim the calves. Stop still, you behind there.''
And in this way, talking and wrangling and splashing through the rivers, they
made their first march to a sort of receiving camp for the new elephants. But they
lost their tempers long before they got there.
Then the elephants were chained by their hind legs to their big stumps of pickets,
and extra ropes were fitted to the new elephants, and the fodder was piled before
them, and the hill drivers went back to Petersen Sahib through the afternoon light,
telling the plains drivers to be extra careful that night, and laughing when the
plains drivers asked the reason.
Little Toomai attended to Kala Nag's supper, and as evening fell, wandered through
the camp, unspeakably happy, in search of a tom-tom. When an Indian child's heart
is full, he does not run about and make a noise in an irregular fashion. He sits
down to a sort of revel all by himself. And Little Toomai had been spoken to by
Petersen Sahib! If he had not found what he wanted, I believe he would have been
ill. But the sweetmeat seller in the camp lent him a little tom-tom-a drum beaten
with the flat of the hand-and he sat down, cross-legged, before Kala Nag as the
stars began to come out, the tom-tom in his lap, and he thumped and he thumped and
he thumped, and the more he thought of the great honor that had been done to him,
the more he thumped, all alone among the elephant fodder. There was no tune and
no words, but the thumping made him happy.