The royal Malay tiger is no gentleman. If he were, the following would never have been told.
Punda-Tsang was an innkeeper. He was sole proprietor of the Ballawari-Dâk, which is a very big name for a very small native hotel about sixty miles north of Penang, and on the high road to the hunting-steppes of the Bukit, or hill-country. The quaint little hospice clung to the mountain side like a swallow’s nest, high over the jungle-bedded Sungei, whose foaming, crashing torrents came down from the upper mountains like an endless charge of white cavalry to the sea. Punda was a good sort of a Malay, which means a bad sort of anything else. That is, he would plunder only on the securest principles, and never quarrel with a bigger man nor a better armed one than he. In this he differed from other Malays, who would plunder and knife upon no principle or provocation whatever, if they thought there was a ten-anna piece in the job.
But a deeper reading of this prosperous boniface of the jungles revealed the fact that he was capable of love,—yes, even a tender, human affection; and that little Iali, his five-year-old daughter, was the object of a worship in his heart even more fervent than that which he bestowed upon the five home-made clay gods before which, in a dark corner of the Dâk, he burned a vast deal of ill-smelling punk. The second year of Tsang’s married life had hardly begun when his beautiful wife was bitten by a yellow viper while gathering healing herbs down in the valley. When they found the poor creature she was dying—with a little new-born babe in her arms. This calamity the bereaved husband regarded as a direct visitation of the clay gods in the corner; only the day before he had robbed a Kling hunter of his rifle, leaving the poor fellow to make his way unarmed down to the sea, where he ran upon a pair of half-starved kukangs, a vicious species of Malay chimpanzee, in fleeing from which he fell over the cliff and was dashed to pieces. And Punda-Tsang always felt that that yellow viper was sent direct from the land of the judging gods to avenge the blood of the poor Kling hunter. But there was one thing that mitigated the harshness of this vengeance,—the presence of the little child, whom he tenderly cherished, and whom he had called Iali, which is to say “forgiven.” But even were not the little creature a messenger of forgiveness to the penitent savage heart, she was more than worthy his worship and love,—this child of the tropic forest, restless and agile as a young panther, with lustrous black eyes and a wild, wayward nature, much spoiled by the wayfarers and fawned upon by the coolies that swarmed about the compound.
One day two British naval officers stopped at the Dâk on their way down from a hunt in the hill country. We were seated under the palms before the bungalow after tiffin, smoking cheroots, while I listened to their exploits with interest. Suddenly four native Malays approached, wheeling a live tiger in a clumsy wooden cage, and halted before the Dâk. They were going to dispose of him to a naturalist down on the coast, who had a method of killing and stuffing animals by which the marvelous luster of their skins was preserved. The forest king was certainly a magnificent specimen. If you have never seen a live tiger fresh from the jungles, take my word for it, the ordinary caged tiger at the Zoo is as much like the former as canned strawberries are like the fresh, lustrous fruit of June. The Englishmen evidently thought so, too, as they concluded to buy him, and swear that they had captured him, and then to present the beast to the London Zoo. They bought the animal for forty Mexican dollars, sent the natives back rejoicing, and started down towards the coast, while Punda-Tsang, not contented with exacting fifty per cent commission from the poor fellows for using his Dâk for a tiger mart, committed the meanest act of his life. He slyly sawed one of the cage bars nearly through in four places. Then he went to work planning to waylay the tiger on his way back to his haunts after he should break loose, which he knew would happen before the Englishmen could get many miles down the valley. He quietly pursued his planning until late that night, when he heard upon good authority that the tiger had broken jail and nearly killed one of his owners. Then he prepared to put his plans into action.
Here we reach the illustration of the first-mentioned fact, of which Tsang was ready to take advantage: that the Malay tiger is no gentleman. He knew that the beast will never walk up leisurely and take his bite like a smooth and oily clubman at a free lunch, but that the very instant that he smells blood he will drop flat, and, even if the feast is a mile away, will begin a slow, creeping journey towards it, wasting hours, perhaps, and working up a terrific hunger in the meantime. When he has approached within twenty feet of the prize, quivering with desire and terrible with greed, he will leap into the air like a cannon ball and plunge down upon his victim. Punda-Tsang knew all this; so he dug a pit down the valley, constructed a network of branches over it, and laid the quarter of a bullock upon it. Then he waited for the tiger to scent the blood and make his slow, crawling journey, knowing that when he made the grand twenty-foot leap he would go crashing through the network into the pit below. Then Tsang planned he would starve the beast, let down a cage baited with more fresh meat, and, sliding the bars from above, haul the captured tiger out and sell him over again. All of this might have happened, but it didn’t. Events somewhat stranger and more terrible for Punda-Tsang interfered, doubtless as another direct visitation of the vengeance of the little clay gods in the bungalow corner, half concealed in clouds of punk-smoke.
As little Iali was the innkeeper’s constant solace and companion, she went with him to the pit-digging, her father explaining to her the manner of capturing the “four-footed jungle-god,” which facts, instead of frightening the child, only helped to increase the stock of her play gods and demons which she molded deftly from the red clay of the ravine. With the appearance of the new moon, that mascot of the Orientals, the pit was baited. For two days nothing was heard of the tiger, and Punda-Tsang began to fear that he had gone back to the hills by another route.
On the afternoon of the third day I sat on the cliff’s edge, watching the mists rise from the roaring river bottom, a phenomenon which always accompanies the closing day. Suddenly there was a great shuffling of sandals about the compound, and I knew something extraordinary was taking place. I turned quickly; the big form of Punda-Tsang, the innkeeper, burst upon me suddenly, his flat face as pallid as a demon’s, ferocious, but with the ferocity of nameless fear.
“Iali!” cried he hoarsely. “Have you seen Iali?”
“No!” I replied, almost in a whisper. He did not wait, but sped towards the so-called bullock-sheds, which were really caves cut in the solid rock beyond the Dâk. I had become attached to the child, whose marvelous beauty had charmed, and whose weird ways mystified me. But I had never been alone with her, knowing that any accident happening to Iali while in my keeping would result seriously for me—perhaps cost me my life. The coolies were flying hither and thither, making the air ring with their loud wails. Such agitation on the part of these vagabonds roused me to a realization of the child’s danger. Suddenly I turned my eyes and thoughts in the direction of the ravine where the tiger trap lay. I recalled vividly the child’s interest in the “jungle-god” who was to be captured in the deep pit; and, knowing the little creature’s absolute fearlessness, thought that, acting upon some childish impulse, she might have strayed down the narrow path to the pit. Meanwhile the wailing about me increased.
I dropped over the ledge, soon reaching the pathway by a short route. As I penetrated the jungle, now suffused with mist in the ruby glow of the expiring day, I realized with what risks to myself I was entering this dangerous spot, all unarmed. I was still debating whether or not to return for a weapon of defense, when, as I leaped over a soft spot in the red clay, I saw two footprints that shot terror into my heart; one was that of a mammoth tiger, the other belonged to a little child. I dropped down beside them. No. There was no mistaking them, so clear and fresh were both. I rose to my feet, my head whirling, my ears half-deafened by the noise of the jungle insects and the increasing roar of that river beyond. Then I crept forward, scarcely daring to breathe, my heart beating faster and faster with apprehension.
The distance to that tiger pit seemed to be doubled, and the time that elapsed before reaching it everlasting. The crackling of the leaves and twigs on the moss beneath my feet added to my trepidations. Almost before I realized it I had reached the big trap, and then halted short, thrilled by the sound of something human. I looked up. Through the deepening mists and intervening boughs I saw the little child-figure of Iali creeping out upon the withered branches over the pit. For the instant I had no power to move, nor dared I speak, lest, overcome with sudden fright, the frail little one might lose her foothold. Suddenly a new horror disclosed itself. What were those two glaring, cold, yet fiery points just beyond the pit, burning their way through the shadows? My God! It was the tiger. He was lying flat on the ground, couchant, paws extended, quivering, ready for the fatal spring.
In moments like these one’s reasoning powers become super-human. I saw that in all probability either Iali or I was to be sacrificed, which one depended merely upon the caprice of the wild beast. I had heard that the calm, steady, fearless stare of a human is more terrifying to wild animals than guns that kill. On the instant I resolved to practise it; it was my only expedient. So I stared at those two coldly bright and glowing points of light like a madman, without a quiver, without a doubt.
Suddenly I saw the little figure waver on the dead branches over the mouth of the pit, and then—oh, horrors! with a weak cry poor little Iali had lost her foothold and slipped slowly through the yielding boughs into the cave beneath. For a moment all was silent. Then I heard her childish prattle. The soft sand had broken Iali’s fall and saved her life, while I was brought face to face with the most awful problem of my life. For what seemed hours, I stood like a pillar of stone, the sweat pouring down my neck, my tongue hot and parched. One show of fear would, I knew, be fatal. The “jungle-gods” are keen, like demons, measuring strength with man. How long could I keep up this maddening strain?—how long force upon the king-beast this illusion of my superior will?
Suddenly, as I stood like one in a trance, facing this growing problem, I was conscious of a stir in the reeds and underbrush at my right hand. Though the sound caused me to tremble, I dared not take my eyes from the crouching monster beyond. The next instant, a strange, huge shape crept stealthily out of the underwood, and advanced into the clearing toward the pit,—a ponderous black monster with the body of a beast, but lifting through the grass the head and shoulders of a human colossus. It was a mammoth orang-outang!
The tiger crouched lower. He seemed to be as nonplussed, as stunned by the intrusion of this huge interloper as I was. In motionless silence, he transferred his burning gaze to the mammoth monster.
Advancing to the very edge of the pit, the huge ape slipped, but he recovered. Sly beast! He saw that the branches were only a blind. Then he walked around the edge of the trap, and knelt down like a human being, slowly, deliberately reaching out his long hairy arm till his giant hand clutched that bullock bone. Oh, what joy that calm, providential deed brought to my heart! Then, to my intense relief, the orang slowly dragged the great mass of flesh off the network of branches upon the solid ground.
For a moment longer the gleam of those two terrible eyes, now like peepholes into hell, followed the unsuspecting pilferer. Then came a rustle, a strange shriek like sudden thunder, a bound, and a roar, and the “jungle-god” had sprung into the air, and came down like a flashing avalanche full upon the broad body of the kneeling orang. A single paw struck the mammoth ape in the small of the back, and never shall I forget the sound of that blow which broke the bones of the orang’s spine like a cannon ball. With an almost human groan, the rescuer of my life and hers I came to save gave up the booty, together with his own life. Then the tiger, with a final flash of eyes full into my own, snatched up the carcass of the bullock in his flaming jaws, and slid off into the thick of the jungle.
I have often wondered since how things would have turned out if that tiger had been a gentleman.