Burmese Days, by George Orwell

Chapter 14

Like long curved needles threading through embroidery, the two canoes that carried Flory and Elizabeth threaded their way up the creek that led inland from the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy. It was the day of the shooting trip — a short afternoon trip, for they could not stay a night in the jungle together. They were to shoot for a couple of hours in the comparative cool of the evening, and be back at Kyauktada in time for dinner.

The canoes, each hollowed out of a single tree-trunk, glided swiftly, hardly rippling the dark brown water. Water hyacinth with profuse spongy foliage and blue flowers had choked the stream so that the channel was only a winding ribbon four feet wide. The light filtered, greenish, through interlacing boughs. Sometimes one could hear parrots scream overhead, but no wild creatures showed themselves, except once a snake that swam hurriedly away and disappeared among the water hyacinth.

‘How long before we get to the village?’ Elizabeth called back to Flory. He was in a larger canoe behind, together with Flo and Ko S’la, paddled by a wrinkly old woman dressed in rags.

‘How far, grandmama?’ Flory asked the canoe-woman.

The old woman took her cigar out of her mouth and rested her paddle on her knees to think. ‘The distance a man can shout,’ she said after reflection.

‘About half a mile,’ Flory translated.

They had come two miles. Elizabeth’s back was aching. The canoes were liable to upset at a careless moment, and you had to sit bolt upright on the narrow backless seat, keeping your feet as well as possible out of the bilge, with dead prawns in it, that sagged to and fro at the bottom. The Burman who paddled Elizabeth was sixty years old, half naked, leaf-brown, with a body as perfect as that of a young man. His face was battered, gentle and humorous. His black cloud of hair, finer than that of most Burmans, was knotted loosely over one ear, with a wisp or two tumbling across his cheek. Elizabeth was nursing her uncle’s gun across her knees. Flory had offered to take it, but she had refused; in reality, the feel of it delighted her so much that she could not bring herself to give it up. She had never had a gun in her hand until today. She was wearing a rough skirt with brogue shoes and a silk shirt like a man’s, and she knew that with her Terai hat they looked well on her. She was very happy, in spite of her aching back and the hot sweat that tickled her face, and the large, speckled mosquitoes that hummed round her ankles.

The stream narrowed and the beds of water hyacinth gave place to steep banks of glistening mud, like chocolate. Rickety thatched huts leaned far out over the stream, their piles driven into its bed. A naked boy was standing between two of the huts, flying a green beetle on a piece of thread like a kite. He yelled at the sight of the Europeans, whereat more children appeared from nowhere. The old Burman guided the canoe to a jetty made of a single palm-trunk laid in the mud — it was covered with barnacles and so gave foothold — and sprang out and helped Elizabeth ashore. The others followed with the bags and cartridges, and Flo, as she always did on these occasions, fell into the mud and sank as deep as the shoulder. A skinny old gentleman wearing a magenta paso, with a mole on his cheek from which four yard-long grey hairs sprouted, came forward shikoing and cuffing the heads of the children who had gathered round the jetty.

‘The village headman,’ Flory said.

The old man led the way to his house, walking ahead with an extraordinary crouching gait, like a letter L upside down — the result of rheumatism combined with the constant shikoing needed in a minor Government official. A mob of children marched rapidly after the Europeans, and more and more dogs, all yapping and causing Flo to shrink against Flory’s heels. In the doorway of every hut clusters of moonlike, rustic faces gaped at the ‘Ingaleikma’. The village was darkish under the shade of broad leaves. In the rains the creek would flood, turning the lower parts of the village into a squalid wooden Venice where the villagers stepped from their front doors into their canoes.

The headman’s house was a little bigger than the others, and it had a corrugated iron roof, which, in spite of the intolerable din it made during the rains, was the pride of the headman’s life. He had foregone the building of a pagoda, and appreciably lessened his chances of Nirvana, to pay for it. He hastened up the steps and gently kicked in the ribs a youth who was lying asleep on the veranda. Then he turned and shikoed again to the Europeans, asking them to come inside.

‘Shall we go in?’ Flory said. ‘I expect we shall have to wait half an hour.’

‘Couldn’t you tell him to bring some chairs out on the veranda?’ Elizabeth said. After her experience in Li Yeik’s house she had privately decided that she would never go inside a native house again, if she could help it.

There was a fuss inside the house, and the headman, the youth and some women dragged forth two chairs decorated in an extraordinary manner with red hibiscus flowers, and also some begonias growing in kerosene tins. It was evident that a sort of double throne had been prepared within for the Europeans. When Elizabeth had sat down the headman reappeared with a teapot, a bunch of very long, bright green bananas, and six coal-black cheroots. But when he had poured her out a cup of tea Elizabeth shook her head, for the tea looked, if possible, worse even than Li Yeik’s.

The headman looked abashed and rubbed his nose. He turned to Flory and asked him whether the young thakin-ma would like some milk in her tea. He had heard that Europeans drank milk in their tea. The villages should, if it were desired, catch a cow and milk it. However, Elizabeth still refused the tea; but she was thirsty, and she asked Flory to send for one of the bottles of soda-water that Ko S’la had brought in his bag. Seeing this, the headman retired, feeling guiltily that his preparations had been insufficient, and left the veranda to the Europeans.

Elizabeth was still nursing her gun on her knees, while Flory leaned against the veranda rail pretending to smoke one of the headman’s cheroots. Elizabeth was pining for the shooting to begin. She plied Flory with innumerable questions.

‘How soon can we start out? Do you think we’ve got enough cartridges? How many beaters shall we take? Oh, I do so hope we have some luck! You do think we’ll get something, don’t you?’

‘Nothing wonderful, probably. We’re bound to get a few pigeons, and perhaps jungle fowl. They’re out of season, but it doesn’t matter shooting the cocks. They say there’s a leopard round here, that killed a bullock almost in the village last week.’

‘Oh, a leopard! How lovely if we could shoot it!’

‘It’s very unlikely, I’m afraid. The only rule with this shooting in Burma is to hope for nothing. It’s invariably disappointing. The jungles teem with game, but as often as not you don’t even get a chance to fire your gun.’

‘Why is that?’

‘The jungle is so thick. An animal may be five yards away and quite invisible, and half the time they manage to dodge back past the beaters. Even when you see them it’s only for a flash of a second. And again, there’s water everywhere, so that no animal is tied down to one particular spot. A tiger, for instance, will roam hundreds of miles if it suits him. And with all the game there is, they need never come back to a kill if there’s anything suspicious about it. Night after night, when I was a boy, I’ve sat up over horrible stinking dead cows, waiting for tigers that never came.’

Elizabeth wriggled her shoulder-blades against the chair. It was a movement that she made sometimes when she was deeply pleased. She loved Flory, really loved him, when he talked like this. The most trivial scrap of information about shooting thrilled her. If only he would always talk about shooting, instead of about books and Art and that mucky poetry! In a sudden burst of admiration she decided that Flory was really quite a handsome man, in his way. He looked so splendidly manly, with his pagri-cloth shirt open at the throat, and his shorts and puttees and shooting boots! And his face, lined, sunburned, like a soldier’s face. He was standing with his birthmarked cheek away from her. She pressed him to go on talking.

‘DO tell me some more about tiger-shooting. It’s so awfully interesting!’

He described the shooting, years ago, of a mangy old man-eater who had killed one of his coolies. The wait in the mosquito-ridden machan; the tiger’s eyes approaching through the dark jungle, like great green lanterns; the panting, slobbering noise as he devoured the coolie’s body, tied to a stake below. Flory told it all perfunctorily enough — did not the proverbial Anglo Indian bore always talk about tiger-shooting? — but Elizabeth wriggled her shoulders delightedly once more. He did not realize how such talk as this reassured her and made up for all the times when he had bored her and disquieted her. Six shock-headed youths came down the path, carrying dahs over their shoulders, and headed by a stringy but active old man with grey hair. They halted in front of the headman’s house, and one of them uttered a hoarse whoop, whereat the headman appeared and explained that these were the beaters. They were ready to start now, if the young thakin-ma did not find it too hot.

They set out. The side of the village away from the creek was protected by a hedge of cactus six feet high and twelve thick. One went up a narrow lane of cactus, then along a rutted, dusty bullock-cart track, with bamboos as tall as flagstaffs growing densely on either side. The beaters marched rapidly ahead in single file, each with his broad dah laid along his forearm. The old hunter was marching just in front of Elizabeth. His longyi was hitched up like a loin-cloth, and his meagre thighs were tattooed with dark blue patterns, so intricate that he might have been wearing drawers of blue lace. A bamboo the thickness of a man’s wrist had fallen and hung across the path. The leading beater severed it with an upward flick of his dah; the prisoned water gushed out of it with a diamond-flash. After half a mile they reached the open fields, and everyone was sweating, for they had walked fast and the sun was savage.

‘That’s where we’re going to shoot, over there,’ Flory said.

He pointed across the stubble, a wide dust-coloured plain, cut up into patches of an acre or two by mud boundaries. It was horribly flat, and lifeless save for the snowy egrets. At the far edge a jungle of great trees rose abruptly, like a dark green cliff. The beaters had gone across to a small tree like a hawthorn twenty yards away. One of them was on his knees, shikoing to the tree and gabbling, while the old hunter poured a bottle of some cloudy liquid on to the ground. The others stood looking on with serious, bored faces, like men in church.

‘What ARE those men doing?’ Elizabeth said.

‘Only sacrificing to the local gods. Nats, they call them — a kind of dryad. They’re praying to him to bring us good luck.’

The hunter came back and in a cracked voice explained that they were to beat a small patch of scrub over to the right before proceeding to the main jungle. Apparently the Nat had counselled this. The hunter directed Flory and Elizabeth where to stand, pointing with his dah. The six beaters, plunged into the scrub; they would make a detour and beat back towards the paddy-fields. There were some bushes of the wild rose thirty yards from the jungle’s edge, and Flory and Elizabeth took cover behind one of these, while Ko S’la squatted down behind another bush a little distance away, holding Flo’s collar and stroking her to keep her quiet. Flory always sent Ko S’la to a distance when he was shooting, for he had an irritating trick of clicking his tongue if a shot was missed. Presently there was a far-off echoing sound — a sound of tapping and strange hollow cries; the beat had started. Elizabeth at once began trembling so uncontrollably that she could not keep her gun-barrel still. A wonderful bird, a little bigger than a thrush, with grey wings and body of blazing scarlet, broke from the trees and came towards them with a dipping flight. The tapping and the cries came nearer. One of the bushes at the jungle’s edge waved violently — some large animal was emerging. Elizabeth raised her gun and tried to steady it. But it was only a naked yellow beater, dah in hand. He saw that he had emerged and shouted to the others to join him.

Elizabeth lowered her gun. ‘What’s happened?’

‘Nothing. The beat’s over.’

‘So there was nothing there!’ she cried in bitter disappointment.

‘Never mind, one never gets anything the first beat. We’ll have better luck next time.’

They crossed the lumpy stubble, climbing over the mud boundaries that divided the fields, and took up their position opposite the high green wall of the jungle. Elizabeth had already learned how to load her gun. This time the beat had hardly started when Ko S’la whistled sharply.

‘Look out!’ Flory cried. ‘Quick, here they come!’

A flight of green pigeons were dashing towards them at incredible speed, forty yards up. They were like a handful of catapulted stones whirling through the sky. Elizabeth was helpless with excitement. For a moment she could not move, then she flung her barrel into the air, somewhere in the direction of the birds, and tugged violently at the trigger. Nothing happened — she was pulling at the trigger-guard. Just as the birds passed overhead she found the triggers and pulled both of them simultaneously. There was a deafening roar and she was thrown backwards a pace with her collar-bone almost broken. She had fired thirty yards behind the birds. At the same moment she saw Flory turn and level his gun. Two of the pigeons, suddenly checked in their flight, swirled over and dropped to the ground like arrows. Ko S’la yelled, and he and Flo raced after them.

‘Look out!’ said Flory, ‘here’s an imperial pigeon. Let’s have him!’

A large heavy bird, with flight much slower than the others, was flapping overhead. Elizabeth did not care to fire after her previous failure. She watched Flory thrust a cartridge into the breech and raise his gun, and the white plume of smoke leapt up from the muzzle. The bird planed heavily down, his wing broken. Flo and Ko S’la came running excitedly up, Flo with the big imperial pigeon in her mouth, and Ko S’la grinning and producing two green pigeons from his Kachin bag.

Flory took one of the little green corpses to show to Elizabeth. ‘Look at it. Aren’t they lovely things? The most beautiful bird in Asia.’

Elizabeth touched its smooth feathers with her finger-tip. It filled her with bitter envy, because she had not shot it. And yet it was curious, but she felt almost an adoration for Flory now that she had seen how he could shoot.

‘Just look at its breast-feathers; like a jewel. It’s murder to shoot them. The Burmese say that when you kill one of these birds they vomit, meaning to say, “Look, here is all I possess, and I’ve taken nothing of yours. Why do you kill me?” I’ve never seen one do it, I must admit.’

‘Are they good to eat?’

‘Very. Even so, I always feel it’s a shame to kill them.’

‘I wish I could do it like you do!’ she said enviously.

‘It’s only a knack, you’ll soon pick it up. You know how to hold your gun, and that’s more than most people do when they start.’

However, at the next two beats, Elizabeth could hit nothing. She had learned not to fire both barrels at once, but she was too paralysed with excitement ever to take aim. Flory shot several more pigeons, and a small bronze-wing dove with back as green as verdigris. The jungle fowl were too cunning to show themselves, though one could hear them cluck-clucking all round, and once or twice the sharp trumpet-call of a cock. They were getting deeper into the jungle now. The light was greyish, with dazzling patches of sunlight. Whichever way one looked one’s view was shut in by the multitudinous ranks of trees, and the tangled bushes and creepers that struggled round their bases like the sea round the piles of a pier. It was so dense, like a bramble bush extending mile after mile, that one’s eyes were oppressed by it. Some of the creepers were huge, like serpents. Flory and Elizabeth struggled along narrow game-tracks, up slippery banks, thorns tearing at their clothes. Both their shirts were drenched with sweat. It was stifling hot, with a scent of crushed leaves. Sometimes for minutes together invisible cidadas would keep up a shrill, metallic pinging like the twanging of a steel guitar, and then, by stopping, make a silence that startled one.

As they were walking to the fifth beat they came to a great peepul tree in which, high up, one could hear imperial pigeons cooing. It was a sound like the far-off lowing of cows. One bird fluttered out and perched alone on the topmost bough, a small greyish shape.

‘Try a sitting shot,’ Flory said to Elizabeth. ‘Get your sight on him and pull off without waiting. Don’t shut your left eye.’

Elizabeth raised her gun, which had begun trembling as usual. The beaters halted in a group to watch, and some of them could not refrain from clicking their tongues; they thought it queer and rather shocking to see a woman handle a gun. With a violent effort of will Elizabeth kept her gun still for a second, and pulled the trigger. She did not hear the shot; one never does when it has gone home. The bird seemed to jump upwards from the bough, then down it came, tumbling over and over, and stuck in a fork ten yards up. One of the beaters laid down his dah and glanced appraisingly at the tree; then he walked to a great creeper, thick as a man’s thigh and twisted like a stick of barley sugar, that hung far out from a bough. He ran up the creeper as easily as though it had been a ladder, walked upright along the broad bough, and brought the pigeon to the ground. He put it limp and warm into Elizabeth’s hand.

She could hardly give it up, the feel of it so ravished her. She could have kissed it, hugged it to her breast. All the men, Flory and Ko S’la and the beaters, smiled at one another to see her fondling the dead bird. Reluctantly, she gave it to Ko S’la to put in the bag. She was conscious of an extraordinary desire to fling her arms round Flory’s neck and kiss him; and in some way it was the killing of the pigeon that made her feel this.

After the fifth beat the hunter explained to Flory that they must cross a clearing that was used for growing pineapples, and would beat another patch of jungle beyond. They came out into sunlight, dazzling after the jungle gloom. The clearing was an oblong of an acre or two hacked out of the jungle like a patch mown in long grass, with the pineapples, prickly cactus-like plants, growing in rows, almost smothered by weeds. A low hedge of thorns divided the field in the middle. They had nearly crossed the field when there was a sharp cock-a-doodle-doo from beyond the hedge.

‘Oh, listen!’ said Elizabeth, stopping. ‘Was that a jungle cock?’

‘Yes. They come out to feed about this time.’

‘Couldn’t we go and shoot him?’

‘We’ll have a try if you like. They’re cunning beggars. Look, we’ll stalk up the hedge until we get opposite where he is. We’ll have to go without making a sound.’

He sent Ko S’la and the beaters on, and the two of them skirted the field and crept along the hedge. They had to bend double to keep themselves out of sight. Elizabeth was in front. The hot sweat trickled down her face, tickling her upper lip, and her heart was knocking violently. She felt Flory touch her heel from behind. Both of them stood upright and looked over the hedge together.

Ten yards away a little cock the size of a bantam, was pecking vigorously at the ground. He was beautiful, with his long silky neck-feathers, bunched comb and arching, laurel-green tail. There were six hens with him, smaller brown birds, with diamond-shaped feathers like snake-scales on their backs. All this Elizabeth and Flory saw in the space of a second, then with a squawk and a whirr the birds were up and flying like bullets for the jungle. Instantly, automatically as it seemed, Elizabeth raised her gun and fired. It was one of those shots where there is no aiming, no consciousness of the gun in one’s hand, when one’s mind seems to fly behind the charge and drive it to the mark. She knew the bird was doomed even before she pulled the trigger. He tumbled, showered feathers thirty yards away. ‘Good shot, good shot!’ cried Flory. In their excitement both of them dropped their guns, broke through the thorn hedge and raced side by side to where the bird lay.

‘Good shot!’ Flory repeated, as excited as she. ‘By Jove, I’ve never seen anyone kill a flying bird their first day, never! You got your gun off like lightning. It’s marvellous!’

They were kneeling face to face with the dead bird between them. With a shock they discovered that their hands, his right and her left, were clasped tightly together. They had run to the place hand-in-hand without noticing it.

A sudden stillness came on them both, a sense of something momentous that must happen. Flory reached across and took her other hand. It came yieldingly, willingly. For a moment they knelt with their hands clasped together. The sun blazed upon them and the warmth breathed out of their bodies; they seemed to be floating upon clouds of heat and joy. He took her by the upper arms to draw her towards him.

Then suddenly he turned his head away and stood up, pulling Elizabeth to her feet. He let go of her arms. He had remembered his birthmark. He dared not do it. Not here, not in daylight! The snub it invited was too terrible. To cover the awkwardness of the moment he bent down and picked up the jungle cock.

‘It was splendid,’ he said. ‘You don’t need any teaching. You can shoot already. We’d better get on to the next beat.’

They had just crossed the hedge and picked up their guns when there was a series of shouts from the edge of the jungle. Two of the beaters were running towards them with enormous leaps, waving their arms wildly in the air.

‘What is it?’ Elizabeth said.

‘I don’t know. They’ve seen some animal or other. Something good, by the look of them.’

‘Oh, hurrah! Come on!’

They broke into a run and hurried across the field, breaking through the pineapples and the stiff prickly weeds. Ko S’la and five of the beaters were standing in a knot all talking at once, and the other two were beckoning excitedly to Flory and Elizabeth. As they came up they saw in the middle of the group an old woman who was holding up her ragged longyi with one hand and gesticulating with a big cigar in the other. Elizabeth could hear some word that sounded like ‘Char’ repeated over and over again.

‘What is it they’re saying?’ she said.

The beaters came crowding round Flory, all talking eagerly and pointing into the jungle. After a few questions he waved his hand to silence them and turned to Elizabeth:

‘I say, here’s a bit of luck! This old girl was coming through the jungle, and she says that at the sound of the shot you fired just now, she saw a leopard run across the path. These fellows know where he’s likely to hide. If we’re quick they may be able to surround him before he sneaks away, and drive him out. Shall we try it?’

‘Oh, do let’s! Oh, what awful fun! How lovely, how lovely if we could get that leopard!’

‘You understand it’s dangerous? We’ll keep close together and it’ll probably be all right, but it’s never absolutely safe on foot. Are you ready for that?’

‘Oh, of course, of course! I’m not frightened. Oh, do let’s be quick and start!’

‘One of you come with us, and show us the way,’ he said to the beaters. ‘Ko S’la, put Flo on the leash and go with the others. She’ll never keep quiet with us. We’ll have to hurry,’ he added to Elizabeth.

Ko S’la and the beaters hurried off along the edge of the jungle. They would strike in and begin beating farther up. The other beater, the same youth who had climbed the tree after the pigeon, dived into the jungle, Flory and Elizabeth following. With short rapid steps, almost running, he led them through a labyrinth of game-tracks. The bushes trailed so low that sometimes one had almost to crawl, and creepers hung across the path like trip-wires. The ground was dusty and silent underfoot. At some landmark in the jungle the beater halted, pointed to the ground as a sign that this spot would do, and put his finger on his lips to enjoin silence. Flory took four SG cartridges from his pockets and took Elizabeth’s gun to load it silently.

There was a faint rustling behind them, and they all started. A nearly naked youth with a pellet-bow, come goodness knows whence, had parted the bushes. He looked at the beater, shook his head and pointed up the path. There was a dialogue of signs between the two youths, then the beater seemed to agree. Without speaking all four stole forty yards along the path, round a bend, and halted again. At the same moment a frightful pandemonium of yells, punctuated by barks from Flo, broke out a few hundred yards away.

Elizabeth felt the beater’s hand on her shoulder, pushing her downwards. They all four squatted down under cover of a prickly bush, the Europeans in front, the Burmans behind. In the distance there was such a tumult of yells and the rattle of dahs against tree-trunks that one could hardly believe six men could make so much noise. The beaters were taking good care that the leopard should not turn back upon them. Elizabeth watched some large, pale yellow ants marching like soldiers over the thorns of the bush. One fell on to her hand and crawled up her forearm. She dared not move to brush it away. She was praying silently, ‘Please God, let the leopard come! Oh please, God, let the leopard come!’

There was a sudden loud pattering on the leaves. Elizabeth raised her gun, but Flory shook his head sharply and pushed the barrel down again. A jungle fowl scuttled across the path with long noisy strides.

The yells of the beaters seemed hardly to come any closer, and this end of the jungle the silence was like a pall. The ant on Elizabeth’s arm bit her painfully and dropped to the ground. A dreadful despair had begun to form in her heart; the leopard was not coming, he had slipped away somewhere, they had lost him. She almost wished they had never heard of the leopard, the disappointment was so agonizing. Then she felt the beater pinch her elbow. He was craning his face forward, his smooth, dull yellow cheek only a few inches from her own; she could smell the coco-nut oil in his hair. His coarse lips were puckered as in a whistle; he had heard something. Then Flory and Elizabeth heard it too, the faintest whisper, as though some creature of air were gliding through the jungle, just brushing the ground with its foot. At the same moment the leopard’s head and shoulders emerged from the undergrowth, fifteen yards down the path.

He stopped with his forepaws on the path. They could see his low, flat-eared head, his bare eye-tooth and his thick, terrible forearm. In the shadow he did not look yellow but grey. He was listening intently. Elizabeth saw Flory spring to his feet, raise his gun and pull the trigger instantly. The shot roared, and almost simultaneously there was a heavy crash as the brute dropped flat in the weeds. ‘Look out!’ Flory cried, ‘he’s not done for!’ He fired again, and there was a fresh thump as the shot went home. The leopard gasped. Flory threw open his gun and felt in his pocket for a cartridge, then flung all his cartridges on to the path and fell on his knees, searching rapidly among them.

‘Damn and blast it!’ he cried. ‘There isn’t a single SG among them. Where in hell did I put them?’

The leopard had disappeared as he fell. He was thrashing about in the undergrowth like a great, wounded snake, and crying out with a snarling, sobbing noise, savage and pitiful. The noise seemed to be coming nearer. Every cartridge Flory turned up had 6 or 8 marked on the end. The rest of the large-shot cartridges had, in fact, been left with Ko S’la. The crashing and snarling were now hardly five yards away, but they could see nothing, the jungle was so thick.

The two Burmans were crying out ‘Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!’ The sound of ‘Shoot! Shoot!’ got farther away — they were skipping for the nearest climbable trees. There was a crash in the undergrowth so close that it shook the bush by which Elizabeth was standing.

‘By God, he’s almost on us!’ Flory said. ‘We must turn him somehow. Let fly at the sound.’

Elizabeth raised her gun. Her knees were knocking like castanets, but her hand was as steady as stone. She fired rapidly, once, twice. The crashing noise receded. The leopard was crawling away, crippled but swift, and still invisible.

‘Well done! You’ve scared him,’ Flory said.

‘But he’s getting away! He’s getting away!’ Elizabeth cried, dancing about in agitation. She made to follow him. Flory jumped to his feet and pulled her back.

‘No fear! You stay here. Wait!’

He slipped two of the small-shot cartridges into his gun and ran after the sound of the leopard. For a moment Elizabeth could not see either beast or man, then they reappeared in a bare patch thirty yards away. The leopard was writhing along on his belly, sobbing as he went. Flory levelled his gun and fired at four yards’ distance. The leopard jumped like a cushion when one hits it, then rolled over, curled up and lay still. Flory poked the body with his gun-barrel. It did not stir.

‘It’s all right, he’s done for,’ he called. ‘Come and have a look at him.’

The two Burmans jumped down from their tree, and they and Elizabeth went across to where Flory was standing. The leopard — it was a male — was lying curled up with his head between his forepaws. He looked much smaller than he had looked alive; he looked rather pathetic, like a dead kitten. Elizabeth’s knees were still quivering. She and Flory stood looking down at the leopard, close together, but not clasping hands this time.

It was only a moment before Ko S’la and the others came up, shouting with glee. Flo gave one sniff at the dead leopard, then down went her tail and she bolted fifty yards, whimpering. She could not be induced to come near him again. Everyone squatted down round the leopard and gazed at him. They stroked his beautiful white belly, soft as a hare’s, and squeezed his broad pugs to bring out the claws, and pulled back his black lips to examine the fangs. Presently two of the beaters cut down a tall bamboo and slung the leopard upon it by his paws, with his long tail trailing down, and then they marched back to the village in triumph. There was no talk of further shooting, though the light still held. They were all, including the Europeans, too anxious to get home and boast of what they had done.

Flory and Elizabeth walked side by side across the stubble field. The others were thirty yards ahead with the guns and the leopard, and Flo was slinking after them a long way in the rear. The sun was going down beyond the Irrawaddy. The light shone level across the field, gilding the stubble stalks, and striking into their faces with a yellow, gentle beam. Elizabeth’s shoulder was almost touching Flory’s as they walked. The sweat that had drenched their shirts had dried again. They did not talk much. They were happy with that inordinate happiness that comes of exhaustion and achievement, and with which nothing else in life — no joy of either the body or the mind — is even able to be compared.

‘The leopard skin is yours,’ Flory said as they approached the village.

‘Oh, but you shot him!’

‘Never mind, you stick to the skin. By Jove, I wonder how many of the women in this country would have kept their heads like you did! I can just see them screaming and fainting. I’ll get the skin cured for you in Kyauktada jail. There’s a convict there who can cure skins as soft as velvet. He’s doing a seven-year sentence, so he’s had time to learn the job.’

‘Oh well, thanks awfully.’

No more was said for the present. Later, when they had washed off the sweat and dirt, and were fed and rested, they would meet again at the Club. They made no rendezvous, but it was understood between them that they would meet. Also, it was understood that Flory would ask Elizabeth to marry him, though nothing was said about this either.

At the village Flory paid the beaters eight annas each, superintended the skinning of the leopard, and gave the headman a bottle of beer and two of the imperial pigeons. The skin and skull were packed into one of the canoes. All the whiskers had been stolen, in spite of Ko S’la’s efforts to guard them. Some young men of the village carried off the carcass in order to eat the heart and various other organs, the eating of which they believed would make them strong and swift like the leopard.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 20:48