Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
A Struggle in the Forest
By William Starbuck Mayo (18121895)
[Born in Ogdensburg, N. Y., 1812. Died, 1895. Kaloolah. 1849.Revised Edition. 1887.]
IT was early on the morning of the sixth, that, accompanied by Kaloolah, and the lively Clefenha, I ascended the bank for a final reconnoissance of the country on the other bank of the river. It was not my intention to wander far, but allured by the beauty of the scene, and the promise of a still better view from a higher crag, we moved along the edge of the bank until we had got nearly two miles from our camp. At this point the line of the bank curved towards the river so as to make a beetling promontory of a hundred feet perpendicular descent. The gigantic trees grew on the very brink, many of them throwing their long arms far over the shore below. The trees generally grew wide apart, and there was little or no underwood, but many of the trunks were wreathed with the verdure of parasites and creepers so that the forest vistas were often shut off by immense columns of green leaves and flowers. The stems of some of these creepers were truly wonderful: one, from which depended large bunches of scarlet berries, had, not unfrequently, stems as large as a mans body. In some cases one huge plant of this kind, ascending with an incalculable prodigality of lignin, by innumerable convolutions, would stretch itself out, and, embracing several trees in its folds, mat them together in one dense mass of vegetation.
Suddenly we noticed that the usual sounds of the forest had almost ceased around us. Deep in the wood we could still hear the chattering of monkeys and the screeching of parrots. Never before had our presence created any alarm among the denizens of the tree-tops; or, if it had, it had merely excited to fresh clamor, without putting them to flight. We looked around for the cause of this sudden retreat.
We advanced close to the edge of the bank, and looked out into the broad daylight that poured down from above on flood and field. There was the same bright smile on the distant fields and hills; the same clear sheen in the deep water; the same lustrous stillness in the perfumed air; not a single prognostic of any commotion among the elements.
I placed my gun against a tree, and took a seat upon an exposed portion of one of its roots. Countless herds of animals, composed of quaggas, zebras, gnus, antelopes, hart-beasts, roeboks, springboks, buffalos, wild boars, and a dozen other kinds, for which my recollection of African travels furnished no names, were roaming over the fields on the other side of the river, or quietly reposing in the shade of the scattered mimosas, or beneath the groups of lofty palms. A herd of thirty or forty tall ungainly figures came in sight, and took their way, with awkward but rapid pace, across the plain. I knew them at once to be giraffes, although they were the first that we had seen. I was straining my eyes to discover the animal that pursued them, when Kaloolah called to me to come to her. She was about fifty yards farther down the stream than where I was sitting. With an unaccountable degree of carelessness, I arose and went towards her, leaving my gun leaning against the tree. As I advanced, she ran out to the extreme point of the little promontory I have mentioned, where her maid was standing, and pointed to something over the edge of the cliff.
Advancing to the crest of the cliff, we stood looking down its precipitous sides to a point some twenty feet below, where grew a bunch of wild honeysuckles. Suddenly a startling noise, like the roar of thunder, or like the boom of a thirty-two pounder, rolled through the wood, fairly shaking the sturdy trees, and literally making the ground quiver beneath our feet. Again it came, that appalling and indescribably awful sound! and so close as to completely stun us. Roar upon roar, in quick succession, now announced the coming of the king of beasts. The lion! the lion!Oh, God of mercy! where is my gun? I started forward, but it was too late. Alighting, with a magnificent bound, into the open space in front of us, the monster stopped, as if somewhat taken aback by the novel appearance of his quarry, and crouching his huge carcass close to the ground, uttered a few deep snuffling sounds, not unlike the preliminary crankings and growlings of a heavy steam-engine, when it first feels the pressure of the steam.
He was, indeed, a monster!fully twice as large as the largest specimen of his kind that was ever condemned, by gaping curiosity, to the confinement of the cage. His body was hardly less in size than that of a dray-horse; his paw as large as the foot of an elephant; while his head!what can be said of such a head? Concentrate the fury, the power, the capacity, and the disposition for evil of a dozen thunder-storms into a round globe, about two feet in diameter, and one would then be able to get an idea of the terrible expression of that head and face, enveloped and set off as it was by the dark frame-work of bristling mane.
The lower jaw rested upon the ground; the mouth was slightly open, showing the rows of white teeth and the blood-red gums, from which the lips were retracted in a majestic and right kingly grin. The brows and the skin around the eyes were corrugated into a splendid glory of radiant wrinkles, in the centre of which glowed two small globes, like opals, but with a dusky lustrousness that no opal ever yet attained.
For a few moments he remained motionless, and then, as if satisfied with the result of his close scrutiny, he began to slide along the ground towards us; slowly one monstrous paw was protruded after the other; slowly the huge tufted tail waved to and fro, sometimes striking his hollow flanks, and occasionally coming down upon the ground with a sound like the falling of heavy clods upon a coffin. There could be no doubt of his intention to charge us, when near enough for a spring.
And was there no hope? Not the slightest, at least for myself. It was barely possible that one victim would satisfy him, or that, in the contest that was about to take place, I might, if he did not kill me at the first blow, so wound him as to indispose him for any further exercise of his power, and that thus Kaloolah would escape. As for me, I felt that my time had come. With no weapon but my long knife, what chance was there against such a monster? I cast one look at the gun that was leaning so carelessly against the tree beyond him, and thought how easy it would be to send a bullet through one of those glowing eyes, into the depths of that savage brain. Never was there a fairer mark! But, alas! it was impossible to reach the gun! Truly, there was a lion in the path.
I turned to Kaloolah, who was a little behind me. Her face expressed a variety of emotions; she could not speak or move, but she stretched out her hand, as if to pull me back. Behind her crouched the black, whose features were contracted into the awful grin of intense terror; she was too much frightened to scream, but in her face a thousand yells of agony and fear were incarnated.
I remember not precisely what I said, but, in the fewest words, I intimated to Kaloolah that the lion would, probably, be satisfied with attacking me; that she must run by us as soon as he sprang upon me, and, returning to the camp, waste no time, but set out at once under the charge of Hugh and Jack. She made no reply, and I waited for none, but facing the monster, advanced slowly towards himthe knife was firmly grasped in my right hand, my left side a little turned towards him, and my left arm raised, to guard as much as possible against the first crushing blow of his paw. Further than this I had formed no plan of battle. In such a contest the mind has but little to doall depends upon the instinct of the muscles; and well for a man if good training has developed that instinct to the highest. I felt that I could trust mine, and that my brain need not bother itself as to the manner my muscles were going to act.
Within thirty feet of my huge foe I stoppedcool, calm as a statue; not an emotion agitated me. No hope, no fear: death was too certain to permit either passion. There is something in the conviction of the immediate inevitableness of death that represses fear; we are then compelled to take a better look at the king of terrors, and we find that he is not so formidable as we imagined. Look at him with averted glances and half-closed eyes, and he has a most imposing, overawing presence; but face him, eye to eye; grasp his proffered hand manfully, and he sinks, from a right royal personage, into a contemptible old gate-keeper on the turnpike of life.
I had time to think of many things, although it must not be supposed, from the leisurely way in which I here tell the story, that the whole affair occupied much time. Like lightning flashing from link to link along a chain-conductor did memory illuminate, almost simultaneously, the chain of incidents that measured my path in life, and that connected the present with the past. I could see the whole of my back track blazed, as clearly as ever was a forest path by a woodmans axe; and ahead! ah, there was not much to see ahead! Twas but a short view; death hedged in the scene. In a few minutes my eyes would be opened to the pleasant sights beyond; but, for the present, death commanded all attention. And such a death! But why such a death? What better death, except on the battle-field, in defence of ones country? To be killed by a lion! Surely, there is a spice of dignity about it, maugre the being eaten afterwards. Suddenly the monster stopped, and erected his tail, stiff and motionless, in the air. Strange as it may seem, the conceit occurred to me that the motion of his tail had acted as a safety-valve to the pent-up muscular energy within: He has shut the steam off from the scape-pipe, and now he turns it on to his locomotive machinery. God have mercy upon me!He comes!
But he did not come! At the instant, the light figure of Kaloolah rushed past me: Fly, fly, Jonthan! she wildly exclaimed, as she dashed forward directly towards the lion. Quick as thought, I divined her purpose, and sprang after her, grasping her dress, and pulling her forcibly back, almost from within those formidable jaws. The astonished animal gave several jumps sideways and backwards, and stopped, crouching to the ground and growling and lashing his sides with renewed fury. He was clearly taken aback by our unexpected charge upon him, but it was evident that he was not to be frightened into abandoning his prey. His mouth was made up for us, and there could be no doubt, if his motions were a little slow, that he considered us as good as gorged.
Never, Kaloolah, I replied, fairly forcing her with quite an exertion of strength behind me. Back, back! Free my arm! Quick, quick! He comes! It was no time for gentleness. Roughly shaking her relaxing grasp from my arm, she sunk powerless, yet not insensible, to the ground, while I had just time to face the monster and plant one foot forward to receive him.
He was in the very act of springing! His huge carcass was even rising under the impulsion of his contracting muscles, when his action was arrested in a way so unexpected, so wonderful, and so startling that my senses were for the moment thrown into perfect confusion. Could I trust my sight, or was the whole affair the illusion of a horrid dream? It seemed as if one of the gigantic creepers I have mentioned had suddenly quitted the canopy above, and, endowed with life and a huge pair of widely distended jaws, had darted with the rapidity of lightning upon the crouching beast. There was a tremendous shaking of the tree-tops, and a confused wrestling, and jumping, and whirling over and about, amid a cloud of upturned roots, and earth, and leaves accompanied with the most terrific roars and groans. As I looked again, vision grew more distinct. An immense body, gleaming with purple, green, and gold appeared convoluted around the majestic branches overhead, and stretching down, was turned two or three times around the struggling lion, whose head and neck were almost concealed from sight within the cavity of a pair of jaws still more capacious than his own.
Thus, then, was revealed the cause of the sudden silence throughout the woods. It was the presence of the boa that had frightened the monkey and feathered tribes into silence. How opportunely was his presence manifested to us! A moment more, and it would have been too late.
Gallantly did the lion struggle in the folds of his terrible enemy, whose grasp each instant grew more firm and secure, and most astounding were those frightful yells of rage and fear. The huge body of the snake, fully two feet in diameter, where it depended from the trees, presented the most curious appearances, and in such quick succession that the eye could scarcely follow them. At one moment smooth and flexile, at the next rough and stiffened, or contracted into great knotsat one moment overspread with a thousand tints of reflected color, the next distended so as to transmit through the skin the golden gleams of the animal lightning that coursed up and down within.
Over and over rolled the struggling beast; but in vain all his strength, in vain all his efforts to free himself. Gradually his muscles relaxed in their exertions; his roar subsided to a groan; his tongue protruded from his mouth, and his fetid breath, mingled with a strong sickly odor from the serpent, diffused itself through the air, producing a sense of oppression, and a feeling of weakness like that from breathing some deleterious gas.
I looked around me. Kaloolah was on her knees, and the negress insensible upon the ground a few paces behind her. A sensation of giddiness warned me that it was time to retreat. Without a word I raised Kaloolah in my arms, ran towards the now almost motionless animals, and, turning along the bank, reached the tree against which my gun was leaning.
Darting back, I seized the prostrate negress and bore her off in the same way. By this time both females had recovered their voices, Clefenha exercising hers in a succession of shrieks that compelled me to shake her somewhat rudely, while Kaloolah eagerly besought me to hurry back to the camp. There was now, however, no occasion for hurry. The recovery of my gun altered the state of the case, and my curiosity was excited to witness the progress of deglutition on a large scale, which the boa was probably about to exhibit. It was impossible, however, to resist Kaloolahs entreaties, and after stepping up closer to the animals for one good look, I reluctantly consented to turn back.
The lion was quite dead, and, with a slow motion, the snake was uncoiling himself from his prey and from the tree above. As well as I could judge, without seeing him straightened out, he was between ninety and one hundred feet in lengthnot quite so long as the serpent with which the army of Regulus had its famous battle, or as many of the same animals that I have since seen; but, as the reader will allow, a very respectable sized snake.