Saturday, November 21, 2009

augustus somerville

An excerpt from Augustus Somerville's 'Shikar near Calcutta with a trip to the Sunderbans', W. Newman & Co., Calcutta, 1924 (illust. George Grant)


Christmas Day, 1908, dawned cold, windy and wet. A gloomier day I have seldom seen, and it was with genuine relief that we shouldered our guns when we heard that a partridge had settled in a field hard by the river.

Three of us set out. Reading the field, we separated. I took the bank along the river, and in the excitement of the shoot soon lost sight of my companions. I was at this time traversing an old river-bed, which at this point was filled with moist clay and interspersed wtih dense cactus bushes. Suddenly, from my very feet, a hare sprang up. I fired and had the satisfaction of seeing the animal fall, but on approaching nearer, it rose, and with one limb trailing helplessly behind, made off at a fair pace. Determined to secure my quarry, I followed, and after a while recovered it in a deep fissure in the bank. In order that what follows may be better understood, I give in detail an exact description of this inlet.

Hollowed out, probably by the action of the water during the rains, this fissure was about ten feet long, not more than four feet wide and certainly over seven feet deep. At the extreme end of the cul-de-sac was a dense wall of cactus bush, and the same plant bordered the bank on either side. It was, in fact, a neat trap fashioned by Nature from which there was no exit except by the entrance.

Securing the hare at the extreme end of the inlet, where it had fallen exhausted, I turned to make my exit, when I was startled and considerably alarmed by seeing a huge python entering the same way.

The reptile was evidently unaware of my presence, for it continued to advance fearlessly, and I realized that unless I did something to stop its progress it would soon be upon me. I did not dare to fire, for I was armed with a 16 bore shot-gun and the lightest of charges which would have, at that distance, served only to infuriate the snake. But something had to be done, and done quickly, so summoning up all my courage, I shouted lustily in the hopes of scaring off the snake, - for these reptiles when unmolested are usually of a timid, harmless nature. The python was in fact considerably startled, for it retreated hurriedly to the entrance, where it lay watching me with dull, malicious eyes. In vain, I continued to shoot and fire my gun in the air. The python would move away a short distance and then quickly return, and I came to the conclusion that I had, inadvertently, strayed into its lair and that probably it had its young hidden somewhere nearby. To scale the sides of the inlet was impossible. Even had I succeeded in securing a foothold in the crumbling, moist and slippery banks, the overhanging cactus bushes offered a very effective barrier against all possible means of escape.

At last an idea struck me. Taking the hare, which was now quite dead, by the hind legs, I threw it towards the python. The reptile at first refused to touch it, but after a while, hunger getting the better of suspicion, it seized the hare in its powerful jaws and slowly started to absorb it.

It must have taken that python fully half-an-hour to get that hare down its throat, but after what seemed an interminable time, the hare disappeared, and, as I had anticipated, the python, well pleased with himself, forgot all about me, and coiled up for a nice little nap. In painful uncertainty I waited quite an hour, for I was determined to give him plenty of time to get properly asleep before I attempted to make a bid for freedom.

Moving cautiously towards the entrance, I soon stood within a few feet of the sleeping reptile. Here another difficulty presented itself. The python had coiled itself right at the mouth of the entrance, which was here slightly narrower than the interior, and its huge bulk effectually blocked the exit.

There was nothing for it but to jump, and jump I did, but not with the result I expected. Whether the strain had unnerved me or my foot slipped on the moist earth - instead of clearing the sleeping python as I intended, I landed on all fours, practically on top of him.

In an instant the huge coils were around me and the flat spear-shaped head, with its evil glittering eyes, was swaying above me, watching an opportunity to strike. I fought wildly, madly; screaming in terror, pitting my poor puny strength against those huge irresistable coils, which were slowly but surely crushing the life out of me; and it was only the merest chance that saved me. While with my right hand I had instinctively clutched the python by the throat, striving might and main to keep that awful head from crashing into my skull, my left, which had been pinned tomy side by the serpent's coils as I fell, still retained hold of my gun. Working the gun slowly up my side, I soon got my hand on the trigger. Fortunately it was a hammerless and so ready for action. I now determined to take a thousand-to-one chance. With a mighty effort I swung around, striving to get the python's head as near as I could judge in line with the barrel, and pressed the trigger.

To this day I bear the scars on my wrist where the shot tore its way through my flest, but thank God, the bulk of the charge entered the serpent's head, and with one convulsive effort its coils relaxed and it rolled over - dead.

I disentangled myself and reeled to the bank, where I lay exhausted and faint. Later I returned to the bungalow, where I found my friends genuinely anxious over my protracted absence. They welcomed me with relief, but Christmas Day, that year, was a failure so far as I was concerned.

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