The Leopard of the Holy Mountain
Dorothy M. Leslie
Chronicle, Adelaide, SA
Thursday, 22nd January 1931
Bhim Tal lies up in the Kumaon hills in the United Provinces of India, twelve miles from a railway-station, and letters are brought by a native post-runner. He carries, as a protection against wild animals, a lance with a collar of little bells fixed below the spear-head. These, however, seem to attract beasts of prey, rather than to scare them, and in consequence they are ominously known as ‘leopards’ dinner-bells. One day we heard them jingling loudly as the runner panted up the sharp incline to our bungalow.
‘A telegram for the Sahib,’ he announced.
Hurriedly my husband tore it open. ‘What a confounded nuisance, Dolly!’ he cried. ‘That man Lockhart wants me to go down to the plains on some urgent business. I’d better go at once; the wire was sent off yesterday afternoon.’
This was a nasty blow, for we had only just come up to the hills and were looking forward to a full month’s shooting in the forests, which abounded in game of all sorts.
‘I hope to be back in two or three days,’ he added more cheerfully, as he went to pack his bag. ‘You’ll just have to hang, on till I return.’
‘Why was this telegram not delivered last night?’ I asked the post-runner. The man looked down, embarrassed, digging his toes nervously into the ground. ‘The leopards have been roaming of late, Mem Sahib,’ he said at last, ‘and not a moon ago a runner was attacked after dark. The unlucky one was never found again. He was my brother,’ he added, sorrowfully.
A few hours later, when my husband had set out for the station on his small hill pony, I was finishing my lonely ‘tiffin’ on the verandah when our shikari hurried up, dragging a reluctant hillman behind him. The shikari was greatly excited. It appeared that early that morning a large hill leopard had carried off a goat belonging to his companion from a village three or four miles away.
In such circumstances I should have expected voluble lamentations and demands for vengeance from the owner, but the stranger was curiously silent. All I could gather from him was that the leopard had seized his goat and escaped to the Holy Mountain, and that he and his friends had not dared to track the animal beyond a thicket at the foot of the slope.
I had already heard of this Holy Mountain, but had only seen it from a distance, when I noticed that there was a small Hindu temple at the summit. Holy Mountain or no Holy Mountain, however, the opportunity was too good to be lost, and I was greatly cheered at the prospect of stealing a march on my husband and showing him a leopard skin when he returned; for so far nothing bigger than bear or gourral (mountain deer) had ever come our way on our shooting trips.
Hastily summoning my bearer, I told him to get out the Express rifle, as I was going to try for a leopard that night. But here a new complication occurred. My husband had taken away with him the keys of his shooting case, and the locks were too strong to be forced! There remained only my 12-bore shot-gun; but I knew that a shot-gun loaded with ball was quite good enough for even the largest leopard. So I set forth quite confidently with my gun, an electric torch and a packet of biscuits.
An hour’s walk over rough hill paths brought us to the foot, of the Holy Mountain; and now, for the first time, I observed its strange shape. The hill— for it was scarcely more— rose up perfectly conically from the centre of a large valley plain bounded on all sides by towering walls of slate-grey rock. The native village lay a little farther up the valley, by the side of a small river, which, lower down, wound round one side of the hill.
Some of the villagers turned out to meet – us and accompanied us to the foot of the hill — but they absolutely refused to go farther, standing about in frightened groups as we advanced into the thickets where the leopard had disappeared.
The traces of the animal were fairly easy to follow, for it had dragged the unfortunate goat along with it, but it was fully five o’clock before we came upon the body of the victim lying under a small tree. The goat had probably been killed instantaneously; its neck was broken. The leopard had not started to eat the body, so it seemed likely that it would return later that night.
So far, so good! The next thing was to construct a machan (platform) above the kill. The small tree under which the goat lay stood in the middle of a little clearing about thirty yards in radius, and there was no larger tree near enough to suit our purpose.
I sent my bearer off to ask the villagers to help us to construct a platform with such planks and ropes as they might possess. After a quarter of an hour he returned, in a great state of panic
‘Mem Sahib,’ he told me breathlessly; ‘the men say that a spirit haunts this hill! It is sacred to the gods, and they cannot venture on it. They think that the Mem Sahib would be wise not to hunt the leopard on the mountain.’
‘Diljonah,’ I replied, angry at this set-back to my hopes, ‘you are a naniker-dum (goat’s tail)! If the villagers will not help, try and get some planks yourself, but come back before the moon rises; I don’t want you to frighten the leopard away.’
With that Diljonah hurried off, though I could see he was not very keen on his mission. An hour went by, and dusk was falling fast, but still he did not return. Finally, at eight – o’clock, there being no sign of my bearer or any of the villagers, I decided to climb up into the tree straight away. As I have said, it was only a small one, but there was a fair-size forked branch about 10 feet above the ground, practically overhanging the kill.
I scrambled up this branch, and my shikari, who was armed only with an antiquated musket, tried to climb to another. Directly he put his weight on it, however, it broke with a loud crack, precipitating the shikari to the ground. As he landed his musket went off, the ball coming perilously dose to my ear.
This mishap unsettled both of us, and I had serious thoughts of abandoning the venture altogether, but the shikari’s obvious nervousness irritated me and made me decide, whatever befell, to see the matter through. Accordingly I relegated him to a large tree -some 30 yards away, with strict orders not to make a movement till I had my shot.
Once by myself in my own little tree I began to have considerable doubts as to the wisdom of my action. My branch seemed dangerously close to the ground— and leopards, I reflected, can easily jump ten feet; they can also climb with cat-like ease. However, I was not going to back out now, so I strapped myself firmly to the bole of the tree with a long belt, and composed myself to the interminable hours of waiting in the darkness.
It was a starry, cloudless night, and a light wind occasionally rustled the leaves of my pepal tree, in the yillage a mile away a native pariah dog was howling mournfully; otherwise everything was deathly silent, and I could hear my wrist-watch ticking as I sat stiff and cramped against the tree.
I think I must have been half asleep when I realised suddenly that the sky had become bright. Over the ragged cliffs which enclosed the valley a clear full moon was throwing its beams into every crevice.
By this time it was past midnight. In the misty light the dead goat was visible almost underneath me, and 30 yards away, huddled up in his tree, I could just distinguish the motionless figure of my shikari. The man, I thought, was probably fast asleep; and I reflected bitterly on his general uselessness and the large retaining fees we were paying him.
Suddenly, through the darkness, came the startled note of a nightjar. ‘Chec-chec!’ it shrieked, as if fluttered out of the bushes and flew in a zigzag way over the clearing. For a moment my heart turned to water, but the next instant I was watching with every muscle taught with excitement, for out of the shadows, lithe and noiseless, glided the huge catlike form of the leopard!
It advanced half-way into the clearing; then it suddenly stopped and turned to one side. At first I thought it must have seen me, but then I realised what had happened. The beast had caught the scent of the sleeping shikari!
Looking back on it now, I do not know whether I was justified in acting as I did. In the excitement of the moment I did not realise the risk to which I was exposing my shikari. I had ordered him not to move or shoot till after I had had my shot, but when I did so it had not occurred to me that he might act as a living bait! Had he not been asleep I am sure he would have fired straight away, disregarding my orders. As it was, the big beast crept noiselessly round the edge of the clearing, resembling for all the world a cat stalking a sparrow, the ‘sparrow’ in this case being the slumbering shikari, hunched up in his tree.
With a few swift paces the leopard covered the distance still separating it from the tree. Had it chosen to make an immediate spring no shot of mine, however quick, could have saved the sleeping man! Fortunately ‘Spots’ circled round, inspecting the position. Finally he came toward the side of the clearing again, and stopped directly underneath the shikari. I saw the animal gather its limbs for the spring, and then the silence of the moonlit clearing was rudely shattered as I fired both barrels of my shot-gun.
The leopard sprang straight up in the air, fell backwards, and rolled over; then it picked itself up and glided away into the thickets. Before it had disappeared a figure fell to the ground with a thud, and for the second time the shikari’s ancient musket sent a bullet whizzing into the air.
This ludicrous situation, coming after the strain of the last few minutes, was too much for me, and I burst out laughing. I laughed as I unstrapped myself and climbed down the tree; I laughed as I ran across the clearing, and I laughed as I stood over the dazed shikari.
‘Oh! Son of a sleeping draught and father of ten blunderbusses!’ I cried. ‘What possesses you to keep on falling out of trees and letting off that terrible musket of yours?’
The poor man nursed the offending weapon in downcast silence. His dejection set me off giggling again, and in my excited elation a spirit of generosity came over me.
‘Look here,’ I said, ‘that musket will kill both of us some day, and I, at least, have no wish to enter Paradise just yet. I shall give you my shot-gun; then you won’t explode unexpectedly anymore.’
Both my mirth and my generosity, however, were rather premature. Dawn was still at least three hours away, and there were we in the jungle, with a wounded leopard somewhere close by.
The pair of us sat in silence under the pepal tree, up-wind from the goat, to whose carcass insects were already starting to pay their attentions. Two hours passed while we shivered in the cold wind which came sweeping over the mountains. The moon had now been obscured by clouds, but about half-past 3 a faint grey light came creeping into the eastern sky.
At last I could bear the inactivity no longer. I got up and told the shikari that I was going to try to find the leopard’s body.
‘Mem Sahib!’ exclaimed the man, in great agitation. ‘Who knows that the bhag (leopard) is dead? it may be alive and lurking in a thicket, and dawn is hardly here.’
‘I cannot endure the waiting,’ I answered irritably. ‘I am going. If you do not wish to come, you can stay here with that horrible goat.’
But the man had no wish to be left behind, and so, flashing my torch in my left hand, and with my gun cocked ready in my right, we advanced carefully along the little path down the hill. The shikari, with that sixth sense which hillmen are endowed with, followed the few tracks the leopard had left.
The path was narrow, but we were trying to keep abreast, with the result that before long I trod on a dead branch which cracked with the noise of a pistol-shot. We stopped in startled silence, and as we held our breath and listened, a blood-curdling snarl, followed by the crack of another branch, sounded a little farther down the hill.
For fully five minutes we waited in horror and expectation, our eyes straining into the darkness for any further movement on the part of the leopard. Finally we continued our advance. Fifty yards on we came across the leopard’— stone dead! In its death struggle — the sounds of which we had heard— it had snapped in its mouth a branch as thick as a man’s arm.
An hour later the whole village had turned out. Led by my bearer, Diljonah, and elated at the news of my kill they ventured up the mountain to where the animal lay. With great difficulty I prevented their tearing out its whiskers, which they regard as healing charms, and eventually persuaded some of the men to sling the body on a pole and set off down the hill.
We had gone some little way when one of the villagers uttered a wild cry. Forthwith, the bearers dropped the leopard, and the whole crowd disappeared into the bushes, leaving Diljonah, the shikari, the me standing beside the carcass. While we were wondering what all the panic was about there advanced towards us along the path the tall, thin figure of a man in a white loincloth.
Fixing his close-set, piercing eyes on me, he said something in the hill dialect, which I did not understand. My shikari translated it into Hindustani.
‘The priest of the Holy Mountain wishes to know is the Mem Sahib shot the leopard,’ he explained in quavering tones.
‘Tell him that I am proud to say Yes,’ ‘ I answered.
Thereupon the old man stepped up to within a foot of me, and touching both my gun and my head, muttered a number of words. I was beginning to feel nervous and frightened, but I decided to treat the matter as a joke.’
‘What is the priest saying?’ I asked.
The shikari replied’ in an awestricken voice. ‘He says that the violator of this Holy Mountain will be dead in three days or mad in three months, and that your gun will never shoot again!’
I laughed. ‘That,’ I said, ‘is a pity, because I had given the gun to you!’
But the poor shikari was obviously too frightened to see the joke.
Without another word the tall, thin priest swept past up and strode off up the hill. Not until he was out of sight did the villagers dare to emerge from the cover of the bushes, and only by offering large gratuities did I persuade the men to pick up my leopard again. They seemed to have lost all heart, and it was a very silent procession that finally deposited the carcass outside my bungalow.
For myself, however, I regarded their terrors and the old priest’s curse as superstitious nonsense. ‘Dead in three days or mad in three months,’ the old man had prophesied, but I felt particularly lively, and did not regard myself as mad or even liable to madness. I soon dismissed the whole incident from my mind, and set about making arrangements for the skinning of my trophy.
That night I locked my door— more through force of habit than through any lurking fear that the old priest might attempt to make sure that his sinister prophecy was fulfilled. The night passed quietly, and next morning I sat down to my breakfast as usual.
My first. course was porridge, for I was born in Inverness. This morning it was my only one. It had, it seemed to me, a strange taste, but I ate it almost without noticing— the milk, I thought, might be tainted. Shortly afterwards, however, I was violently sick for about an hour. I realised that I had been poisoned and hoped that the sickness would act as an efficient if exhausting emetic.
The attack left me weak and very ill, and once I fainted. Of the rest of the day I have little recollection. My husband arrived in the afternoon and I remember, like a ghastly nightmare, the jolting journey in a rough palanquin over ten miles of hilly road to the nearest hospital.
A fortnight later I was able to up again, though still very weak, and doctor told me that I had better be invalided home.
‘Someone gave you an overdose of poison — arsenic, I think. Thank your lucky stars the natives have no artistic restraint; they invariably overdo things. However, they don’t often make a mistake when they set out to ‘get’ someone. But tell me,’ he added, as an afterthought. ‘How did you get on the wrong side of them?’,
Then, for the first time, I related the story of my kill and the prophecy of the old priest with the piercing eyes.
The doctor nodded his head thoughtfully.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I have heard of this Holy Mountain. Some very sacred personage, I believe, is buried in the temple you noticed there. Two years ago an Englishman shot a gourral on that mountain. I was called out next day to attend the poor fellow— a broken neck was his trouble. All his servants swore that he had fallen over one of the valley cliffs while trying to catch his hat, which had been blown away by a wind— and every one of them, including his old bearer, told exactly the same story!
‘I don’t expect any of your servant’s, however faithful, would dare to give evidence about that priest’s threat. They’re dead scared of these old superstitions, and it’s wisest to keep away from their holy places.’
‘Six months in England soon put me right again; and a fine leopard-skin is the only souvenir of my adventure in single-handed, big-game hunting. Whether my gun ever shot’ again I don’t know; the poor shikari was probably too frightened to try! I did not go mad’ in three months, but I realise that I only just escaped ‘death in three days’— and the recollection of my narrow escape is enough to prevent my shooting again on that or any other Holy Mountain.
Note: The story was also published under the title ‘An Unfulfilled Prophecy’ in Mullumbimby Star, NSW on Thursday, 21st of July, 1932.