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The Man-Eater of Lucknow

A Story from The Private Life of an Eastern King

by William Knighton (1834-1900)

I was driving in a buggy one morning through one of the finest streets of Lucknow. A friend accompanied me; and we were proceeding from the vicinity of the Goomty to one of the King’s palaces. The deserted condition of the streets as we advanced surprised us. There was no inhabitant to be seen for a considerable distance, and where one was visible, he or she was hurriedly departing from the broad line of road on which I drove. So many strange things occur in a city exposed to the capricious tyranny of a man without any restraining principle, that we felt by no means that astonishment which anyone fresh from England would have felt under the circumstances. Some execution, we whispered to each other, some fresh example - nothing more.

At length, in the middle of the road, we came upon a trampled bloody mass, bearing still some resemblance to a human figure. We stopped the buggy to inspect it. It was the corpse of a poor native female; but terribly disfigured. The body was bruised and lacerated in all directions, the scanty drapery torn from the form; the face had been crushed as if by teeth into a shapeless mass; the long matted hair, which fell in bundles over the road, was all clotted with blood. It was altogether as disgusting a sight as one could well see anywhere. Apparently she was quite dead; and we did not delay.

On we went; still no sign of inhabitants – the houses everywhere closed – breathless terror reigning on all sides. It was not long before we came upon the figure of a youth, similarly mangled and destroyed, lying in the road, more towards the side, however. On the top of an adjoining house we saw one of the king’s troopers standing, looking intently up the road along which we were advancing.

‘What is the matter?’ I asked.

‘The man-eater is loose,’ was the reply; ‘wallah, but he has turned again. Look out for your safety, sahibs; he is wild today.’

I had heard of a savage horse belonging to one of the king’s troopers that went by this name – admee-kanawallah, the man-eater; because he had been the destruction of many men.

‘He is coming, sahibs,’ shouted the trooper from the house-top; ‘take care, take care.’

Far along the road in front of us we could see the wild brute – a large bay entire horse he was, as we afterwards found – shaking a child whom he had seized as he held it in his mouth, shaking it savagely, but evidently coming towards us.

In another moment he had seen the vehicle, threw the child upon the road, dead no doubt, and rushed forward with savage fury to attack us. There was still a considerable space to be passed by him, but not a moment was to be lost. We turned rapidly round, our horse almost unmanageable from terror, flying over the ground; and away we went in a mad gallop down towards an enclosure with iron gates that we had passed a short time before. The man-eater pursued with hearty goodwill. We could hear his iron hooves clattering over the road as he advanced.

We gained the enclosure – turned into it – my companion leaped from the buggy, and shut the gate. The whole was the action of a moment. It fortunately shut with a heavy bolt which fell into a socket; and just as the fall of the bolt secured our safety, the man-eater came tramping up. His head was covered with blood, his jaws steaming with recent slaughter, his cheeks horrid with coagulated guts that had most probably spurted from his victims. There he stood, looking savagely after us through the iron railings, with cocked ears, distended nostrils and glaring eye-balls, a ferocious-looking monster! Our horse trembled at the sound of his impatient snorting – trembled as if shivering with cold! The man-eater glared at us through the iron bars, and walked round to the side; but all was hard iron railings, substantial too. There was no entrance to be got. Satisfied that he was baffled, at length he turned round, rattled his iron heels against the bars, and then scampered with head and tail erect and cocked ears, down the road, towards an archway which was built over it. Here several troopers were waiting for him. A noose was thrown skilfully over the uplifted head. He was upset, muzzled, and conducted to his stable. The poor woman and youth and child? you ask. I heard nothing more of them. Doubtless their friends bore them off and buried them.

At dinner that day I took the liberty of mentioning the circumstances to his majesty.

‘I have often heard of that man-eater,’ said he; ‘he must be a furious beast.’

‘He is more savage than a tiger, your majesty.’

‘A tiger – good – he shall fight a tiger. We shall see what impression Burrhea will make on him.’

Burrhea was the name of a favourite tiger of the king’s, so called from a village at the foot of the Himalayas, near which he had been taken. The king would never allow him to fight with other tigers or with elephants; he was a pet, and was only allowed to enter into contests with such animals as he could easily vanquish.

It was on the following day, in the morning, before lunch, we were all assembled at Chaun-gunge in the gallery of a court-yard, about sixty yards square in extent – a court-yard with buildings all round, and a verandah below. Thick bamboo railings had been put up in front of the verandah, so as completely to encircle the court-yard, and to form a sort of enlarged cage. The man-eater had been enticed into the enclosure by means of a little mare – a tattoo, as the country horses are called – of trifling value.

The king and his usual suite of female attendants had taken their places in the gallery, he on a sofa placed there for the purpose, they behind him. We stood on his majesty’s right and left, leaning on the parapet or on the sofa. Everyone commanded a full view of the court-yard, and the ladies seemed to relish the prospect as much as anyone.

The order was given, and Burrhea’s cage was brought into the verandah. A door in the bamboo railings, prepared for the purpose, was drawn up, the cage-door was opened, and Burrhea bounded into the court-yard, lashing his sides with his long tail, and glaring furiously upon the man-eater and his little female friend. A more beautiful tiger than Burrhea it would not be easy to discover in all India. His glossy coat, regularly streaked, shone in the enclosure, in pleasant contrast with the frowsy covering of the little mare. Even the well-kept hide of the man-eater was sadly wanting in brilliancy when compared with the glittering skin of Burrhea.

The tiger had been kept without food or drink from the previous day to prepare him for the assault. He glared savagely at the horses as he entered, and commenced slowly stealing along towards them. The man-eater kept his eyes fixed on the eye-balls of his enemy. Not for an instant did he take them off; his head lowered, standing in an uneasy attitude with one foot slightly advanced, he awaited the attack, moving as Burrhea moved, but always with the eyes intently fixed. As for the poor little mare, she was transfixed with fear – paralysed – apparently unable to take a thought for preservation. She stood cowering in a corner, awaiting her fate. With a slight bound Burrhea was upon the mare in an instant. A blow of his paw threw her over on the ground; his teeth were fastened in her neck, and he drank her blood greedily. It was simple butchery; for there was no resistance.

‘It will make Burrhea only the more savage,’ said the king, rubbing his hands gleefully. The European courtiers assented; and the female attendants, ignorant of the language, but certain that the king was pleased, were mightily pleased too. They exchanged glances of approbation and of satisfaction and they turned again to watch the proceedings in the court-yard.

Burrhea might have been three to five minutes enjoying his draught of blood – not more – his head turned towards the man-eater all the time, and his eyes for the most part fixed on him. The man-eater, on his side, gave no indication of uneasiness. An impatient snort or two escaped him; that was all. With protruded neck and cocked ear, and glaring eye-balls, and twitching tail, he watched his enemy intently, still standing in an easy attitude of attention, as if prepared for immediate action.

At length, Burrhea was satisfied, or else no more blood was forthcoming; and taking his claws out of the dead animal, and shaking himself as he did so, he began to go stealthily round the court-yard, like a cat stealing a march on a rat. He made no noise whatever. The large paws were placed one after the other upon the ground, the soft ball of the foot preventing any sound. Slowly they were raised and depressed; whilst the long back as slowly made its way forwards, now raised at the shoulders, now at the hind­quarters, as the legs were moved – the skin glancing backwards and forwards as if hardly belonging to the bones and muscles beneath it. It was not a scene to be forgotten; the king and his attendant females gazing intently above, the European courtiers straining with eyes and ears to catch every movement and every sound; the man-eater in the centre of the court-yard slowly turning as the tiger turned his head, head, ears and neck ever the same; the tiger stealing along, so cat-like in aspect, and yet so gigantic in strength. Not a sound was audible but the grating of the man-eater’s feet as they were raised and lowered again – not another sound; but all was mute expectation and anxious gazing.

At length the tiger bounded with the rapidity of lightning upon his enemy; the horse was fully prepared. It had evidently been Burrhea’s intention to seize the head and fore-quarters; but the man-eater was too adroit for that; and, by a quick diving motion of his head and shoulders, had received his antagonist upon his muscular haunches behind. The claws sank deeply into the flesh, whilst the hind feet of the tiger made a grasp or two at the forelegs of the horse; but there was no time to secure his position. The man-eater lashed up with his iron heels into the air with tremendous vigour, and in a moment Burrhea was sprawling on the ground, not at all the better for his attack. We could hardly perceive, however, that he had been thrown upon his back – partly against the bamboo railing, partly on the ground – when he was on his legs again, gyrating as before, moving stealthily round as if nothing had happened. With an indignant snort the man-eater resumed his former position, and awaited another spring, his muscular haunches bearing evidence in their lacerated skin, and in the gouts of blood which disfigured them, of the sharpness and strength of the tiger’s claws.

‘Burrhea will kill him yet!’ exclaimed the king, turning to the nearest European.

‘Undoubtedly, your majesty,’ said the courtier.

Cat-like did Burrhea pace round and round again, his broad round head ever turned towards his wary antagonist. Each foot was lifted and lowered again in succession noiselessly as before, whilst the beautifully-streaked hide played over the bones and muscles freely. With distended nostrils and flashing eyes, the man-eater watched again as intently as ever, exactly in the same position as formerly – the head and neck lowered and protruded; the ears cocked rigidly; the eyes fixed in a glazed stare at the stealthily-gliding tiger; and one fore-foot ever slightly advanced to admit, doubtless, of that rapid diving and thrusting forward of the shoulder and head, by which he had formerly succeeded in getting his antagonist upon his hind-quarters.

For fully eight or ten minutes did this monotonous circling of Burrhea continue, the man-eater ever facing him and gazing intently, an angry snort now and then bursting from the horse as he turned. Burrhea opened his huge jaws widely at times, and licked up the drops of blood which still clung to them; and once (but once only) he paused for a moment over the dead mare, as if meditating a second draught. But the irresolution was only momentary, and the monotonous walk was continued.

At length the decisive moment arrived again. Burrhea was standing almost over the carcass of the dead mare, when he sprang once more, sprang so suddenly, that we in the gallery started at the sight, expecting it though we were; and more than one of the attendants on the king gave forth a stifled exclamation of alarm. There was no premonitory growl, or display of any kind. It was as if by galvanic agency the tiger had been suddenly lifted into the air in the course of his monotonous gyration.

Man-eater was not taken by surprise, however. His head was ducked still lower than before; his fore-quarters seemed to slide under the springing assailant; and again were Burrhea’s claws dug deeply into his haunches; but further over on this occasion than on the former. The broad round head of the tiger projected for an instant beyond the tail of the horse, whilst his hind claws were stuck deeply into the man-eater’s breast. For an instant we saw him quivering unsteadily in that position, crouching with his belly on the horse’s back, clinging to his prey for an instant, but only for an instant. Again did the ferocious stallion lash up with his hind feet, almost as if he would throw himself over on his back. His iron heels came with crushing force against the jaw of Burrhea, and in a moment the tiger was sprawling helplessly upon the ground, once more stretched upon his back.

It was but for an instant, however, that Burrhea thus lay; but, when he resumed his feet, and began running round the bamboo enclosure, it was quite apparent that it was no longer to attack again, but to escape. His jaw was broken; and, with his tail between his legs, he cried out loudly with pain as he ran round, not unlike a whipped spaniel. The man-eater watched him, as before, intently, evidently fearful of a ruse, and finding it difficult to keep up with his rapid motion. But it was no ruse; Burrhea was looking eagerly for some method of escape, crying almost piteously as he did so. ‘His jaw is broken’, whispered by some of the male servants below, who watched him from the verandah. The sound reached our gallery, and the king heard it.

‘Burrhea’s jaw is broken!’ he exclaimed to us; ‘Shall we let him escape?’

‘As your majesty pleases,’ was our answer.

The signal was given – the door of the cage was opened, the bamboos opposite to it raised – and Burrhea rushed in to bury himself in the furthest corner.

Proudly did the man-eater snort and paw when he found himself thus victor. He first scampered up to the mare, and snuffed there a moment; and then, spurning her with his foot, with head aloft and tail arched, he trotted to one point and another of the bamboo railing as if anxious to get at the attendant servants. His blood was up; and tigers or men, he did not mind which were his assailants now, or which he assailed.

‘Let another tiger be set at him,’ shouted the king to the natives, after he had watched him for a moment or two. ‘Damn him; I will have my revenge for his destroying Burrhea;’ the latter observation was addressed to us, the attendant Europeans, and was in English. We rubbed our hands, smiled, said it was most just, bowed, and awaited further sport.

‘That was a terrible blow he struck with his hind legs,’ said the king.

‘It was a tremendous blow, your majesty. I heard it sounding on Burrhea’s jaw-bone,’ was the answer of one of our little company.

The keeper of the tigers here interposed. A message was brought to ask if he might venture into the presence of his majesty. ‘Let him come,’ was the kingly order.

The keeper of the tigers approached.

‘May it please your majesty’s greatness, but the tigers were all fed two hours ago,’ said he, ‘but the best we have, your majesty shall see in the court-yard in a moment.’

‘And why were they fed two hours ago, you scoundrel?’ asked the king.

‘May it please the royal greatness of your majesty, but that was the ordinary time for feeding, and they are fed daily,’ said the poor man, as he salaamed lowly, trembling in every limb.

‘You shall go in to the man-eater yourself, you slave, if this tiger does not attack him.’

The tiger’s cage was soon after in the verandah; and all eyes were turned eagerly towards it. The keeper of the tigers withdrew with no pleasant anticipations, be sure of it; for what the king said, he would think little of doing.

Wine, which had been ordered when Burrhea beat his retreat, was now brought; and the king pledged his guests in a brimming tumbler of iced claret. The drink was refreshing, because it was so cool; for the court-yard was oppressively hot, at least to us the Europeans of the party. As for the king, the attendant women fanned him, by gently waving around him the bushy fan formed of the peacock’s tail. It was a pretty and graceful sight to see the finely-turned arms, naked to the shoulder, with a jewelled bracelet or two on the wrist and above the elbow, waving about as the fans moved upwards and downwards, or from side to side – the fair fanners taking care not to interrupt the king’s view as they gracefully put the air in motion.

The tiger’s cage was brought, and placed in the verandah opposite the portion of the bamboo railing, which could be raised at pleasure. A passage was made, and a tiger came leisurely forth and surveyed the court-yard. He stood for a moment irresolute on the threshold, as if doubtful about advancing; but a spear’s point, dexterously administered behind, left him doubtful no longer, and he scampered into the enclosure. The bamboo railing was let down; the door of the cage was shut again; and the tiger leisurely surveyed his intended antagonist. After gazing for a moment at the man-eater, who turned to face him, he went up to the dead mare, licked a drop or two of blood from the neck, and then gazed at the man-eater again, who stood as before, on the defensive.

This tiger was somewhat larger than Burrhea, but not so beautifully streaked. There was something, too, more light and graceful about every movement of Burrhea. In fact, this fellow was evidently quite a plebeian, with huge muscular development and shuffling gait. Perhaps, however, he only wanted the stimulus of hunger to make him as active and graceful as Burrhea had been.

The man-eater stood, as I have said, upon the defensive, at the side of the court-yard, opposite to that at which the tiger seemed to have a very incorrect idea of the reason why he was placed in his present position – he evidently did not understand what was expected of him; for squatting down upon the mare, keeping his face like a cautious soldier to his doubtful friend, the man-eater, he proceeded to tear up the dead animal leisurely, exhibiting a strength of claw, of limb, and of jaw, in doing so, that must have awakened uneasy sensations in the man-eater, if he reflected on his position at all.

‘Remove that carcass,’ shouted the king, annoyed; ‘fools that you were to leave it there!’

The order was obeyed forthwith. An iron rod or two, heated to redness, drove the tiger away. A noose was passed over the neck of the dead mare, and in a moment it was hoisted out of the arena. The tiger, evidently annoyed at the way in which he had been disturbed in his repast, stretched himself at full length in the middle of the court-yard, licked his lips, and growled at the men in the verandah, looking now at them and now at the man-eater, who still stood prepared for the contest as before.

It was not easy to reach the tiger where he lay. A few ineffectual efforts were made to rouse him with hot rods; but they were too short. At length, a spear of portentous dimensions was introduced, and he was struck with it. He bounded to his feet, seized the spear, ran along its length to the bamboo barrier, and there tugged valorously at one of the bamboo railings. This was too dangerous a sport to allow him to indulge in, and he was soon dislodged, and sent howling away with the hot irons. He scampered once or twice round the enclosure, the man-eater eyeing him intently all the while, and facing him still as he turned in every direction. All the efforts of the attendants were unsuccessful, however, in getting him to assail the horse. He was burnt, and speared, and enraged; but vented his rage on the bamboos, and showed his glittering teeth to the men; nothing could induce him, apparently, to attack the man-eater, whilst, on his part, man-eater seemed to have no disposition at all to attack him.

It was an evident palpable failure, and I began to dread that the poor keeper of the tigers would certainly be introduced into the court-yard; but the king had forgotten all about his threat, and shouted out that man-eater was a brave fellow, that they should remove the tiger, and see what the horse could do with three wild buffaloes.

There is, perhaps, no animal so fierce and terrible as the wild buffalo, when thoroughly aroused – heavy, clumsy, and awkward though he be. I have frequently seen him put a good-sized elephant to flight, goring the fugitive terribly. The cage-door was opened, the bamboos were lifted, and the tiger bounded into his den with infinitely more alacrity than he had shown in getting out of it. There was a pause of a few minutes – the wine circulated in the gallery again – and three uncouth-looking unwieldy buffaloes were driven into the enclosure, one by one.

With that peculiarly stupid gaze of theirs, their huge heads moving unmeaningly from side to side, they pushed their way on into the middle of the court-yard.

The man-eater retreated as they advanced. Their huge forms disconcerted him not a little. Even the appearance of the second tiger, after his deadly encounter with the first, had moved him less than the apparition of these uncouth monsters, with their broad flat foreheads, their wide branching horns, and the ample black rotundities of their figures. He retreated step by step, snorting as he did so, but more with apprehension than with anger. Like all bullies, he would have rushed headlong at them had he seen any signs of fear; but their evident want of terror of him was plainly the cause of his embarrassment.

Huddled confusedly together, the three black brutes thrust their heads to one side and the other in idiotic gaze; now snuffing vainly at the ground, now watching the attendants in the verandah, now contemplating the pillars of the gallery, and anon inspecting the redoubted man-eater, as if vainly asking by their gaze what possible good could be gained by having him there. As to attacking the horse, the idea evidently never entered their heads. He, however, took courage as he saw them irresolute and uncertain. Pawing the ground first, then snuffing at them with distended nostrils, then advancing a step, then snorting with doubt, he slowly came nearer, step by step, almost inch by inch – they, on their part, paying no heed to his movements, but still crowding together, and tossing their heads about in an eminently asinine way.

Step by step, I say, did the man-eater advance. At length his head almost touched the protruding side of the nearest buffalo. He snorted and sniffed, and smelt vigorously as he stretched out his long neck towards the unwieldy brute; the buffalo, for his part, heeding him but a little, or not at all. Familiarity breeds contempt, says the old proverb, and certainly it did so in this instance; for, after snorting and sniffling, and smelling at his ease, advancing while a step or two nearer, man-eater wheeled suddenly round, lashed out furiously behind, and rattled his iron hoofs in gallant style against the ribs of the meditating buffalo. The attack was so sudden, so utterly unlooked for, and so violent withal, that the buffalo was stunned for a moment; his companions shaking their heads in chorus, as if opining that there was something in that.

The king laughed outrageously as he gazed at their confusion. ‘The man-eater deserves his life,’ he shouted out; ‘let him escape.’ The order was obeyed forthwith, he was adroitly muzzled and led forth to his stable, a victor and a conqueror, to end his days in peaceful glory.

‘I shall have an iron cage made for him,’ exclaimed the king; ‘and he shall be taken care of. By my father’s head but he is a brave fellow.’

He had an iron cage made for him, one twice the size of many modern London dining-rooms; and there, roaming round the walls of his iron house, man-eater exhibited his teeth to admiring visitors, snapped at them valorously, and often showed how he assaulted the ribs of the buffalo, by playing the same tune on the bars of his cage.

When I left Lucknow, the man-eater was still one of its sights.

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