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Chapter Nine. Gagging a Gavial.
After finishing their dinner of durions, the three men again sallied forth, to see whether something more substantial could be found for a later repast—either flesh, fowl, or fish. As before, they went in different directions—Captain Redwood into the forest, Murtagh up the stream, and Saloo along the sea-beach, where he waded out into the water, still in the hope of picking up another large oyster. He took with him a stalk of bamboo, pointed at one end, to be used as a probe in the soft bottom in case any oysters might be lying perdu beneath the sand.

Henry and Helen were again left to themselves, but this time they were not to remain seated under any tree—at least, not all the time. The father, before leaving, had enjoined upon both of them to take a bath; ablution having become very necessary on account of their having been so long cribbed up in the somewhat dirty pinnace. It would be also of service in promoting their restoration to health and strength. They went into the water, not together, but at some distance apart—Henry choosing to go down to the sea, while Helen entered the stream close by, as it had clear water with a smooth, sandy bed; besides, she thought it was safer, being free from surf or currents.

It was only safer in appearance, as the sequel proved; for the hunters and fisherman had scarce scattered off out of hearing, when a cry broke upon the still air of noon that startled the bright-winged birds of the Bornean forest, and stopped their songs as quickly as would have done a shot from Captain Redwood’s rifle. It was heard by the captain himself, strolling among the tree trunks, and looking aloft for game; by Murtagh on the river bank, endeavouring to beguile the sly fish to his baited hook; by Saloo, wading knee-deep in search of Singapore oysters; and by Henry swimming about upon the buoyant incoming tide. More distinctly than all the rest, the little Helen heard it—since it was she who gave it utterance.

It was a cry of distress, and brought all the others together, and running toward the point whence it came. There was no difficulty about their knowing the direction, for one and all recognised Helen’s voice, and knew where she had been left.

In less than sixty seconds’ time they stood together upon the bank of the stream, on the same spot from which they had parted; and there beheld a spectacle that thrilled them with fear, and filled them with horror.

The girl, finding it not deep enough by the edge of the stream—at this point nearly a hundred yards in width—had waded midway across, where it came quite up to her neck; and there she stood, her head alone showing above the surface. Beyond her, and coming from the opposite side, showed another head, so hideous it was no wonder that, on first perceiving it, she had given way to affright, and voice to her terror.

It was the head of an enormous reptile, of lizard shape, that had crawled out from a reedy covert on the opposite side of the river, and having silently let itself down into the water, was now swimming toward the terrified bather. There could be no mistaking the monster’s intent, for it was coming straight toward its victim.

“A gavial!” cried Saloo, as his eyes rested on the body of the huge saurian, full twenty feet in length, with its head over a yard long, and jaws nearly the same, the upper one surmounted by a long knob-like protuberance, that distinguishes it from all other reptiles.

“A gavial!” echoed the others, though not inquiringly; for they knew too well both the shape and character of the creature that was crossing the river.

As all four first reached the bank—arriving nearly at the same instant of time—there were about twenty yards between the hideous saurian and her who seemed destined to destruction. On first perceiving her danger, the girl had made a few plunges to get back to the bank; but, hindered by the depth to which she had unwarily waded, and overcome by terror, she had desisted from the attempt; and now stood neck-deep, giving utterance to cries of despair.

What was to be done? In less than a minute more the jaws of the saurian would close upon her crashing her fair, tender form between its teeth as though she were only some ordinary prey—a fish, or the stem of some succulent water-plant!

Her father stood on the bank a very picture of distress. Of what use the rifle held half-raised in his hands? Its bullet, not bigger than a pea, would strike upon the skull of such a huge creature harmlessly, as a drop of hail or rain. Even could he strike it in the eye—surging through the water as it was, a thing so uncertain—that would not hinder it from the intent so near to accomplishment. The Irishman, with only fish-hooks in his hand, felt equally impotent; and what could the boy Henry do, not only unarmed but undressed—in short, just as he had been bathing—in puris naturalibus!

All three were willing to rush into the water, and getting between the reptile and its victim, confront the fierce creature, even to their own certain sacrifice.

And this, one, or other, or all of them, would have done, had they not been prevented by Saloo. With a loud shout the Malay, hitherto apparently impassive, called upon them to hold back. They obeyed, seeing that he intended to act, and had already taken his measures for rescuing the girl. They could not tell what these were, and only guessed at them by what they saw in his hands. It was nothing that could be called a weapon—only a piece of bamboo, pointed at one end, which he had taken from among the embers of last night’s fire and sharpened with his knife, when he went off in search of the Singapore oysters. It was the same stick he had been using to probe for them under the sand. On seeing the gavial as it started toward the girl, he had quickly drawn out his knife, and sharpened the other end of the stake while coming across the beach.

With this sorry apology for a weapon, and while they were still wondering, he dashed into the stream; and almost before any of the others had recovered from their first surprise, they saw him plunge past the spot where stood the affrighted girl. In another instant his black head, with the long dark hair trailing behind it, appeared in close juxtaposition to the opened jaws of the reptile. Then the head was seen suddenly to duck beneath the surface, while at the same time a brown-skinned arm and hand rose above it with a pointed stake in its grasp—like the emblematic representation seen upon some ancient crest. Then was seen an adroit turning of the stick, so quick as to be scarce perceptible—immediately followed by a backward spring upon the part of the lizard, with a series of writhings and contortions, in which both its body and tail took part, till the water around it was lashed into foam.

In the midst of this commotion, the head of the Malay once more appeared above the surface, close to that of the girl; who, under the guidance of her strangely-skilled and truly courageous rescuer, was conducted to the bank, and delivered safe into her father’s arms; stretched open to embrace her.

It was some time, however, before the stream recovered its wonted tranquillity. For nearly half an hour the struggles of the great saurian continued, its tail lashing the water into foam, as through its gagged jaws a stream rushed constantly down its throat, causing suffocation. But, in spite of its amphibious nature, drowning was inevitable; and soon after became an accomplished fact—the huge reptilian carcass drifting down stream, towards the all-absorbing ocean, to become food for sharks, or some other marine monster more hideous and ravenous than itself.

If, indeed, a more hideous and ravenous monster is to be found! It is sometimes called the Gangetic crocodile, but it is even uglier than either crocodile or alligator, and differs from both in several important particulars.

As, for instance, in its mouth—its jaws being curiously straight, long, and narrow; and in the shape of its head, which has straight perpendicular sides, and a quadrilateral upper surface. It has double, or nearly double, the number (Note 1.) of the teeth of the crocodile of the Nile, though the latter is well enough supplied with these potent implements of destruction!

It is an amphibious animal, and fond of the water, in which its webbed hind feet enable it to move with considerable celerity.

The huge reptile which threatened Helen’s safety was twenty feet in length, but the gavial sometimes attains the extraordinary dimensions of eight to nine yards.

Sincere was the gratitude of Captain Redwood for the address and courage displayed by the Malay in rescuing his daughter, and his regret was great that he had no means of rewarding his faithful follower.

Note 1. As many as one hundred and twenty.


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