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Chapter Fifteen. Something Sharp.
The Malay had ascended, as already said, to within ten or twelve feet from the lower limbs of the tree, and was still engaged driving in his pegs and binding on the upright bamboo to continue his ascent, when all at once he was seen to start and abruptly suspend operations. At the same time an exclamation escaped his lips, in a low tone, but seemingly in accents of alarm.

They all looked up apprehensively, and also started away from the tree; for they expected to see him come tumbling down in their midst. But no; he was still standing firm upon the last made round of the ladder, and in an erect attitude, as if he had no fear of falling. With one hand he held the axe, the other gently grasping the upright bamboo that served him for a support. Instead of looking down to them, to call out or claim their assistance, they saw that his eyes were turned upward and fixed, as if on some object directly over his head. It did not appear to be among the branches of the durion, but as if in the trunk of the tree; and in the interval of silence that succeeded his first quick exclamation, they could hear a hissing sound, such as might proceed from the throat of a goose when some stranger intrudes upon the domain of the farmyard. As it was carried down the smooth stem of the durion, which acted as a conductor, the spectators underneath guessed it was not a goose, but some creature of a less innocent kind.

“A snake, be japers!” was the conjecture that dropped from the ship-carpenter’s lips, while the same thought occurred simultaneously to the others; for they could think of no living thing, other than a serpent, capable of sending forth such a sibilant sound as that just heard.

“What is it, Saloo?” hailed Captain Redwood; “are you in any danger?”

“No dangee, cappen; only little bit good luck, that all,” was the cheering response that restored their confidence.

“How good luck?” asked the captain, puzzled to think of what fortune could have turned up in their favour so high above their heads.

“You see soon,” rejoined the Malay, taking a fresh peg from his girdle, and once more resuming his task at stair-making.

While he was engaged in hammering, and between the resounding strokes, they at the bottom of the tree repeatedly heard the same hissing sound they had taken for the sibilations of a snake, and which they might still have believed to be this, but for a hoarse croaking voice, mingling with the sibilation, which reached their ears at intervals, evidently proceeding from the same throat.

Moreover, as they continued to gaze upward, watching Saloo at his work, they caught sight of something in motion on the trunk, and about a foot above his face. It was something of a whitish colour and slender shape, pointed like one of the bamboo pegs he was busily driving at. Now they saw it, and now they did not see it; for whatever it was, it was sunk inside the trunk of the durion-tree, alternately protruding and drawing back. It was also clear to them, that from this sharp-pointed thing, whether beast, bird, or reptile, came the hissing and hoarse croaking that puzzled them.

“What is it?” again asked the captain, now no longer anxious or alarmed, but only curious to know what the strange creature could be.

“Buld, cappen—biggee buld.”

“Oh, a bird, that’s all; what sort of bird?”

“Honbill; ole hen hornbill. She on ha ness inside, hatchee egg; she built up in dat; ole cock he shuttee up with mud.”

“Oh, a hornbill!” said the captain, repeating the name of the bird for the information of those around him; and now that they more narrowly scrutinised the spot where the white-pointed beak was still bobbing out and in, they could perceive that there was a patch or space of irregular roundish shape, slightly elevated above the bark, having a plastered appearance, and of the colour of dry mud. They had barely time to make this last observation, when Saloo, having got another peg planted so as to enable him to ascend high enough, turned the edge of his axe against the trunk of the durion, and commenced chipping off the mud, that now fell in flakes to the bottom of the tree.

It took him only a very short time to effect a breach into the barricaded nest—one big enough to admit his hand with the fingers at fall spread.

His arm was at once thrust in up to the elbow; and as his digits closed fearlessly around the throat of the old hen hornbill, she was drawn forth from her place of imprisonment.

For a time she was seen in Saloo’s hands, convulsively writhing and flopping her great wings, like a turkey gobbler with his head suddenly cut off. There was some screaming, hissing, and croaking, but to all these sounds Saloo quickly put an end, by taking a fresh grasp of the throat of the great bird, choking the breath out of it until the wings ceased fluttering; and then he flung its body down at the feet of the spectators.

Saloo did not descend immediately, but once more thrust his hand into the nest, hoping, no doubt, to find an egg or eggs in it. Instead of these, the contents proved to be a bird—and only one—a chick recently hatched, about the size of a squab-pigeon, and fat as a fed ortolan. Unlike the progeny of the megapodes, hatched in the hot sand, the infant hornbill was without the semblance of a feather upon its skin, which was all over of a green, yellowish hue. There was not even so much as a show of down upon it.

For a moment Saloo held it in his hand, hissing as it was in his own tiny way. Then chucking it down after its murdered mother, where it fell not only killed, but “squashed,” he prepared to descend in a less hasty manner. He now saw no particular need for their dining on durions, at least on that particular day; and therefore discontinued his task upon the bamboo ladder, which could be completed on the morrow, or whenever the occasion called for it.


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