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Chapter Seventeen. Sitting by the Spit.
Saloo had by this time climbed to the topmost rounds of the ladder; and was able to assist Henry in descending, which he did without further difficulty or danger.

No great harm had happened to him; he had received only a few scratches and skin-wounds, that would soon yield to careful treatment and the surgical skill which his father possessed, along with certain herbal remedies known to Saloo.

They were soon restored to their former state of equanimity, and thought nothing more of the little incident that had just flurried them, except to congratulate themselves on having so unexpectedly added to their stock of provisions the bodies of two great birds, each of respectable size; to say nothing of the fat featherless chick, which appeared as if it would make a very bonne bouche for a gourmand.

As we have said, Saloo did not think any more of ascending the durion-tree, nor they of asking him to do so. Its fruits might have served them for dessert, to come after the game upon which they were now going to dine.

But they were not in condition to care for following the usual fashion of dining, and least of all did they desire a dinner of different courses, so long as they had one sufficiently substantial to satisfy the simple demands of hunger. The two hornbills promised, each of them, a fair pièce-de-resistance, while the fat pult was plainly a titbit, to be taken either hors d’oeuvres, or as an entrée.

They were not slow in deciding what should be done with the stock so unexpectedly added to their larder. In a trice the cock bird was despoiled of his plumage; the hen having been well-nigh dismantled of hers already. The former was trussed and made ready for the spit, the latter being intended for the pot, on the supposition that boiling might be better for her toughness. Murtagh had taken to finishing the plucking of the hen, while Saloo set about divesting the old cock of his feathers.

The chick needed no plucking, nor even to be singed. Its skin was as free of covering as the shell of the egg lately containing it. It was tender enough to be cooked in any way. It could be boiled over the embers, and would make a nice meal for the two young people, and doubtless greatly benefit their strength.

When the bodies of the old birds were unmasked of their feathery envelopment, it was seen that they were much smaller than supposed; and, moreover, that the hen was by many degrees larger in size and fatter than the cock. It was but natural, and was due to her sex, as well as to her long confinement in a dark cell of but limited dimensions, where she had nothing to do but to rest.

But as the cock bird, after all, was quite as large as a Cochin-China fowl, and, moreover, in good condition, there would be enough of him to supply a full repast, without touching either the hen or chick. So it was determined that both should be reserved till the following morning, when no doubt all hands would be again hungry enough for the toughest of fowls.

This point settled, the old cock was staked upon a bamboo spit, and set over the fire, where he soon began to sputter, sending out a savoury odour that was charmingly appetising.

The hen was at the same time chopped into small pieces, which were thrown into one of the great shells, along with some seasoning herbs Saloo had discovered in the neighbouring woods; and as they could now give the stew plenty of time to simmer, it was expected that before next day the toughness would be taken out of the meat, and after all it might prove a palatable dish to people distressed as they had been, and not caring much for mere dainties.

As they had nothing else to do but watch the spit, now and then turn it, and wait till the roast should be done, they fell into conversation, which naturally turned upon hornbills and their habits, Saloo furnishing most of the information concerning these curious birds.

Captain Redwood had not only seen them before, in the course of his voyages among the Malayan Archipelago, but he had read about their habits, and knew that they were found in various parts of the African continent.

They are there called Korwé (Tockus erythrorhynchus), and Dr Livingstone gives an interesting account of them.

He says,—“We passed the nest of a korwé, just ready for the female to enter; the orifice was plastered on both sides, but a space left of a heart shape, and exactly the size of the bird’s body. The hole in the tree was in every case found to be prolonged some distance above the opening, and thither the korwé always fled to escape being caught.”

The first time that Dr Livingstone himself saw the bird, it was caught by a native, who informed him that when the female hornbill enters her nest, she submits to a positive confinement. The male plasters up the entrance, leaving only a narrow slit by which to feed his mate, and which exactly suits the form of his beak. The female makes a nest of her own feathers, lays her eggs, hatches them, and remains with the young till they are fully fledged. During all this time, which is stated to be two or three months, the male continues to feed her and her young family.

Strange to say, the prisoner generally becomes fat, and is esteemed a very dainty morsel by the natives, while the poor slave of a husband gets so lean that, on the sudden lowering of the temperature, which sometimes happens after a fall of rain, he is benumbed, falls down, and dies.

It is somewhat unusual, as Captain Redwood remarked, for the prisoner to fatten, while the keeper pines!

The toucan of South America also forms her nest in the cavity of a tree, and, like the hornbill, plasters up the aperture with mud.

The hornbill’s beak, added Captain Redwood, is slightly curved, sharp-pointed, and about two inches long.

While the body of the rooster was sputtering away in the bright blaze, Saloo entertained the party by telling them what he knew about the habits of the hornbills; and this was a good deal, for he had often caught them in the forests of Sumatra. It may be remarked here, that many of the natives of the Malayan Archipelago possess a considerable knowledge of natural history, at least of its practical part. The reason is, that the Dutch, who own numerous settlements throughout these islands, have always been great taxidermists and skin-preservers, and to procure specimens for them and obtain the reward, has naturally originated a race of collectors among the native people. Saloo himself had been one of these bird-hunters, in early life, before taking to the sea, which last, as a general thing, is the favourite element and profession of a Malay.

He told them that he knew of two kinds of hornbill in his native island of Sumatra, but that he had seen the skins of several other species in the hands of the taxidermists, brought from various islands, as well as from the mainland of India, Malacca, and Cochin-China. They were all large birds, though some were smaller than the others; mostly black, with white markings about the throat and breast. He said that their nests are always built in the hollow of a tree, in the same way as the one he had robbed, and the entrance to them invariably plastered up with mud in a similar fashion, leaving a hole just big enough to allow the beak of the hen to be passed out, and opened a little for the reception of the food brought to her by her mate. It is the cock that does the “bricking up,” Saloo said, bringing the “mortar” from the banks of some neighbouring pool or stream and laying it on with his beak. He begins the task as soon as the hen takes her seat upon her solitary egg. The hen is kept in her prison not only during the full period of incubation, but long after; in fact, until the young chick becomes a full fledgling, and can fly out of itself. During all this time the imprisoned bird is entirely dependent on her mate for every morsel of food required, either by herself or for the sustenance of the nursling, and, of course, has to trust to his fidelity, in which he never fails. The hornbills, however, like the eagles, and many other rapacious birds, though not otherwise of a very amiable disposition, are true to the sacred ties of matrimony. So said Saloo, though not in this exact phraseology.

“But what if the ould cock shud get killed?” suggested Murtagh. “Supposin’ any accident was to prevint him from returnin’ to the nest? Wud the hen have to stay there an’ starve?”

Saloo could not answer this question. It was a theory he had never thought of, or a problem that had not come under his experience. Possibly it might be so; but it was more likely that her imprisonment within the tree cave, being an act agreed to on her part, was more apparent than real, and that she could break through the mud barricade, and set herself free whenever she had a mind to do so.

This was the more probable view of the case, and terminated the discussion on natural history; or rather, it was brought to a close by their perceiving that the bird upon the bamboo stake was done to a turn, and they were by this time too hungry to think of anything else than eating it.

So off it came from the spit, and at it they went with a will, Saloo acting as carver, and distributing the roast joints all around, taking care to give the tenderest bits of breast to the children, and to Helen the liver wing.

They were all very cheerful in commencing their supper, but their strain was changed to sadness even before they had finished it.


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