The Kiplings and India: A Collection of Writings from British India, 1870-1900

A Journey in the Jungle (Alice MacDonald Fleming, 1897)

[Unsigned piece from the February 21, 1897 issue of the Allahabad Pioneer. There is reference to this published piece as one of Alice Kipling Fleming's writings in Lorna Lee's Trix: Kipling's Forgotten Sister. Accessed through Readex's "World Newspaper Archive.] 

There were three of us, a man, a woman, and a dog, but as the boundary was delineated by no visible sign, our united intelligences failed to discover the exact moment when we left the North-West Provinces. We had reason to believe, however, that when the broad sandy track full of hillocks and hollows, became a mere footpath hiding in tall jungle grass, it marked the beginning of our progress through the kingdom of Oudh. Certainly it was the beginning of four days' marching on such byepaths, marked fair in two straight lines on district maps, and disguised by the name of district roads, along which we plodded on foot, while the empty bamboo cart made its cautious way in a series of jolting jumps behind us.

It would be incorrect to say that the bamboo cart was a white elephant to us, for an elephant without any valour would have been a well night ideal of locomotion while the cart was merely an incumbrance, an anxiety, a vexation. We wasted a good deal of time daily in wishing that it had never accompanied us, but we had set out in the valiant courage of ignorance, not knowing that our road was a rarely trodden way, holding the neglected position of 'nobody's child.' The road was undoubtedly there, indicated by two deep cart ruts, which perhaps the lines int he map were meant to represent, but the rest was jungle grass. 

Our first march from Mailani began very beautifully on a fifty foot fire line, running through a dense green forest composed chiefly of young sal trees. Their slender stems sat very closely together affforded very little opportunity for undergrowth and gave timely warning of the approach of danger to any lurking  game. It was impossible to penetrate even a few yards without crackling crushing noises enough to frighten away any bird or beast within a mile. For days indeed we saw no living thing in the jungle, the only signs of life being the holes where pigs had rooted. One of us had hoped to find flowers, but the only treasure trove was a single purple-pink blossom, shaped like veteh, that grew on a bush. This too drooped and shed so soon as it was gathered, and the flower-seeker was forced to be content with a bunch of thin dry seed pods, the shape and colour of a rattlesnake's tail. There were few traces of autumns glowing footprint, now and again a crimson spray burnt like a jewel among the depths of green, but no on tree was brave with orange or scarlet. 

All too soon the forest  ended, the broad roadway died strangled in tall grass, and the chilly shade changed to the intense glow of the midday sun beating on an open plain covered with six foot grass. We lost our way here, in every sense of the phrase, for the elastic grass held no traces of our heavy cart sent on before and we might have fared ill but for the kindly guidance of a Potentate, the Heir Presumptive of a neighbouring State, who appeared on a high stepping horse caparisoned in red and yellow. Thanks to the hot sun and the impending grass, time seemed long before we came to the cool green mango grove where our tents were pitched. The country had become open and very fine, wide rolling savannahs girdled with a forest at the edge of the horizon; here and there sheaves of the tall grass made a barren mockery on a cornfield, but there was no cultivation. So prairie-like was the landscape, that we almost expected to see a wild horse leap through the pampas, instead of the prancing paces of the Heir Presumptive's sleek heavily-bitted animal. 

In the afternoon an elephant came to fetch us: a dear elephant with charming manners and a fondness for sweet biscuits, who evinced no displeasure when his tail was bent into a loop, and we scrambled by its aid to the height of his kneeling back. He seemed not to be aware of what was happening, but that must have been his perfection of politeness, [or] [...\ the spine, when trodden upon, is far more painful than the toe. 

After a shuttling rocking mile, we met the Heir Apparent, who was very like the Heir Presumptive, only several sizes broader. He wore an embroidered purple velvet cap, and rode in a shigram drawn by trotting bullocks, which went over the wildest country, clearing ditches and tall clumps of grass, like a vehicle in a dream. We felt at the moment that we would have bartered a pony, a set of Cawnpore harness, and a bamboo cart by Eduljee, for those brisk bullocks and their springless fearless shigram, but we remembered that other places had pucca roads, and resisted the temptation. 

The next morning was bitter chill, a real nip of winter well suited to the middle of December. We passed through the village when the cattle were on their way afield, and had a brief interview with the Potentate himself at his palace gate. he consisted chiefly of a Kashmir shawl and an ear trumpet. Our friend the elephant was in an open shed, breakfasting on half a haystack, and finding it rather monotonous. He held an appealing trunk before us like a collecting box, but the sweet biscuits formed part of a camel's load a mile away, and we had nothing to give him. We had been told that we should find ourselves in a sportsman's paradise, with geese and peafowl at every turn, a cloud of duck fluttering up from each jhil, quail and black partridge as common as butterflies and deer a very likely probability. But the game resembled the promised jam in Wonderland: -- "Jam to-morrow and jam yesterday but never jam to-day!" Each day we were assured that the best of shikar was just behind us, or lay but one march in front of us. all that we saw however was a distant flock of geese, one of them proved after much stalking to a tender and well-fed bird, some wary partridge well out of shot, a group of peafowl that vanished into inaccessible jungle, three quail, and one small hare. This during four days spent marching through a famed shooting country. The grass was so think that the game, like the road, was lost, and hidden away in it; a whole menagerie of creatures, from a tiger downwards, might have been within a yard of us without our knowledge. Paddy birds and cranes seemed to monopolise all the jhils that had not dried up. 

The first time we crossed a river, one of the many loops of the much winding Ool, we were, for the moment only, glad of the drouth that gave us about two feet of water to splash through instead of an unknown number. 

'How do people travel here in the rains, or in an ordinary year?' asked one of us, as our feet slipped in the black alluvial clay of the further bank.

"They must find it precarious in Kheri," said the other, who was old enough to know better. 

We were fated to meet the Ool again that day, for when we went out in the evening, with an eye to wild duck, the river Ool barred our way at every turn executing figures of eight before us, and entangling us in reey swamps, till we came back to camp muddy and empty-handed.

Our next march too us through cultivated country, sandy but fertile, where the young wheat waved green ribbons a food above the ground, and the tall [arhar] bushes, bright with yellow flowers, were already beginning to form pods. It was pleasant to see a fine potato field near a well, healthy neatly trenched plants that would be ready to dig in about a month. Pleasanter still it was to notice, during a detour through a village, that the childrens' naked little bodies displaced comfortable curves, that the women wore ornaments, that t he ribs of the cattle were not in evidence, and that not one person asked for alms. 

The dress of the peasant women in the North-West is more graceful and more brightly coloured than that of their Punjab sisters. The long full skirt is generally of scarlet or crimson, and the sari of indigo cotton, sunfaded to many tender tones of blue, but admirable tints of yellow, deep purple, and rich green are also worn. One woman in a swirl of dark crimson, with a faded pink sari, and a long fold of brilliant orange wafting from under it, made a colour study to be remembered. 

One of the clods of a newly ploughed field seemed to raise itself as we passed. It as a nake rolypoly baby laughing from a furrow, its downy head showing glints of golden-brown in the sunshine. 

Next day grough us to another ford of the Ool, a wider crossing where we were mocked by the bare bones of what had once been a 'bridge,' and our pampered terrier was forced to swim, with great injury to her feelings, and a marked improvement to her complexion. Whence through a smiling land of cornfields and mango groves we came to trim and pretty Lakhimpur, with its little red brick Church, its half dozen bungalows, and its tall inscriptionless monument. 

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