On 20th April 1895, being engaged in Forest Settlement work among the
low hills abutting on the south the mountain barrier between Burma and
Assam, I was aroused, as I sat reading in a tent in the afternoon, by
a signal. It meant that my colleague, Mr Bruce, the Deputy Conservator
of Forests, who had gone out to shoot pigeons for dinner, either was
or expected soon to be in contact with tiger, and wished me to join
him–which I did, at a run. He was near the camp. The tigers
thereabouts are more plentiful than elsewhere in Burma. We had seen
and heard abundant evidence of their proximity for weeks past, and
were both anxious for a closer acquaintance.

A fat and full-grown deer was lying dead upon the stones in a
stream-bed. The first guess was that a tiger, having killed, was about
to eat it, but withdrew for a moment out of sight at the sound of the
pigeon-shooting. On this hypothesis we diligently searched in all
likely directions, and made sure there was no tiger near. Then we
gathered round the deer. A faint, faint smell, perceptible as we
closed upon it, showed that the venison was tending to that
disintegration which awaits all flesh when life departs, and answered
those who were beginning to doubt if it was dead, because it lay as if
it might have been asleep, and there was no sign to show how it had

“Twelve to twenty-four hours dead, and not killed by any tiger,” was
the first unanimous conclusion, after minute inspection and
confabulation; and “still fresh enough to be eaten” was the next
decision, all but equally unanimous.

This satisfied most of the men; but Bruce stood silent, while they
knelt round it and began to ply their knives. I stayed to await
developments. Casting perplexed looks up and down the stream, Bruce
ejaculated, more than once, “I would give anything to know how that
beast died.” “It’s too soft to roast, but will make splendid curry,”
said the cook, inspecting a joint cut from the carcass.

When the men had cut off about three times as much as would suffice to
“abate their desire of food,” they began obligingly to discuss what
was puzzling Bruce, and in a short time, so lively are the Burmese
wits, every man seemed to be as interested as himself in the
apparently insoluble problem. A mystery attracts men, as a light does
the moths; or, as Cicero explains it in his _Offices_ (i.4)–“The
peculiarity of man is to seek and follow after truth. So, as soon as
we are relaxed from our necessary cares and concerns, what we covet is
to see, to hear, and to learn something; and the knowledge of things
obscure or wonderful quickly appears to us to be indispensable for our
comfort and happiness.”

Wild dogs were as likely as a tiger to have killed that deer; but
equally certain not to leave the dead uneaten. The wild dogs and the
tigers alike are real professional hunters, who kill in order to be
able to eat and live. They are not sportsmen, who kill for amusement,
that is to say, for want of occupation. Besides, there were no marks
discoverable of either a tiger or dogs.

The partition of the venison served the purpose of a post-mortem. When
it was seen that the neck was broken, we looked at the steep ground on
the northern bank and saw how the deer could have tumbled down; and
“killed by a fall” was the first step to a final verdict.

But why did it fall? It was useless to suggest, as one did,
“committed suicide in a temporary state of insanity.” He was gravely
assured on every hand that the deer, however worried, do not commit

It would be long to tell the other guesses. Nobody could find a
scratch on the carcass. That alone disposed of many theories.

Bruce had for some time spoken only in interjections. His mind was
working. Suddenly he cried, with the abrupt inspiration of a seer, “I
have it! I have it! I see what it was. This stag and another fought
for a hind on that high bank, and this was the one pushed over.”

We agreed. Some of us would have agreed to anything, being tired of
the subject. But we really were convinced; and when Bruce had finished
describing the probable (what a blessed word probable is, to be
sure!–the probable) antlers of the victor, contrasting them with the
poor young brow of the dead, there were some among us who would in a
little time have been capable of describing in a witness-box the
aforesaid victorious antlers as things seen and handled. It was a
doubter who said, “If you’re right the tracks of the fighters must be
visible yet. It cannot have been before last night. The ground seems
soft up there, and there has been no rain.”

As soon as the words were spoken, as if by one consent, the men tore
up the steep, Bruce shouting something that sounded like, “Right you
are, for once!” On hands and knees went some; and they distributed
themselves, to miss nothing, panting, puffing, all climbing as if a
golden fleece awaited their joint efforts, and earnestly scanning the
ground as they went. They did not compete though they vied with each
other, each helping his neighbour, in a genial way; and, joyfully
working together, they unconsciously illustrated the solidarity of
humanity in real life.

Soon they were rejoicing and jubilating as loudly as if a heap of
golden fleeces had been found, for they saw the tracks they went to
seek. The duel of the stags, as it must have happened in the cool
starlight of the preceding night, could be traced and rehearsed from
the hieroglyphics on the ground by the sharpened wits of the village
specialists, with more confidence than the incidents of a battle can
be deciphered by a historian. Here it was, in a narrow glade, that
they charged and grappled; there and there they struggled and pushed
to and fro till one went backwards, and there at last, as you could
see, one backed over the steep and stumbled suddenly into death, to
lie on the stones below, until we came and, anticipating other
carrion-eaters, cut him up for dinner.

“And now, let’s track the victor!”

Heigh-ho! It was to face a tiger I laid down my book, and not to
follow an amorous deer; but the tracks led into the stream again.
“The victor went for a drink,” we said to each other, like children
rejoicing to find that they can draw an inference for themselves, or
rather like men who have learned, as all men do at last, how liable
they are to be mistaken, and are slow to feel sure of anything till
they find that others agree.

Among the stones the tracks were lost. Then I recalled how Robert the
Bruce of Bannockburn had baffled the bloodhounds following him once,
in his days of difficulty, by walking along a stream; and I suggested
that the deer might in the same way baffle a modern Bruce. But men are
more knowing than bloodhounds.

“The stag is not a water-buffalo. He’ll quench his thirst and leave
the stream. Won’t he?”

“He must have done so, for he isn’t here.”

“The banks aren’t rocks. We’ll see where he left as well as where he
came, won’t we?”

“Assuredly you shall, if you look long enough. I’ll stay ten minutes.”

“I’ll stay till dark.”

It was not needed. The men started to seek the trail with enthusiasm;
and in a few minutes there was a joyful shout and soon we were
following the vanished stag, as confidently as if he were bodily in
front of us, along one of the deer-paths that were a feature of these
primeval woods. Our Burmans were admirable. Plain villagers, but
all-round men, observant, they could notice swiftly and surely the
slightest marks on the surface of the path which were signs of recent
tracks. They had a rare reward. Few modern events have caused to sated
Europeans the sensations they experienced when, instead of the
expected jumble of many prints, to show where our wanderer rejoined
his fellows, or at least his partner, they came upon the clean-picked
bones and antlers of the stag at the side of the path, and a few fresh
tiger-tracks that showed how he in turn had died….

“I like this, I like to get to the bottom of things. I’m glad we
came,” cried Bruce. “This is the kind of thing that makes you realise
what life in the forests truly is….”

“Beasts for beasts,” said his companion, “if one has to deal with
beasts, the four-legged varieties here are simple and almost harmless
compared to the rascals on two legs….”

Bruce was urgent upon me to write out this authentic idyll of the
woods which he had elucidated. I had to promise; but I did it
vaguely–“when I have time,” “when I retire,” “when the spirit moves
me”–so that time was not of the essence of the contract. It never
occurred to me that there was any need to hurry on his account, for he
was the younger man; but now I wish I had kept my promise sooner. For
Bruce is dead.