THE DEVIL AS A LEOPARD

In 1891, in Shwegyin (pronounced Shwayjeen), then the headquarters of
a district in Burma, but now decayed, because the railway went another
road, I became aware as I sat in office of an unusual hush in the
precincts of the public buildings. My messenger came uncalled into my
room, and stood as if struggling to speak but unable to articulate. My
head clerk, the excellent Babu Chowdry, followed him, though it was an
uncommon time for him to come in. With obvious difficulty and
hesitation, almost stammering, the Babu said, “The devil has come to
town.”

Ah, if I were only a fictioneer, what a brilliant opening this gives
for fine writing. It might be indulged in without fear of
contradiction; for, if Babu Chowdry read a thing I wrote as an account
of our talk, he would not only affirm it to be true, but honestly
believe it. All the King’s Counsel in London, cross-examining in
partnership, could not shake him, or do anything but make everybody,
themselves included, believe him the more. His transparent good faith
would convince them. This is not ironical, but the simple truth. If I
wrote in the Kipling fashion, keeping faithful to what the Babu could
recall, he would trust me for the rest, so that the story might be
told in this way.

“The Devil has come to town,” said the Babu.

“Show him in.”

“But he is not here. He’s in the town.”

“Send for him then.”

“But he won’t come. He …”

“Tell the police to fetch him.”

“How? He …”

“You should know perfectly that no warrant is required. He can be
arrested without a warrant if he won’t come quietly, were it only for
being without a visible and respectable means of subsistence. Send a
note to the superintendent.”

“But it isn’t a man. It’s a Devil, and a leopard.”

“A leopard?”

“A leopard, but a Devil.”

“Shoot it.”

“But it’s a Devil.”

“Shoot it, all the same.”

“But it’s a Devil, and so the rifles won’t go off.”

Instead of all which, to tell the downright truth, instead of any
invention, I looked in silence awhile at my excited clerk as he
repeated, half mechanically, “The Devil has come to town,” and
guessing that perhaps a tiger, which had been flurrying the place for
some weeks, had paid a mid-day visit, I stepped outside to the
verandah to see what the matter was, probably telling somebody to go
for a rifle. I looked in all directions, but saw no stampeding, such
as might be expected if a tiger were strolling anywhere near. There
were many marks of general consternation. Everybody seemed to have
stopped suddenly whatever he had been doing. The one detail capricious
memory supplies is the sight of a man at a refreshment-stall, who had
paused with a spoonful of food half-way to his lips, and stood as if
petrified as long as I saw him, gaping and listening. Next I noticed
the District Superintendent of Police, Mr W.G. Snadden, a sensible,
first-rate man, coming from his office, which was in a building
adjacent to mine. Without waiting to be asked, he shouted to me,
“Don’t you bother. It’s only a leopard frightening people at my house,
and I’ll go and see what the row is and come and let you know.”

“Anybody hurt?”

“I believe not.”

I felt Babu Chowdry watching me to see if I was satisfied. He drew a
deep breath. “That’ll be all right,” we said to each other, and both
returned to work. He came into my room a minute later, and said
impressively, “The people do say it must be a Devil, as the rifles
won’t go off.” He waited to see the effect of the announcement, but
getting only, “That’ll be all right,” he returned to business.

In an hour or so Snadden reappeared, looking tired with laughing. This
was what he had to tell:

“My wife had a fright yesterday. A leopard had been seen prowling
round the house. A servant said it came upon the verandah, and stood
on its hind legs and looked into the nursery, where the baby was, and
also a dog.” (Mr Snadden intimated in some way that he had doubted the
story.) He continued: “I told my wife it would prefer dog, but
naturally she did not wish it to have a choice. So I set her mind at
rest by leaving a military policeman with a rifle to hold the fort
when I came to office, explaining to him what to do if the leopard
returned. It came all right, about the same time as yesterday. They
say the cook was in the act of showing the policeman where it issued
yesterday from the jungle, when they saw it reappear.

“The man loaded, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The cartridge did not
go off. He slipped in another noiselessly, and aimed again. There was
no hurry. The leopard did not see him. It was standing still,
apparently taking a deliberate view of the house and servants’
quarters; looking for a dog, I do believe. No man could want an easier
target. After aiming carefully he pulled the trigger, and for the
second time the shot did not go off.

“This seems to have flustered him, so that he made an audible click as
he put in a third cartridge, and the leopard heard it and looked round
and saw him, and turned to go away. He took aim at it. It turned its
head round for a parting glance at him just as he pulled the trigger
again. For the third time the rifle failed to act. The shot did not go
off. The man was left standing, half distracted. He said that as it
disappeared the leopard swelled to the size of a tiger, and the glare
of its eyes as it looked at him made his heart stand still. It could
be no common leopard that bewitched his rifle so.

“Everybody in the house gathered round him to hear his story. That was
when my wife sent a man running to me. The policeman half-walked,
half-staggered to the lines” (the huts where sepoys lived, near
Mr Snadden’s house), “and there he was when I went up. They had had a
glorious scare. By George, how quickly the panic spread!” reflected
Mr Snadden. “They were shivering with funk all round the court before
the man, who was running from my house, arrived there. I had noticed
something was amiss, and was making inquiries to find out what it was
before he came.”

“Had the man loitered on the way?”

“No, I think he came straight. The panic round here was not his doing,
whatever it was. It came up from the bazaar. I’ve made sure of that.
It seems a miracle. I’ve been round pacifying the town. The bazaar was
upside down, business was stopped, women were shrieking and running
after their children a mile away from my house, within a few minutes
after the leopard disappeared into the bushes. I cannot understand
it.”

“Was the beast seen elsewhere?”

“No. The panic was all about what had happened and the rifle not going
off.”

Neither of us ever knew how the panic spread, though Mr Snadden had a
fine scientific curiosity about it, which made him take much trouble
inquiring. He concluded his report on this occasion, thus:

“It did not last long at the lines. The man had hardly told his story
more than five times when the Subadar (the principal native officer)
pushed his way into the middle of the crowd to hear him, and,
listening to him, took the rifle out of his hands to examine it. He
lifted the hammer, and pointing to the leather on the nipple, asked
him, ‘Did you remove _that?_’ The man looked stupefied, shook his
head, and relapsed into silence, and the excitement ended. The men
were very good about it, laughing only a little and not unkindly. They
did not jeer at the poor fellow, but rather pitied him, for the
accidental oversight that had made him look so foolish, and given him
such a fright,” and made him miss the reward of twenty rupees, more
than a month’s pay, which he would have got for killing the leopard.

When the truth was known it was easy to pacify the town.