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Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History

The Tale of the Abu Laheeb

Lord Dunsany

When I met my friend Murcote in London he talked much of his Club. I had seldom heard of it, and the name of the street in which Murcote told me it stood was quite unknown to me, though I think I had driven through it in a taxi, and remembered the houses as being mean and small. And Murcote admitted that it was not very large, and had no billiard-table and very few rooms; and yet there seemed something about the place that entirely filled his mind and made that trivial street for him the center of London. And when he wanted me to come and see it, I suggested the following day; but he put me off, and again when I suggested the next one. There was evidently nothing much to see, no pictures, no particular wines, nothing that other Clubs boast of; but one heard tales there, he said; very odd ones sometimes; and if I cared to come and see the Club, it would be a good thing to come some evening when old Jorkens was there. I asked who Jorkens was; and he said he had seen a lot of the world. And then we parted, and I forgot about Jorkens, and saw nothing more of Murcote for some days. And then one day Murcote rang me up, and asked me if I'd come to the Club that evening.

I had agreed to come; but before I left my house Murcote surprised me by coming round to see me. There was something he wanted to tell me about Jorkens. He sat and talked to me for some time about Jorkens before we started, though all he said of him might be expressed by one word. Jorkens was a good-hearted fellow, he said, and would always tell a story in the evening to anyone who offered him a small drink; whisky and soda was what he preferred; and he really had seen a good deal of the world, and the Club relied on stories in the evening; it was quite a feature of it; and the Club wouldn't be the Club without them, and it helped the evening to pass, anyway; but one thing he must warn me, and that was never to believe a word he said. It wasn't Jorkens' fault; he didn't mean to be inaccurate; he merely wished to interest his fellow-members and to make the evening pass pleasantly; he had nothing to gain by any inaccuracies, and had no intention to deceive; he just did his best to entertain the Club, and all the members were grateful to him. But once more Murcote warned me never to believe one of his tales nor any part of them, not even the smallest detail of local color.

"I see," I said, "a bit of a liar."

"Oh, poor old Jorkens," said Murcote, "that's rather hard. But still, I've warned you, haven't I?"

And, with that quite clearly understood, we went down and hailed a taxi.

It was after dinner that we arrived at the Club; and we went straight up into a small room, in which a group of members was sitting about near the fire, and I was introduced to Jorkens, who was sitting gazing into the glow, with a small table at his right hand. And then he turned to Murcote to pour out what he had probably already said to all the other members.

"A most unpleasant episode occurred here last evening," he said, "a thing I have never known before, and shouldn't have thought possible in any decent club, shouldn't have thought possible."

"Oh, really," said Murcote. "What happened?"

"A young fellow came in yesterday," said Jorkens. "They tell me he's called Carter. He came in here after dinner, and I happened to be speaking about a curious experience I had once had in Africa, over the watershed of the Congo, somewhere about latitude six, a long time ago. Well, never mind the experience, but I had no sooner finished speaking about it when the young fellow, Carter or whatever he is, said simply he didn't believe me, simply and unmistakably that he disbelieved my story; claimed to know something of geography or zoology which did not tally in his impudent mind with the actual experience that I had had on the Congo side of the watershed. Now, what are you to do when a young fellow has the effrontery, the brazen-faced audacity..."

"Oh, but we must have him turned out," said Murcote. "A case like that should come before the Committee at once. Don't you think so?"

And his eye turned to the other members, roving till it fell on a weary and weak individual who was evidently one of the Committee.

"Oh, er, yes," said he unconvincingly.

"Well, Mr. Jorkens," said Murcote, "we'll get that done at once."

And one or two more members muttered Yes, and Jorkens' indignation sank now to minor mutterings, and to occasional ejaculations that shot out petulantly, but in an undertone. The waters of his imagination were troubled still, though the storm was partly abated.

"It seems to me outrageous," I said, but hardly liked to say any more, being a guest in the Club.

"Outrageous!" the old man replied, and we seemed no nearer to getting any story.

"I wonder if I might ask for a whisky and soda?" I said to Murcote, for a silence had fallen; and at the same time I nodded sideways towards Jorkens to suggest the destination of the whisky. I had waited for Murcote to do this without being asked, and now he ordered three whiskies and sodas listlessly, as though he thought there weren't much good in it. And when the whisky drew near the lonely table that waited desolate at Jorkens' right hand, Jorkens said, "Not for me."

I thought I saw surprise for a moment pass like a ghost through that room, although no one said anything.

"No," said old Jorkens, "I never drink whisky. Now and then I use it in order to stimulate my memory. It has a wonderful effect on the memory. But as a drink I never touch it. I dislike the taste of it."

So his whisky went away. We seemed no nearer that story.

I took my glass with very little soda, sitting in a chair near Jorkens. I had nowhere to put it down.

"Might I put my glass on your table?" I said to Jorkens.

"Certainly," he said, with the utmost indifference in his voice, but not entirely in his eye, which caught the deep yellow flavor as I put it close to his elbow.

We sat for a long time in silence; everyone wanted to hear him talk. And at last his right hand opened wide enough to take a glass, and then closed again. And a while later it opened once more, and moved a little along the table and then drew back, as though for a moment he had thought the drink was his and then had realized his mistake. It was a mere movement of the hand, and yet it showed that here was a man who would not consciously take another man's drink. And, that being clearly established, a dreamy look came over his face as though he thought of far-off things, and his hand moved very absently. It reached the glass unguided by his eye and brought it to his lips, and he drained it, thinking of far other things.

"Dear me," he said suddenly, "I hope I haven't drunk your whisky."

"Not at all," I said.

"I was thinking of a very curious thing," he said, "and hardly noticed what I was doing."

"Might I ask what it was you were thinking of?" I said.

"I really hardly like to tell you," he said, "to tell anyone, after the most unpleasant incident that occurred yesterday."

As I looked at Murcote he seemed to divine my thoughts, and ordered three more whiskies.

It was wonderful how the whisky did brighten old Jorkens' memory, for he spoke with a vividness of little details that could only have been memory; imagination could not have done it. I leave out the details and give the main points of his story for its zoological interest; for it touches upon a gap in zoology which I believe is probably there, and if the story is true it bridges it.

Here then is the story: "One that you won't often hear in London," said Jorkens, "but in towns at the Empire's edge it's told of often. There's probably not a mess out there in which it's not been discussed, scarcely a bungalow where it's not been talked of, and always with derision. In places like Malakal there's not a white man that hasn't heard of it, and not one that believes it. But the last white man that you meet on lonely journeys, the last white man that there is before the swamps begin and you see nothing for weeks but papyrus, he believes in it.

"I have noticed that more than once. Where a lot of men get together, all knowing equally little, and this subject comes up, one will laugh, and they will all laugh at it, and none will trust his imagination to study the rumor; and it remains a rumor, no more. But when a man gets all alone by himself, somewhere on the fringe of that country out of which the rumor arises, and there's no silly laughter to scare his imagination—why, then he can study the thing and develop it, and get much nearer to facts than mere incredulity will ever get him. I find a touch of fever helps in working out problems like that.

"Well, the problem is a very simple one; it is simply the question whether man with his wisdom and curiosity has discovered all the animals that there are in the world, or whether there's one, and a very curious one too, hidden amongst the papyrus, that white men have never seen. And that's not quite what I mean, for there are white men that have seen things that not every young whipper-snapper will believe. I should rather have said an animal that our civilization has not yet taken cognizance of. At Kosti, more than twenty years ago, I first heard two men definitely speak of it, the abu laheeb they called it, and I think they both believed in it too; but Khartoum was only a hundred and fifty miles off, and they had evening clothes with them, and used to wear them at dinner, and they had china plates and silver forks, and ornaments on their mantelpiece, and one thing and another; and all these things seemed to appall their imagination, and they wouldn't honestly let themselves believe it. 'Had three or four fires round his tent,' said one of them, telling of someone, 'and says that the abu laheeb came down about two A.M., and he saw it clear in the firelight.' 'Did it get what it wanted?' said the other. 'Yes, went away hugging it.'

"And one of them said in a rather wandering tone: 'The only animal that uses....' He was lowering his voice, and looking round, and he saw me, and said no more. They turned it all away at once with a laugh or two, as Columbus might have turned away from the long low line of land and refused to believe a new continent. I questioned them, but got no information that could be of any use; they seemed to like laughter more than imagination, so I got jokes instead of truth.

"It was weeks later and far southwards that I found a man who was ready to approach this most interesting point of zoology in the proper spirit of a scientist, a white man all alone in a hut that he had near the mouth of the Bahr el Zeraf. There are things in Africa that you couldn't believe, and the Bahr el Zeraf is one of them. It rises out of the marshes of the White Nile, and flows forty or fifty miles, and into the White Nile again. And one can't easily believe in a white man living all alone in such a place as that, but somebody has to be the last white man you see as you go through the final fringes of civilization, and it was him. He had had full opportunities of studying the whole question of the abu laheeb, he had had years of leisure to compare all the stories the natives brought him, which they shyly told when he had won their confidence, though what he won it with he never told. He had sifted the evidence and knew all that was told about it; and in long malarial nights, with no one and nothing to care for him but quinine, he had pictured the beast so clearly that he could make me a very good drawing of it. I have that drawing to this very day, a beast on his hind legs something like a South American sloth that I once saw, stuffed, in a museum; built rather on the lines of a kangaroo, but much stouter and bigger, and with nothing pointed about his face; it was square and blunt, with great teeth. He had hand-like paws on shortish arms or forelegs.

"I must tell you that I was in a small dahabeeyah going up those great rivers, any great rivers I might meet, leaving civilization because I was tired of it, and looking for wonders in Africa. And I came to this lonely man, Lindon his name was, full of curiosity aroused by those words that I had heard in Malakal. And talking to Lindon like two old friends that have spent all their schooldays together, as white men will who meet in that part of Africa, I soon came to the abu laheeb, thinking he would know more of it than they knew in Malakal. And I found a man grown sensitive, as you only can grow in loneliness: he feared I would disbelieve him, and would scarcely say a word. Yes, the natives believed in some such animal, but his own opinion he would not expose to the possibility of my ridicule. The more questions I asked, the shorter the answers became. And then I drew him by saying, 'Well, there's one thing he uses that no other animal ever did,' the one mysterious thing about this beast that had haunted my mind for weeks, though I did not know what on earth the mystery was. And that got him talking. He saw that I was committed to belief in the beast, and was no longer shy of his own. He told me that the upper reaches of the Bahr el Zeraf were a god-forsaken place: 'And if God forsook the Zeraf,' he said, 'He certainly didn't go to the Jebel,' for the Bahr el Jebel was worse. And somewhere between those two rivers in the desolation of papyrus the abu laheeb certainly lived. He very reasonably said that there were beasts in the plains, beasts in the forests, and beasts in the sea; why not in the huge area of the papyrus into which no man had ever penetrated? If I chose to go to these god-forsaken places I could see the abu laheeb, he said. 'But, of course,' he added, 'you must never go up wind on him.' 'Down wind?' I said.

"'No, nor down wind either,' he answered. 'He can smell as well as a rhino. That's the difficulty; you have to go just between up wind and down wind; and you always find the north wind blowing there.'

"It was some while before I discovered why one can't go up wind on him. I didn't like to over-question Lindon, for questions are akin to criticism, and you cannot apply criticism and cross-examination to the patient work of imagination upon rumor; it is liable to destroy the whole fabric, and one loses valuable scientific data. Nor was Lindon in the mood for the superior belief of a traveler only just come from civilization; he had had malaria too recently to put up with that sort of thing. It was as he was giving me various clear proofs of the existence of some such animal that I suddenly realized what it all meant. He was telling me how more than once he had seen fires in the reeds, not only earlier in the year than the Dinkas light their fires, but in marshes where no Dinka would ever come, nor a Shillook either, or any kind of man, marshes utterly desolate and forever shut to humanity. It was then that the truth flashed on me; truth, sir, that I have since verified with my own eyes: that the abu laheeb plays with fire.

"Well, I needn't tell you how the idea flared up in my mind to be the first white man that had even seen the abu laheeb, and to shoot him and bring his huge skin home, and have something to show for all that lonely wandering. It was a fascinating idea. I asked Lindon if he thought my rifle was big enough, I only had a .350, and whether to use soft-nosed or solid bullets. 'Soft,' he said. I sat up late and asked him many questions. And he warned me about those marshes. I needn't tell you of all the things he warned me against, because you see me alive before you; but they were there all right, they were there. And I went down the little path he'd made from his house to the bank of the river, and went on board my sailing boat under huge white bands of stars, and lay down on board and looked up at them from under my blankets until I fell asleep, while the Arabs cast off and the north wind held good. And when the sun blazed on me at dawn I woke to the Bahr el Zeraf. Scarlet trees with green foliage at first; we were not yet come to those marshes.

"Well, for days we went up the Zeraf, past the white fish-eagles, haughty and silent and watchful on queer trees, with birds sailing over us that I daren't describe to you for fear you should think I exaggerate the brilliancy of their colors. And so we came to those marshes where anything might hide, and be utterly hidden by those miles of rushes, and be well enough protected from explorers by a region of monotony more dismal than any other desolate land I've seen. And all the while the sailors were talking a language I did not know, till my imagination, brooding in that monotony, seemed to hear clear English phrases now and then starting suddenly out of their talk, commonest phrases of our daily affairs, on the other side of the earth. I would swear that I heard one of them say one evening, 'Stop the bus a moment.' But it couldn't have been, for they were talking Dinka talk, and not one of them knew a single word of English; I used to talk Arabic of a sort to the reis.

"Well, at last we came on fires in the reeds, burning at different points. Who lit them I couldn't say, there were no men there, black, white, or gray (the Dinkas are gray, you know). But I wanted absolute proof; and then one day I found his tracks in the rushes. He bounds through the rushes, you know, often breaking several of them where he takes off, and sometimes scattering mud on the tips of them as he springs through; then alighting and taking off again, leaving another huge mark.

"I examined the rushes carefully, till I was sure that I had his tracks. And then I followed them, always watching the wind. It was a dreadful walk. I went alone so as to make less noise. I wanted to get quite close and make sure of my shot. I had a haversack tied close round my neck, and my cartridges were in that. Even then it got wet sometimes. The water was always up to my waist, and often it came higher. I had to hold up my rifle in one hand all the time. The reeds were far over my head.

"Sometimes one came to open spaces of water, with huge blue water-lilies floating on them. And it was always deeper there. Sometimes one walked upon the roots of the rushes, and all the rushes trembled round one for yards, and sometimes one found a bottom of good hard clay and knew one could sink no further. And all the while I was tracking the abu laheeb.

"The north wind blew as usual. I was too old a shikari to be walking down wind, but I was not always able to act strictly on Lindon's advice about never going up wind on the abu laheeb, because his tracks sometimes led that way. At any rate, that was better than the other direction, for he would have been off at once. You wouldn't believe how tired one can be of blue water-lilies. At any rate the water was not cold, but the weariness of lifting each foot was terrible. Each foot, as one lifted it for every step, one would rather have left just where it was forever. I don't know how many hours I tracked the beast, I don't know what time was doing while I walked in those marshes. But in all that weariness of spirit and utter fatigue of limb I suddenly saw a scrap of quite fresh mud on the tip of one of the reeds, and knew that I was getting near him at last. I put the safety catch of my rifle over, and suddenly saw in my mind what I was so nearly doing for Science. Of all the steps Science had taken from out of the early darkness toward that distant point of which we cannot guess, which shall be full of revelations to man, one of her footsteps would be due to me. I could, as it were, write my name on that one footprint, and no one would question my right to.

"I got nearer and nearer, I was no longer weary now; and suddenly, closer than I had dared to hope, was a little puff of smoke above the rushes. I stopped for one moment to steady my breath, and got my rifle ready. In that moment I named him; yes, I called him Prometheus Jorkensi. There was a patch of dry land ahead, and the rushes still protected me. I moved with ten-inch paces so as to make no ripple, but I couldn't keep the rushes quiet; perhaps the north wind blew stronger than I thought, for he never seemed to hear me. And then, oh so close that it couldn't have been ten yards, I saw the little fire on a patch of earth; and the rushes still hid me completely. I saw a patch of brown fur and a huge body crouching. I could only guess what part of the body I saw, but a vital part I thought, and I raised my rifle. Still it had no idea I was anywhere near it. And then I saw its hands stretched out to the fire, warming themselves by the edge of those bleak marshes. I don't cut much ice, you know; I didn't then; no one had ever heard my name, or, if they had, it meant nothing; and here was I on the verge of this discovery, with the proof of it ten yards away just waiting for a rifle bullet. I'd shoot a monkey, I'd shoot an ape, I'd shoot a poor old hippo; I wouldn't mind shooting a horse if it had to be killed, though lots of men can't bear that; but those black hands stretched out over the fire were the one thing I couldn't destroy. The idea that flashed on me standing amongst those reeds I have been turning over in my mind for years, and it always seemed sound to me, and it does even now. You see, of all the links in the world that there are between us, and of all the barriers against those that are not as us, it seems to me that there is one link, one barrier, more outstanding than any other you could possibly name. We talk of our human reason, that may or may not be superior to the dream of the dog or the elephant: we say it is; that is all. We say that we alone have belief in an after-life, and that the lion has not: we say so; that's all. Some of them are stronger, some live longer than us, many may be more cunning. But there is one thing, gentlemen, one thing they haven't got, and that is the knowledge of fire. That seems to me the great link, the great bond between all who have it and the barrier against all who have not. Look what we've done with it: look at those fire-irons, that fender, the bricks of which this house is made, and the steel structure of it; look at this whole city. That's our one great possession, knowledge of fire. And, when I saw those dark hands stretched out to that fire on the edge of the marshes, that is what I thought of all at once, not at such length as I have told you of course; it flashed all through my mind in a moment; but during that moment I hesitated, and the abu laheeb saw the sun on the tip of my rifle or heard me breathing there, for he suddenly craned his great neck over the rushes, then stooped again and scattered the fire with his forepaws with one swift jerk into the reeds all round me. They were alight at once, and through the flame and smoke I only dimly caught sight of him leaping away, but, above the crackle of the burning reeds and the thump of his hind legs leaping, I heard him uttering gusts of human-like laughter."

He paused a moment. We were all quite silent, thinking what he had lost. He had lost a famous name. He shook his head, and seemed full of the same thoughts as the rest of us.

"I never went after him again," he said. "I had seen him, but who'll believe that? I have never quite been able to bring myself any more to try to shoot a creature that shared that great secret with us."

There was silence again; we were wondering, I think, whether his scruples should have prevented him from doing so much for Science. I suppose that the too-sensitive and over-scrupulous seldom make famous names. A man leaning forward, and smoking a pipe, took his pipe out of his mouth and broke the silence at last.

"Mightn't you have photographed him?" he said.

"Photographed him!" said Mr. Jorkens, straightening himself up in his chair. "Photographed him! Aren't half the photographs fakes? Here, look at the Evening Picture; look at that, now. There's a child handing a bouquet to someone with its left hand, so that both of them may expose as much of their surface as possible to the camera. And here's a man welcoming his brother from abroad. Welcoming indeed! They are both of them being photographed, and that's obviously all that they're doing."

We looked at the paper and it was so; they were almost turning their backs on one another in order to be photographed.

"No," he said, and he looked me straight in the eyes, and flashed that glance of his from face to face. "If Truth cannot stand alone, she scorns the cheap aid of photography."

So dominant was his voice as he said these words, so flashed his eyes in the dim light of the room, that none of us spoke any more. I think we felt that our voices would shock the silence. And we all went quietly away.

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