The night had just fallen, moist and heavy over the jungle, when Muztagh caught up with his herd. He found them in an open grassy glade, encircled by hills, and they were all waiting, silent, as he sped down the hills toward them. They had heard him coming a long way. He was not attempting silence. The jungle people had not got out of his way.
The old bull that led the herd, seventy years of age and at the pride of his wisdom and strength, scarred, yellow-tusked and noble past any elephant patriarch in the jungle, curled up his trunk when he saw him come. He knew very well what would happen. And because no one knows better than the jungle people what a good thing it is to take the offensive in all battles, and because it was fitting his place and dignity, he uttered the challenge himself.
The silence dropped as something from the sky. The little pink calves who had never seen the herd grow still in this same way before, felt the dawn of the storm that they could not understand, and took shelter beneath their mothers’ bellies. But they did not squeal. The silence was too deep for them to dare to break.
It is always an epoch in the life of the herd when a young bull contests for leadership. It is a much more serious thing than in the herds of deer and buffalo. The latter only live a handful of years, then grow weak and die. A great bull who has attained strength and wisdom enough to obtain the leadership of an elephant herd may often keep it for forty years. Kings do not rise and fall half so often as in the kingdoms of Europe. For, as most men know, an elephant is not really old until he has seen a hundred summers come and go. Then he will linger fifty years more, wise and grey and wrinkled and strange and full of memories of a time no man can possibly remember.
Long years had passed since the leader’s place had been questioned. The aristocracy of strength is drawn on quite inflexible lines. It would have been simply absurd for an elephant of the Dwasala or Mierga grades to covet the leadership. They had grown old without making the attempt. Only the great Kumiria, the grand dukes in the aristocracy, had ever made the trial at all. And besides, the bull was a better fighter after thirty years of leadership than on the day he had gained the honour.
The herd stood like heroic figures in stone for a long moment—until Muztagh had replied to the challenge. He was so surprised that he couldn’t make any sound at all at first. He had expected to do the challenging himself. The fact that the leader had done it shook his self-confidence to some slight degree. Evidently the old leader still felt able to handle any young and arrogant bulls that desired his place.
Then the herd began to shift. The cows drew back with their calves, the bulls surged forward, and slowly they made a hollow ring, not greatly different from the pugilistic ring known to fight-fans. The calves began to squeal, but their mothers silenced them. Very slowly and grandly, with infinite dignity, Muztagh stamped into the circle. His tusks gleamed. His eyes glowed red. And those appraising old bulls in the ring knew that such an elephant had not been born since the time of their grandfathers.