The island of Elephanta was about five miles distant, and in half an hour the party landed. Upon it were a couple of hills, and it was entirely covered with woods. One of the first things to attract the attention was a singular tree, which seemed to be a family of a hundred of them; for the branches reached down to the ground, and took root there, though the lower ends were spread out in numerous fibres, leaving most of the roots above the soil.
“This is a banyan-tree,” said Sir Modava. “It is a sort of fig-tree, and you see that the leaves are shaped like a heart. It bears a fruit of a rich scarlet color, which grows in couples from the stems of the leaves. They are really figs, and they are an important article of food. In time the trunk of the tree decays and disappears, and temples are made of the thick branches. Some of these trees have three thousand stems rooted in the ground, many of them as big as oaks: and these make a complete forest of themselves. One of them is said to have sheltered seven thousand people; but I never saw one as big as that.”
The party proceeded towards the caves, but had not gone far before they were arrested by the screams of some of the ladies, who were wandering in search of flowers. Louis Belgrave was with his mother and Miss Blanche. Sir Modava, who was telling the rest of the company something more about the banyan-tree, rushed to the spot from which the alarm came. There he found Louis with his revolver in readiness to fire.
“Snakes!” screamed Mrs. Belgrave.
In front of them, asleep on a rock, were two large snakes. The Hindu gentleman halted at the side of the lady, and burst out into a loud laugh.
“The snakes of India seem to be determined that you shall see them,” said he. “But you need not fire, Mr. Belgrave; for those snakes are as harmless as barnyard fowls, and they don’t know enough to bite.”
“I see that they are not cobras,” added Louis, as he returned the revolver to his pocket. “But what are they?”
“Those are rock snakes.”
“But I don’t like the looks of them,” said Mrs. Belgrave, as she continued her retreat towards the path.
“I think they are horrid,” added Miss Blanche.
“But they do no harm, and very likely they do some good in the world,” said Sir Modava; “but there are snakes enough that ought to be killed without meddling with them.”
“You see that rock,” said the viscount; “and it is a very large one. Can you make anything of its shape? I suppose not; nobody can. But that rock gave a name to this island, applied by the Portuguese two or three hundred years ago. It is said to have been in the form of an elephant. If it ever had that shape it has lost it.”
[Illustration: “‘Snakes!’ screamed Mrs. Belgrave.”—Page 184.]
After penetrating a dense thicket, the tourists discovered a comely flight of stairs, cut out of the solid rock of which the hill is composed, extending to a considerable distance, and finally leading into the great pillared chamber forming a Hindu temple, though a level space planted with trees must first be crossed.