This is the story of the great war that Rikki-tikki-tavi fought all alone. Darzee, the tailor-bird, helped him, and Chuchundra, the muskrat, who never comes out into the middle of the room, but always creeps round by the walls, gave him advice, but Rikki-tikki-tavi did the real fighting.
He was a mongoose, but in his fur and tail he was like a little cat, and like a weasel in his head and habits. His eyes and the end of his restless nose were pink; he could scratch himself anywhere he liked, with any leg, front or back; he could fluff up his tail till it looked like a bottle brush, and his war-cry as he ran through the long grass, was: "Rikk-tikk-tikki-tikki-tchk!"
One day, a hard summer rain washed him out of the hole where he lived with his father and mother, and carried him down a roadside ditch. There he found some grass, and clung to it till he lost his senses. When he came to himself, he was lying in the hot sun in the middle of a garden path, and a small boy was saying: "Here's a dead mongoose. Let's have a funeral."
"No," said his mother; "let's take him home and dry him. Perhaps he isn't really dead."
They took him into the house, and a big man picked him up and said he was not dead but half choked," so they wrapped him in cotton-wool, and warmed him, and he opened his eyes and sneezed.
"Now," said the big man (he was an Englishman who had just moved into the bungalow); "don't frighten him, and we'll see what he'll do."
It is the hardest thing in the world to frighten a mongoose, because he is full of curiosity from nose to tail. The motto of all the mongoose family is, "Run and find out"; and Rikki-tikki was a true mongoose. He looked at the cotton-wool, decided that it was not good to eat, ran all round the table, sat up and put his fur in order, scratched himself, and jumped on the small boy's shoulder.
"Don't be frightened, Teddy," said his father. "That's how he makes friends."
Rikki-tikki looked down at the boy's neck, sniffed at his ear, and climbed dovrn to the floor, where he sat rubbing his nose.
"And that is a wild creature!" said Teddy's mother. "I suppose he is so tame because we have been kind to him."
"All mongooses are like that," said her husband. "If Teddy doesn't pull him by the tail, or try to put him in a cage, he'll run in and out of the house all day long. Let's give him something to eat."
They gave him a little piece of raw meat. Rikki-tikki liked it very much, and when he finished he went out into the veranda and sat in the sunshine and fluffed up his fur to make it dry to the roots. Then he felt better.
"I can find out about more things in this house," he said to himself, "than all my family could find out in all their lives. I shall certainly stay and find out."
He spent all that day running over the house. He nearly drowned himself in the bath-tubs, put his nose into the ink on a writing-table, and burned it on the end of the big man's cigar, for he climbed up in the big man's lap to see how he was writing. In the evening he ran into Teddy's room to watch how kerosene lamps were lighted, and when Teddy went to bed Rikki-tikki climbed up too, but he was a restless companion, because he had to get up and find out about every noise all the night long. When Teddy's mother and father came in to look at their boy, Rikki-tikki was sitting on the pillow. "I don't like that," said Teddy's mother; "he may bite the child." "He'll not do such a thing," said the father. "Teddy is safe with that little beast. If a snake comes into the room now"
But Teddy's mother didn't even want to hear of such a terrible thing.
Early in the morning Rikki-tikki came to breakfast in the veranda riding on Teddy's shoulder, and they gave him banana and some boiled egg; and he sat on all their laps one after the other, because Rikki-tikki's mother (she used to live in a general's house) had told him what to do if ever he came to the house of Man.
Rikki-tikki went out into the garden. It was a large garden with bushes, fruit trees, bamboos and high grass. Rikki-tikki licked his lips. "This is a splendid hunting-ground," he said and he ran up and down the garden, sniffing here and there till he heard very sorrowful voices in a bush.
It was Darzee, the tailor-bird, and his wife. They had made a beautiful nest of two big leaves, cotton and fluff. The nest swayed to and fro, as they sat in it and cried.
"What is the matter?" asked Rikki-tikki.
"We are very unhappy," said Darzee. "One of our babies fell out of the nest yesterday and Nag ate him."
"H'm!" said Rikki-tikki, "that is very sad but I am a stranger here. Who is Nag?"
Darzee and his wife only bent down in the nest without answering, for from the thick grass at the foot of the bush there came a low hiss a terrible sound that made Rikki-tikki jump back almost two feet. Then out of the grass rose up the head and hood of Nag, the big black cobra, and he was five feet long from tongue to tail. When he had lifted one-third of himself from the ground, he looked at Rikki-tikki with the wicked snake's eyes that never change their expression.
"Who is Nag?" he said. "I am Nag. The great god Brahm put his mark upon all our people when the first cobra' spread his hood to keep the sun off Brahm as he slept. Look, and be afraid!"
He spread out his hood, and Rikki-tikki saw the spectacle-mark' on the back of it and at that moment he was afraid; but it is impossible for a mongoose to be afraid for a long time, and though Rikki-tikki had never met alive cobra before, his mother had given him dead ones to eat, and he knew that a grown mongoose's business in life was to fight and eat snakes. Nag knew that too, and at the bottom of his cold heart he was afraid.
"Well," said Rikki-tikki, and his tail began to fluff up again, "marks or no marks, do you think it is right for ii you to eat babies out of a nest?"
Nag was thinking to himself, and watching each little movement in the grass behind Rikki-tikki. He knew that mongooses in the garden meant death sooner or later for him and his family; but he wanted to get Rikki-tikki off his guard.' So he dropped his head a little, and put it on one side.
"Let us talk," he said. "You eat eggs. Why should not I eat birds?"
"Behind you! Look behind you!" sang Darzee.
Rikki-tikki jumped up in the air as high as he could, and just under him whizzed by the head of Nagaina, Nag's wicked wife. She crept up behind him as he was talking, to make an end of him; and he heard her savage hiss as the stroke missed.' He came down almost on her back, and then was the time to break her back with one bite but he was a young mongoose and did not know it and he was afraid of the terrible return-stroke of the cobra. He bit, indeed, but did not bite long enough, and he jumped off her tail, leaving Nagaina wounded and angry.
"Wicked, wicked Darzee!" said Nag, lifting up his head as high as he could toward the nest; but Darzee had built it out of reach' of snakes, and it only swayed to and fro. Rikki-tikki felt that his eyes were growing red and hot (when a mongoose's eyes grow red, he is angry), and he sat back on his tail and hind legs like a little kangaroo, and looked all around him angrily, but Nag and Nagaina had disappeared into the grass. When a snake misses its stroke, it never says anything or gives any sign of what it is going to do next. Rikki-tikki did not want to follow them, for he was not sure that he could manage two snakes at once. So he trotted of to the path near the house, and sat down to think. It was a serious matter for him.
The victory is only a matter of quickness of eye and quickness of foot, snake's blow against mongoose's jump, and no eye can follow the turn of a snake's head when it strikes. Rikki-tikki knew he was a young mongoose, and it made him very glad to think that he had managed to escape a blow from behind. It made him believe in himself, and when Teddy came running down the path, Rikki-tikki was ready to play with him.
But as Teddy was stooping, something moved in the dust, and a faint voice said: "Be careful. I am Death!" It was Karait, the dusty brown Snakeling that lies on the dusty earth; and his bite is as dangerous as the Cobra's. But he is so small that nobody thinks of him, and so he does much harm to people.
Rikki-tikki's eyes grew red again, and he danced up to Karait rocking and swaying like all the mongooses of his family. Rikki-tikki did not know that he was doing a much more dangerous thing than fighting Nag, for Karait is so small, and can turn so quickly, that if Rikki does not bite him close to the back of the head, he may get the return stroke in his eye or lip. But Rikki did not know it and his eyes were all red, and he rocked back and forth, looking for a good place to bite. Karait struck out. Rikki jumped aside, but the wicked little dusty gray head struck almost at his shoulder, and Rikki had to jump over him.
Teddy shouted to the house: "Oh, look here! Our mongoose is killing a snake"; and Rikki-tikki heard a scream from Teddy's mother. His father ran out with a stick, but by the time he came up, Karait ran away too far, and Rikki-tikki had jumped on the snake's back, bit as high up the back as he could, and rolled away. That bite paralyzed Karait, and Rikki-tikki was just going to eat him up from the tail, after the custom of his family, when he remembered that a full meal makes a slow mongoose, and if he wanted to be strong and quick his stomach must be empty.
He went away for a dust-bath under the bushes, while Teddy's father beat the dead Karait. "What is the use of that?" thought Rikki-tikki. "I have put an end to him"; and then Teddy's mother picked him up from the dust and hugged him, cryinj that he had saved Teddy from Death, and Teddy's father said that he brought luck, and Teddy looked on with big frightened eyes. Rikki-tikki did not understand all this but he was enjoying himself very much.
Teddy carried him off to bed, and wanted Rikki-tikki to sleep under his chin. Rikki-tikki did not bite or scratch he was too well-bred but as soon as Teddy was asleep he went off to walk round the house, and in the dark he ran up against Chuchundra, the muskrat, creeping round by the wall. Chuchundra is a frightened little beast. He creeps all night, trying to make up his mind to run into the middle of the room, but he never gets there. "Don't kill me," said Chuchundra, almost weeping. "Rikki-tikki, don't kill me."
"Do you think a snake-killer kills muskrats?" said Rikki-tikki scornfully.
"Those who kill snakes are killed by snakes," said Chuchundra very sorrowfully. "And how can I be sure that Nag won't mistake me for you one dark night?"
"There's not the least danger," said Rikki-tikki; "but Nag is in the garden, and I know you don't go there."
"My cousin Chua, the rat, told me " said Chuchundra, and then he stopped.
"Told you what?"
"H'sh! Nag is everywhere, Rikki-tikki. Why didn't you talk to Chua in the garden?"
"I did not so you must tell me. Quick, Chuchundra, or I'll bite you!"
Chuchundra sat down and cried till the tears rolled off his whiskers. "I am a very poor man," he sobbed. "I was never brave enough to run into the middle of the room. Hsh! I mustn't tell you anything. Can't you hear, Rikki-tikki?"
Rikki-tikki listened. The house was still, but he thought he could just hear the faintest scratch-scratch in the world.
"That's Nag or Nagaina," he said to himself; "and he is crawling into the bathroom. Chuchundra, you are right, I am sorry I did not talk to Chua."
He stole off to Teddy's bathroom; but there was nothing there, and as Rikki-tikki stole to Teddy's mother's bathroom, he heard Nag and Nagaina whispering together outside in the moonlight.
"When there are no people in the house," said Nagaina to her husband, "he will have to go away, and then the garden will be our own again. Go in quietly, and first bite the big man who killed Karait. Then come out and tell me, and we will hunt for Rikki-tikki together."
"But are you sure that we shall gain anything if we kill the people?" said Nag.
"Everything. When there were no people in the bungalow, did we have any mongoose in the garden? So long as the bungalow is empty, we are king and queen of the garden; and remember that as soon as our eggs in the melon-bed hatch (and they may hatch to-morrow), our children will need room and quiet."
"I had not though of that," said Nag. "I will go, but there is no need for us to hunt for Rikki-tikki afterward. I will kill the big man and his wife, and the child if I can, and come away quietly. Then the bungalow will be empty, and Rikki-tikki will go."
Rikki-tikki shook all over with rage when he heard this, and then Nag's head came into the bath-room, and his five feet of cold body followed it. Rikki-tikki was angry but he got very frightened when he saw the size of the big cobra. Nag coiled himself up, raised his head, and looked into the bathroom in the dark, and Rikki could see his eyes glitter.
"Now, if I kill him here, Nagaina will know; and if I fight him on the open floor, the odds are in his favour.' What shall I do?" said Rikki-tikki-tavi.
Nag waved to and fro, and then Rikki-tikki heard him drinking from the biggest water-jar that was used to fill the bath. "That is good," said the snake. "Now, when Karait was killed, the big man had a stick. He may have that stick still, but when he comes into the bathroom in the morning he will not have a stick. I shall wait here till he comes. Nagaina do you hear me? I shall wait heretill daytime."
There was no answer from outside, so Rikki-tikki knew that Nagaina had gone away. Nag coiled himself down, round the bottorn of the water-jar, and Rikki-tikki stayed still as death. After an hour he began to move toward the jar. Nag was asleep, and Rikki-tikki looked at his big back, wondering which would be the best place for a good bite. "If I don't' break his back at the first jump," said Rikki, "he can still fight; and if he fights Oh, Rikki!" He looked at the thick neck below the hood, but that was too much for him; and a bite near the tail would only make Nag wild.
"I must bite the head," he said at last; "the head above the hood; and when I am there I must not let go."
Then he jumped and caught the snake by the head and held fast. Then he was shaken to and fro as a rat is shaken by a dog to and fro on the floor, up and down, and round in great circles. His eyes were red, and he held fast as the body rolled over the floor, upsetting the basins and jars and banging against the side of the bath. As he held he closed his jaws tighter and tighter, for he was ready to be shaken to death, and for the honour of his family, he preferred to be found with his teeth locked. He was dizzy, and he felt that he was shaken to pieces when somethingwent off like a thunder-clap just behind him; he lost his senses in the hot wind and the red fire burned his fur.
The big man had been wakened by the noise, and had fired a gun into Nag just behind the hood.
Rikki-tikki still held fast with his eyes shut, for now he was quite sure he was dead; but the head did not move, and the big man picked him up and said: "It's the mongoose again, Alice; the little fellow has saved our lives now." Then Teddy's mother came in with a very white face, and saw what was left of Nag, and Rikki-tikki dragged himself to Teddy's bedroom and spent the rest of the night shaking himself to find out whether he really was broken into forty pieces, as he thought.
When morning came he was very stiff, but very much pleased with himself. "Now I have to put an end to Nagaina, and she will be worse than five Nags, and who knows when the eggs she spoke about will hatch. I must go and see Darzee," he said.
Without waiting for breakfast, Rikki-tikki ran to the bush where Darzee was singing a song of triumph at the top of his voice. The news of Nag's death was all over the garden, for the sweeper had thrown the body on the rubbish-heap.
"Oh, you stupid bird!" said Rikki-tikki, angrily; "Is this the time to sing?"
"Nag is dead is dead is dead!" sang Darzee. "The brave Rikki-tikki caught him by the head and held fast. The big man brought the bang-stick' and Nag fell in two pieces! He will never eat my babies again."
"All that is true; but where is Nagaina?" said Rikki-tikki, looking carefully around him.
"On the rubbish-heap, mourning for Nag. Great is Rikki-tikki with the white teeth."
"Bother my white teeth! Have you ever heard where she keeps her eggs?"
"In the melon-bed, on the end nearest the wall, where the sun is hot almost all day. She had them there many weeks ago."
"Why didn't you tell me about it before? The end nearest the wall, you said?"
"Rikki-tikki, are you going to eat her eggs?"
"Not eat exactly; no, Darzee, if you have some sense you will fly to the rubbish-heap and pretend that your wing is broken, and let Nagaina follow you away to this bush; I must go to the melon-bed, and if I go there now she will see me."
Darzee was a silly little fellow who could never hold more than one idea at a time in his head; and just because he knew that Nagaina's children were born in eggs like his own, he thought that it was bad to kill them. But his wife was a sensible bird, and she knew that cobra's eggs meant young cobras later on; so she flew out of the nest, and left Darzee to keep the babies warm, and continue his song about the death of Nag. Darzee was verylike a man in some ways.
She flem in front of Nagaina by the rubbish-heap, and cried out: "Oh, my wing is broken! The boy in the house threw a stone at me and broke it," and she fluttered desperately.
Nagaina lifted up her head and hissed, "You warned Rikki-tikki and that's why I could not kill him. But indeed, you have chosen the bad place to be lame in." And she moved toward Darzee's wife, slipping along over the dust.
"The boy broke it with a stone!" cried Darzee's wife.
"Well! When you are dead you may be glad to know that I shall settle accounts' with the boy. My husband lies on the rubbish-heap this morning, but before night the boy in the house will lie very still. What is the use of running away? I am sure that I shall catch you. Little fool, look at me!"
Darzee's wife was clever enough not to do that, for a bird who looks at a snake's eyes gets so frightened that she cannot move. Darzee's wife fluttered on, crying sorrowfully, and never leaving the ground, and Nagaina followed her.
Rikki-tikki heard them going up the path from the rubbish-heap, and he ran to the end of the melon-bed nearest the wall. There cunningly hidden, he found twenty-five eggs about the size of a hen's egg, but with white skin instead of shell.
"I was just in time," he said; for he could see the baby cobras curled up inside the eggs, and he knew that as soon as they were hatched they could each kill a man or a mongoose. He bit off the tops of the eggs as fast as he could, crushing the young cobras. At last there were only three eggs left, and Rikki-tikki began to smile to himself, when he heard Darzee's wife crying: Rikki-tikki, I led Nagaina toward the house, and she has gone into the veranda, and oh, come quickly she is going to kill.
Rikki-tikki crushed two eggs, and with the third egg in his mouth, he ran to the veranda as fast as he could. Teddy and his mother and father were there at breakfast; but Rikki-tikki saw that they were not eating. They sat still, and their faces were mhite. Nagaina had curled up by Teddy's chair, and she was swaying to and fro singing a song of triumph.
"Son of the big man that killed Nag," she hissed, "stay still. I am not ready yet. Wait a little. Keep very still, all you three. If you move I strike, and if you do not move I strike. Oh, foolish people, who killed my Nag!"
Teddy's eyes were fixed on his father, and all his father could do was to whisper, "Sit still, Teddy. You mustn't move. Teddy, keep still."
Then Rikki-tikki came up and cried: "Turn round, Nagaina; turn and fight!"
"All in good time," said she without moving her eyes. "I will settle accounts with you very soon. Look at your friends, Rikki-tikki. They are still and white; they are afraid. They dare not move, and if you come a step nearer I strike."
"Look at your eggs," said Rikki-tikki, "in the melon bed near the wall. Go and look, Nagaina."
The big snake turned half round, and saw the egg on the veranda. "Ah-h! Give it to me," she said.
Rikki-tikki put his paws on each side of the egg, and his eyes were blood-red. "What price for a snake's egg? For a young cobra? For the last the very last of all the eggs? The ants are eating all the others near the melon- bed."
Nagaina turned around, forgetting everything but her one egg; and Rikki-tikki saw Teddy's father catch Teddy by the shoulder and drag him across the table out of reach of Nagaina.
"Tricked!' Tricked! Tricked! Rikk-tck-tck!" laughed Rikki-tikki. "The boy is safe, and it was I I I that caught Nag by the hood last night in the bathroom." Then he began to jump up and down, all four feet together. "He threw me to and fro, but he could not shake me off. He was dead before the big man fired the gun. I did it Rikki-tikki-tck-tck! Come then, Nagaina. Come and fight with me. You shall not be a widow long."
Nagaina saw that now she could not kill Teddy, and the egg lay between Rikki-tikki's paws. "Give me the egg, Rikki-tikki. Give me the last of my eggs, and I will go away and never come back," she said, lowering her heod.
"Yes, you will go away, and you will never come back; for. you will go to the rubbish-heap with Nag. Flght, widow! The big man has gone for his gun! Fight!"
Rikki-tikki was jumping all round Nagaina, keeping out of reach of her stroke, his little eyes were like hot coals. Nagaina gathered herself together, and flung herself at him. Rikki-tikki jumped up and backward. Again and again she struck, but each time she missed her strokes.
Rikki-tikki had forgotten the egg. It still lay on the ve-randa, and Nagaina came nearer and nearer to it, till at last, while Rikki-tikki was drawing his breath, she caught
it in her mouth, turned to the veranda steps, and flew like an arrow down the path and Rikki-tikki flew behind her.
Rikki-tikki knew that he must catch her, or all the trouble would begin again. She ran straight for the long grass by Darzee's bush, and as he was running Rikki-tikki heard Darzee still singiqg his foolish little song of triumph. But Darzee's wife was wiser. She flew out of her nest as Nagaina came along, and fluttered about Nagaina's head. Nagaina only lowered her head and went on; but when she stopped for a second Rikki-tikki jumped on her, and as she plunged into the hole where she and Nag used to live, his little white teeth hit her tail, and he went down with her and very few mongooses, even wise and old ones, follow a cobra into its hole. It was dark in the hole; and Rikki-tikki didn't know when Nagaina would turn and strike at him, but he held on fast.
Then the grass by the mouth of the hole stopped waving, and Darzee said: "It is all over with Rikki-tikki! We must sing his death-song. Brave Rikki-tikki is dead! For Nagaina will surely kill him in the hole underground."
So he sang a very sorrowful song that he made up on the spur of the minute, and just as he got to the most sorrowful part the grass waved again, and Rikki-tikki, covered with dirt, dragged himself out of the hole leg by leg, licking his whiskers. Darzee stopped with a little shout. Rikki-tikki shook some of the dust out of his fur and sneezed. "It is all over," he said. "The widow vrill never come out again."
Rikki-tikki curled himself up in the grass and slept where he was slept and slept till it was late in the afternoon, for he had worked hard that day.
"Now," he said, when he awoke, "I will go back to the house. Tell the Coppersmith, Darzee, and he will tell the garden that Nagaina is dead."
When Rikki came to the house, Teddy and Teddy's mother and Teddy's father came out and almost cried over him; and that night he ate all that was given to him till he could eat no more; and went to bed on Teddy's shoulder, where Teddy's mother saw him when she came to look late at night.
"He saved our lives and Teddy's life," she said to her husband. "Just think, he saved all our lives."
Rikki-tikki had a right to be proud of himself; but he did not grow too proud, and he guarded the house and the garden with tooth and jump and spring and bite, till no cobra dared to show its head inside the walls.