Darlac 2

The Moi spotted a large number of duck, lying like a heavy pencil¬line, drawn near the lake’s horizon. Cacot became very enthusiastic and suggested that we should go crocodile hunting after dinner. He thought we might get a few deer, too, while we were about it. The Moi was manoeuvring the pirogue towards the duck, taking advantage of the cover provided by the islands and the reeds. We cut lanes through the lotus-beds spreading from the islands and this slowed us up. Cacot could not see the necessity for this, as he said that no one ever went shooting on the lake, so the birds would be tame. We were within about a hundred yards of them when they took off, with a twittering noise, like a flock of frightened finches. They were ferruginous ducks, which I only knew from illustrations. There were about two hundred of them and curiosity was their undoing because the whole flight suddenly turned towards us and passed over our heads, with Ribo and Cacot blazing away at them. Several of them dropped like stones into the lake, but the weeds were so thick that we only picked up one that fell by the pirogue. It was a handsome reddish-brown bird, a little smaller than a mallard, with slate- blue bill and legs. We nosed about the lake for another hour but the ducks would never let us get anywhere near them again. Cacot said that he thought that the Emperor had been shooting there.
Determined to go home with some sort of a bag he now concentrated on the only other birds on the lake which he thought might be edible. These were isolated black-winged stilts, elegant and fragile-looking, which, seeming never to have come under fire before, let us get within a few yards of them. Cacot shot several. They were very tenacious of life and, although severely damaged at close range, dived and remained below the surface for so long a time that it seemed as if they were determined to drown rather than be captured. They were found with great difficulty by the Moi, groping about among the underwater weeds. In flavour they were much inferior to duck.
After supper we went out hunting in Ribo’s jeep. Fortunately Cacot had been talked out of the crocodile shooting expedition on the grounds that we should all get malaria in the swamps. Cacot had a powerful light, like a miner’s lamp, attached to his forehead, carrying the battery in a haversack. We drove along one of the Emperor’s private hunting tracks and Cacot turned his head from side to side trying to pick up a reflection from the eyes of game. Finally this happened. Five pairs of luminous pinpricks shone in the depths of a clearing, belonging, Cacot whispered hoarsely, to deer. lumping down from the jeep he plunged into the long grass, the beam of light jerking and wavering in front of him. At the end of the glade the deer could finally be made out, awaiting his coming, heads and necks above the grass, immobile as dummies in a shooting gallery. The light steadied, there was a red flash and charging echoes. The deer’s going was not to be seen. The clearing was suddenly emptied. Cacot came back and got into the jeep, saying that he was feeling tired. On the way home he brought down a small skunk-like animal with a long difficult shot. It had coarse, bristly fur, which Cacot seemed to think was of some value. After it had lain in the garage under the bungalow for a day it began to stink and the driver was told to bury it.
That night I was awakened by a prolonged slithering sound in the room, followed by a click. It was not a loud sound by any means but there was a suggestion of danger about it, which evidently impressed the subconscious mind. There was no electric light and it did not seem a very good idea to me to get up and look for the matches, because although I could not account for the click the slithering sound corresponded in my imagination to the noise a large snake would make in crossing the floor. I, therefore, lay quietly under the mosquito net, which I hoped would prove a deterrent to any exploratory reptile. The sound was repeated several times and then stopped. I went to sleep.
Almost immediately, it seemed, I was awakened by a truly hideous outcry, very definitely in the room and coming from a point not more than six feet from where I lay. This was a gurgling peal of ghastly hilarity, ending in the cry, jeck-o repeated several times. Although in the stillness of the night I ascribed this to some kind of predatory monster, it turned out next morning to be no more than the house’s tutelary jecko lizard, a large and repulsive monster of its kind which liked to lurk during the daytime in an angle of the bookcase, switching its tail angrily over the volumes of Jean-Paul Sartre. The jecko, it seems, is only dangerous to the extent that it defends itself vigorously when attacked and is regarded as fateful by the Vietnamese who draw auguries from the number of times it repeats the concluding bi-syllable of its call.
I was never able to account for the slither and the click.

The sun was well up when we drove out next morning. Out of respect for the conventions of the country there had been some talk of making a dawn start, but many civilised delays had spun out the time. It was a genial morning. We dropped down the spiral road past the shore of the lake, which was still peeling off its layers of mist. There were a few Moi’s out fishing in their pirogues, floating, it seemed, in suspension. Mois were pottering about in the streams running down to the lake, setting fish-traps or washing out their kitchen pots – a job they were very particular about.

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