Then he calmly and carefully slugged the remaining five shots into the venomous head -- caught in the wicker back of the chair , the eyes dead on him as the life finally went out of the brute .
The body continued to lash , but now Keith used the legs of the chair to fork the loathsome , bloody mass out of the bungalow .
He slammed the door and listened as his servants ran up , alarmed at the sound of the shots .
He heard their chattering , and then the sounds of hacking as they dismembered the snake right on the porch with wood axes .
It was only then that he turned to look at Penny .
She was sitting on the edge of the bed again , back in the same position where the snake had found her .
The fear had not entirely gone from her face , but there were some other emotions now , crowding into her eyes and the lines of her mouth .
But her hands were calm , now .
She's got guts , thought Keith .
She's got more guts than any other woman in the world .
`` Keith '' , said Penny , `` Keith , you were wonderful .
I don't suppose a wife should be grateful to her husband for saving her life , but I am .
Thank you , Keith '' .
He smiled at her sincerity .
And for the hundredth time that week , he was startled at her beauty .
Seven years they'd been married .
He knew her mind pretty well , by now , its quick perceptions and sympathies , its painful insistence on truth and directness , its capacity for love almost too deep for a man to reciprocate , even in part .
But her beauty always surprised him anew .
`` I realize that this is hardly the time to say it , Penny '' , said Keith .
`` But knowing you , I know that you're glad to be alive , and grateful -- and sorry because I killed the snake , even though I had to .
Isn't that so '' ? ?
Penny lowered her eyes .
`` Yes '' , she said , almost in a whisper , as if admitting to a crime .
`` The snake was beautiful , wasn't it '' ? ?
Asked Keith , his voice getting harsher in spite of himself , as he struggled to control his growing anger .
`` It was a king cobra , the largest you ever saw , and it deserved to live out its life in the jungle , didn't it ? ?
didn't it ? ?
Penny did not answer .
Now , she just sat there looking at him , without an expression except concern for him .
`` We're all God's creatures , aren't we '' ? ?
Keith was snarling now .
`` All of us -- every goddam roach and worm and killer in that jungle .
You love this village and these stinking brown people because they're God's creatures , too .
And you love Ahmiri , that black bastard of a servant even a little more , because he's a beautiful man .
And he loves you because you're a beautiful woman .
We're all God's creatures , aren't we , Penny ? ?
All of us , that is , except me .
You hate me , you hate my guts , because I like to hunt .
You actually hate me -- and we both know it -- because I killed that filthy snake .
Well , why don't you say something '' ? ?
Penny would not rise to his mood .
`` There isn't anything left to say , is there , Keith '' ? ?
She softly let herself into the bed , and took her regular side , away from the door , where she slept better because Keith was between her and the invader .
He knew she was not sulking , not even angry at him .
Just as he knew that she had stopped loving him .
The Brahmaputra has its headwaters in the tableland of the world , the towering white headwalls of the Himalayas that are unknown to man as any other space on the planet .
For a brief period each year , the rays of the sun are warm enough to melt some of the snows piled a mile deep at the base of the headwalls , and then the pinnacles glisten in the daytime at high noon , and billions of gallons of water begin their slow seepage under the glaciers and across the rockstrewn hanging valleys on their long , meandering journey to the sea -- running east past the sky-carving massifs of Gurla Mandhata and Kemchenjunga , then turning south and curling down through the jungles of Assam , past the Khasi Hills , and into Bengal , past Sirinjani and Madaripur , until the hard water of the melting snows mingles with the soft drainage of fields and at length fans out to meld with the teeming salt depths of the Bay of Bengal .
Keith Sterling had looked down on the Brahmaputra more times than he could remember , during the war days when he flew over the Hump of the world , thinking it high adventure in those times before man was guiding himself through outer space .
But Keith looked down more than up .
He thought of the jungles below him , and of the wild , strange , untracked beauty there and he promised himself that someday he would return , on foot perhaps , to hunt in this last corner of the world where man is sometimes himself the hunted , and animals the lords .
At first it had been just a romantic dream of his , the same as the idea of finishing Oxford after the war .
But `` after the war '' was a luxury of a phrase he did not permit himself .
Wing Commanders in the RAF do not imply survival in the future either in their orders or in their attitudes , to their men or to themselves .
And Keith's record of kills made him a man to listen to -- a man paradoxically , who might even survive .
He became a fighter pilot after the stint over the Hump in the big crates .
The RAF was Britain's weapon of attrition , and flying a fighter plane was the way her sons could serve her best at this point in the war .
He knew how to shoot down Nazis .
And he knew that the men talked about him behind his back , saying that he was one up on everybody else -- including the pilot of the plane with the swastika on it -- because he was chemically incapable of fear .
That was true , but only half the truth .
The other half he didn't like to recognize , even to himself .
He enjoyed the killing .
Not defending England , or being an ace , or fighting for humanity .
He enjoyed killing .
And he would have enjoyed it just as much if he had been a Nazi .
Nowadays , we talk as though the blitz were just a short skirmish .
The Nazis bombed Britain , so the RAF retaliated and shot them all down .
Not quite .
It was a war of nerves , of stamina , of dogged endurance in which the stupid insistence of the British on their right to their own country became ultimately an unsurmountable obstacle to the Nazis , who were better organized and technically superior .
It took a long time before the British tipped the balance .
Keith learned too much about air combat , and air killing , to be risked .
They grounded him ( over his protests -- not including his true reason for wanting to fly ) and put him in the Command offices .
That was where he met Penny .
He was aware of her as a frightfully good-looking American WAC , a second lieutenant assigned to do the paper work , ( regardless of how important she might have thought she was ) in the Command offices , but that was all .
Penny knew him better , on her part .
He had a war reputation , but this was the kind of man women like even without medals .
They don't go for bull-like muscle , as a rule .
He had strength in his six-foot frame , but it was like the tensile steel in a rapier .
He was on the thin side , with big hands , and the kind of wrists that give away the power in forearm and bicep .
His hair was black , already greying at the temples in the classic beauty-idiom , the only one permitted to a man .
The pretty little twittering WACS said he had the look of eagles -- and Penny , hating the cliche , had to admit that in this case it applied .
Keith was an eagle .
Penny and Keith had no romance .
No dates or hand-holding .
But they met in one searing moment that gave them to one another instantly .
The Command offices were in the border country , up north , where the radar systems centralized their intelligence reports , and the fighters were dispatched to harry the enemy .
The Nazis knew this , of course , and while their chief quarry was the industrial centers , they let a few drop every time they went over , hoping for a lucky hit .
This time , they had been lucky .
The Command post was underground , and well camouflaged .
But there hadn't been enough time to build it for keeps .
There was a measure of protection in its concrete walls and ceiling , but the engineers who hastily installed it were well aware that concrete is not much better than prayer , if as efficacious , when a direct hit comes along .
This one was actually more of a `` near miss '' .
The bomb plunged into the ground near the Post , but not precisely into the Command room itself .
There was a shattering , cracking sound as the concrete started to buckle , the air filled with dust and flying debris , and everyone in the room -- men and women hit the floor and used the desks as turtlebacks , as ordered .
That is , everyone but Keith and Penny .
They stood there , just the two of them , in the rocking , shattering blast .
Keith was on his feet because he didn't care at all about life any more : Penny on her feet , proudly , because she cared too much .
The bomb was a solitary one .
The blast damaged , but did not destroy the room .
Keith's eyes met Penny's as they stood there in this strange marriage of destruction .
And , as the others began to crawl out from beneath the desks and tend to those wounded , and mark the several killed , he climbed across the debris to Penny and took her hand in his .
The chaplain married them , on the next day .
After the war , Penny had wanted Keith at least to visit her home with her .
She came from Ohio , from what she called a `` small farm '' of two hundred acres , as indeed it was to farmer-type farmers .
But to Keith's London-bred mind , such acreage sounded rather invincible .
It wasn't that , however , which decided them not to go to America .
Keith told Penny about his dream to return to India and Burma .
He stressed the wild beauty of the mountains , and the jungles .
He didn't tell her the truth he now freely admitted to himself .
He couldn't stop killing .
That was his true love , not Penny .
The terrible power of a gun , the thing that blasted the soul out of a living body , man or beast , was one he never wanted to lose .
And in the hunting land , this hunger was considered to be a noble thing .
When they got to Shillong , in Assam , he was happy .
This is a paradise for hunters .
This was the land of the sladang , the great water buffalo with horns forty inches across the spread .
The great black leopards .
The sambur buck , the jungle stag that is even more noble than the Scottish elk .
He even hunted elephant , although the Asian elephant is not quite as ferocious as his African cousin .
But there are big rogues in both countries .
These were the ones Keith sought out -- the loners , the ones who killed for the joy of it , like himself .
He and Penny would go out on tame elephants , raised from babyhood in the keddah .
And while he was ever alert for game , and most particularly a tiger , Penny marvelled at the Eden they were traversing .
They came upon cheetal deer at woodland pools .
Peacocks strutted across their path , preening .
There were fantastic flowers without perfume , and gaudy birds without song .
Mouse deer played around the feet of the elephants , or fled when the mighty legs thrashed too close .
Wild boar watched their progress with little pig eyes , and grunted derision when they didn't consider such game worthy of a shot from the .