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The Eagle Owl

A Glimpse of Ceylon.
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We wandered to the river as the sun
Was setting, now the sultry day was done;
We saw the purple darkness close around,
We watched the river mist from off the ground
Rise as a mantle o'er the shadowy palms
That swayed their feathery heads and rustled soft
Rocked in the night wind's arms.

If the reader will accompany me in spirit, we will saunter along a jungle path together in the Low Country of Ceylon. The month is January, and the North East monsoon has fairly set in, with little prospect of rain for some few months. The time is between ten and eleven at night, and it wants but one day to the full moon.

To the left are low hills, covered with the densest jungle from base to summit. Stately palms stand out in relief against the clear sky, shaking their serrated leaves. Clumps of bamboos sway and nod their feathery heads with a murmuring rustle, as the night wind creeps gently over them. The air is filled with the sound and conversation of the insect world; noisy cicadas, and stridulating beetles almost drowning the soft humming of night-moths' wings. Clouds of fireflies vibrate, like luminous vapour, against the dark background of the foliage; round which they hover all the night long. On our right is a plain, stretching away into the misty moonlit distance as far as the horizon.

In front of us is a ' tank,' over four miles long, edged with arecas, green bamboos, and wild plantains. While watching its surface, a silver streak is seen every now and then, announcing the presence of alligators, which protrude their uncanny eyes only for a moment above the water. Far in the distance are elephants bathing - elephants in their native haunts undisturbed and unfearing. The light every now and then catches the water, which they love to cast upon their backs unceasingly. While watching them we notice one or two of their large forms disappear for a few minutes entirely under the surface. Then they emerge dripping with water, and silvered by moonlight, to recommence blowing fountains through their trunks. Apparently something scares them, and we witness a quiet but hasty retreat. One after one they shamble up the muddy bank, and disappear quite noiselessly into the gloom of the jungle.

Let us examine this spot upon which we are standing. Masonry can be traced, although rotten and distorted, down among the snake-like roots of this huge 'banyan ' tree. Kandian Kings, in the time of Daniel, may have stood here with their engineers and courtiers, superintending the formation of this dam. Stones, trimmed and carved all over with Bhuddist hieroglyph, brought from far distant quarries, must have been laid here by trained elephants and slaves in far distant days.

To those who have read the ' Mahawanso,' it must be evident that a Cinghalese population once existed of six or seven millions, whereas to-day it is under two. The land, upon which all this Jungle and ' cheddi ' now teems, must once have borne extensively terraced rice fields irrigated from this enormous reservoir. Huts, thatched with paddi straw, and villages must have nestled here under their cocoa nut trees, giving out each morning a busy swarm of labourers to till the fertile land. And where are all gone now? Perhaps some sudden call to arms obliged those peaceful people to exchange their hoes and wooden ploughs for swords and spears of steel and ebony, and to hasten off in defence of their distant capital and sacred tooth.

Or a panic stricken exodus may have been made before a death-breathing epidemic of cholera or small pox, which report told them was decimating their villages daily. A desertion of the district was made whatever may have been the cause.

The entire appearance of the land would rapidly alter as soon as t was neglected. A few short months would be sufficient for weeds, wild plants, and parasites to grow up and choke the tender ' nellu ' (rice). A few short years would amply suffice for Jungle trees, bamboos, and rattans to spring up and spread over each other, until every sign of cultivation was obliterated.

The cocoanut palms themselves would die, as soon as they missed the sound of human voices.

The slender rootlets of growing trees, insinuating themselves between the stones of the tank, would grow in time to distort, and even to throw down, powerful retaining walls. This we can see has been the case. Here are roots, large as a man's body, encircling in their strong coils blocks of stone which must have taken many slaves to lift. The water, once beginning to ooze through the crevices of the dam, would soon swell to an irresistible torrent, tearing down all its walls, and escaping over the adjoining fiat land to stagnate and seethe under a scorching sun Malaria, and Jungle fever, would quickly be generated by the rotting vegetation.

The margin of the lake is here impossible to walk on. Soft mud and decomposed rushes form the abodes of alligators and snakes, which lie in horrible enjoyment upon these pestilential beds. If we are to continue our survey of this region, we must mount upon the wings of the lotus-bird, who will waft our spirits over the tropical water lilies and shallow lagoons.

Hidden among the dank rushes here is a leopard, waiting with feline patience for his prey - a thirsty deer. Little does it know how near its own end may he. To-morrow night will see its carcase exposed to the birds and insects. A dark and moving shadow comes upon the glittering surface of the water; and on looking up, we see the form of a huge owl floating noiselessly through the still air. Its shadow has crossed the spot where the leopard crouches. Its cry makes one's blood run cold, and would cause the poor natives to live in dread of the death of someone dear to them.

The cry itself suggests the sound of children being choked, or strangled. A low and spasmodic. gurgling is preceded and followed by screams of desperate agony. This being's flight is perfectly noiseless. Hardly a feather can be seen to move, but like a ghost it haunts the scene, its red eyes gleaming luridly at the sleeping world below. This is the ' Ulama ' - the Devil bird of the Cinghalese, who affirm that every living thing upon which its shadow falls will die. This can only happen upon clear and moonlit nights, as the mysterious visitor is never seen by day. We watch its form disappear over the tufted and lemon scented mana-grass upon its plutonian mission.

Suddenly we partly awake; the noise of civilization surges to our ears, but again dies away. The opalled tank shines out clearer than before: and we roam through Jungle vines ard palmyras, talipot palms, and bamboos as we once did years ago.

Across undulating ' patenas ' of waving mana- grass; past gigantic ant hills and sacred Bo trees; through clumps of cacti, and tree ferns, starred with many a luminous insect; by hundred-rooted banyan trees, covered with rattans and parasites; along the orchid-clad sides of babbling water courses; we wend our way, breaking through the clinging and thorny tendrils of many a jungle creeper, wading across many a ferny swamp, climbing over the upraised roots of forest giants, or stooping under their spreading branches.

A sudden snort is heard, then a crash and sound of hurrying feet; and we know that some old boar has been disturbed from his favourite ' form.' We fancy we are pulling off leeches again from our bleeding ankles, while pressing through the wet grass. Then that we are being pursued by some ' rogue ' elephant, while our comrades' rifle shots sing past us.

But it is of no avail. The elephant, with springy strides and uplifted trunk is rapidly gaining upon us. His jaws are seething with foam, and his hoarse and angry trumpeting seems to impel him upon his mad career. The pace has grown terrific. Bamboos, guavas, lantana and plantains brush quickly by us: and we see for a minute human forms and firelight.

Our pursuer has vanished. The sound of voices has awakened us with a start. Our spirits can only warder through these regions alone. Again the sound of English traffic asserts itself, and the chilling feel of winter's breath puts an end to all tropical reverie. We have beer, day-dreaming.

Once only did I succeed in obtaining a specimen of the Eagle-owl-a bird which needless to say I have never seen in England. My ' appoo ' shot it, on a Casuanna tree, just outside my bungalow in Kotmali, at eight o'clock one evening. I would not believe his tale, that 4 one big bird ' - he stretched his arms out further than I thought they would go - is making that dreadful noise, master bring master's gun.'

I sat up skinning it that night, and it was long past twelve when I had finished, with a feeling of exultation that there was not a feather upon the table. It measured sixty five inches across the wings - two more than the largest specimen I could read of. Having stuffed it lightly with gun-tow steeped n carbolic acid, I had it hanging up in the verandah for months, by its legs from a rafter; the stock joke being that I had just shot it, as each caller noticed the beast.

As a matter of fact, I do not think it is in the least established that the eagle owl is the ' Ulama,' or Devil-bird, of the Cinghalese; but that is rather beyond me now. It certainly had huge red eyes, and I well remember the difficulty of getting the skin over the back of the skull sufficiently far to remove them from their sockets. Figuratively speaking, it looked the size of a turkey as the Boy brought it in; while its carcass seemed more like a mallard's, when I cut its neck free after skinning it.

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