Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The City of the Flying-fox

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Far up in the dense jungle of Ceylon, some five-and-twenty miles from Colombo, a road was required to connect two main arteries of communication; and I, a happy, healthy, and needy lieutenant in her Majesty’s land forces, was sent to cut the tracing and make the necessary estimate. I had a gang of Malabar pioneers who were enrolled for road-work in military fashion, with sub-officers, Serjeants, and corporals, very complete. There was also a native assistant-surgeon, and a clerk to keep the accounts. At the head of my little black army I marched across the district, and finding—without difficulty—the spot of intended operations, halted and selected at once a suitable camping-ground. We were allowed seven days in which to make ourselves comfortable—not too much to clear the ground and throw up mud-huts for two hundred souls—but an abundance of material, such as clay, wood and water, facilitated matters wonderfully. Before the end of the week smoke was seen rising from quite a little township forming three sides of a large open square, the fourth being occupied by my bungalow, which had been built with considerable ingenuity opposite on a rising knoll. The tall straight stems of the areca-palm, which abounded in the neighbourhood, furnished the posts of the house, between which was spread the broad thick leaves of the talipot-palm, much resembling yellow morocco leather in colour and consistency. The roof was thatched with cocoanut leaves from a third palm-tree, and windows cut in the talipot walls, lifting up or down at pleasure large slices of the leaf bound round with sticks, afforded ingress to the breezes, here so necessary to existence. There was a mud kitchen outside, and a fowl-house fenced round to keep out the snakes. It was all finished within a week, and gardens with cucumber and pumpkin seeds planted in the bargain. So then we set to work to clear the jungle, along which our new road was to run.

So long as the novelty lasted all was well; but, I confess, at the end of three months, I was heartily sick of the place. Not a soul could talk English except the Malabar doctor, and the clerk a little; there was not an European within miles; snakes, rats, centipedes, scorpions, ants, and all sorts of parasitical insects flourished in numbers and quantities, defying all calculation or belief on the part of readers; alas! I nourished daily many scores of the brutes, while the grub which nourished me was execrable and monotonous to the last degree. I ate lean poultry in every shape and form of cooking, until I absolutely loathed the sight of a feather; meat and bread I never saw; my servant kneaded up daily rice-flour and water into a composition to which I dare not give a name; there were the native fruits, and the everlasting—yet good—curry and rice, without which and its various flavours, I think I should have starved; as to game, there were pigeons—very fine but very shy—with turtle-doves and monkeys, which I had no heart either to shoot or eat. Woe is me! I began to weary for the flesh-pots of Egypt, and the society of my fellow-man, and, I will add, fellow-woman as well. I made up my mind that I must fall ill or resign, when, one morning, a letter turned up from the regiment, the writer proposing to come up with another sub and look me up, provided I could manage to shake them down somehow or other. You may be sure what my answer was. I was a new man forthwith, and set to work with a will in the preparations for their reception.

The commissariat was the main difficulty and the beds, but the native carpenter managed the latter tolerably well, with a sort of platform in each corner, upon which we laid fresh bundles of dried lemon-grass, smelling deliciously fragrant, and, when covered with a sheet, I feared nothing but mosquitoes and reptiles for the repose of my guests. But the grub bothered me entirely; if even I sent a messenger for meat to Colombo, it would be putrid long before he could convey it up. I felt that poultry could not be served up more than two days, both for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so I formed a great resolution and fell back upon tins of preserved meats. A cooly speedily returned with a horse-load of salmon, haricot mutton, Huntley and Palmer’s biscuits, Bass’s ale, brandy and cheroots. David, my appoo or head servant, laid in a stock of rice, plaintains and sweet potatoes; he was almost as excited as I was, as he was mortally sick of the jungle and knew the officers would bring their servants, with whom he would have his chat and fun. In four days all was ready, so I wrote a dispatch to Dan (his name was Richard, but being a cousin or connection of the Great Liberator, we always called him Dan) O’Morris, and Will Jephson his chum, to say that if they liked to take the chance of roughing it, the sooner they came the better.

Now as this history is intended to be neither philanthropic nor didactic, but simply descriptive of a remarkable colony of this world’s strange inhabitants which I once had the luck to visit, we will not digress upon the arrival of my friends, their shouting as they galloped up the jungle path—and all their wonder at the location in which they found me. I will say scarcely a word as to how they stared at the talipot-walls, laughed at the beds I had contrived, and asked a thousand questions, I confess rather anxiously, about the snakes and other varmint. Everything from the civilised world was news to me, and changes during the short space of three months, and which I should never have noted separately, staggered me when poured upon me in the aggregate. I must pass by all this, even though, on the first evening’s chat, I could write a volume, so joyous was my tongue at finding itself again at liberty; nor will I even be tempted to describe their delight in plunging into the foaming river, beneath the shadow of a clump of bamboos, which in form like a giant wheatsheaf, hung pendulous over the rocky torrent. Nor how we roamed the wood for the green pigeons, and shot enough for a curry by great good fortune; and tried to pot the monkeys on the top branches of the tall trees, but without much success, for the guns were only smooth-bores. Nor will I digress about Dan’s wonder at seeing the Government elephants lay the stones for the bridge over the torrent with their feet and foreheads as accurately as any mason with his plumb and line. That at least must be an old story to the erudite readers of Once a Week, and we must try and cater something better for their amusement.

David excelled himself in the culinary department, at which I felt greatly relieved; and what I owe to Huntley and Palmer—their biscuits—I never shall forget. We had done ample justice to their joint bill of fare on the third evening of this memorable week, and had drawn out chairs upon the sward outside the little bungalow to enjoy our cheroots in the bright moonlight. It was a delicious tropical night; the trees and shrubs were thickly studded with the sparkling jewels of insect life, the cool air was laden with the hyacinthian odour of the datura or devil’s trumpet, which here covered many of the hedges; and the distant murmur of the river was soothingly suggestive of the time for quiet and drowsy contemplation. It was never heard in the day; then it was drowned in the sound of millions of insects which, in the depths of the forest, seemed ever building ships which were never launched, and houses which none but fairy eyes have ever seen. But now all this was hushed, the very “knife-grinders” had stopped their busy wheels, and ceased the jarring which Canning might and would have damned, as he did the politics of the trade they so perfectly imitated. The influence of the moment, aided by the plentiful supply of curry and madeira, made itself felt, and we watched the wreaths of smoke as they curled away towards the forest with silent satisfaction.

I believe I was half asleep when Jephson said:

“How late the crows fly home in this part of the world,—there goes another.”

“Crows!” replied Dan, “are there any here?”

“Look across the moon’s light, you may see them flying—one, two, three. I almost fancy I saw or heard them settle in the trees close by.”

Dan appealed to me with a kick of his foot.

“Are those crows? Come, wake up.”

“You’re as good a judge as I am. I never thought about it; but here comes the Doctor to make his evening report. We’ll ask him.” Doctor Cleveland, a Malabar, dressed in the usual white flowing robes, slippers, and a turban on his head, came up and made his salaam. He was as black as a ripe mulberry, with European features, quite regular and soft, kept his head always clean shaved, and was as gentle in manner as an English lady; spoke our language perfectly and without any accent. He had been educated at Calcutta as a surgeon, and knew very well what he was about in the healing art.

“Doctor,” said I, rousing, “what are those black things flying across every now and then?”

“Flying-foxes,” he replied. “Some of them are very large.”

“Indeed!” said I, quite startled that I never heard of them before, and feeling rather small,

“Flying-foxes!” exclaimed Dan, “by the powers I’d like to have a crack at them,”

“So you may, sir,” said the Doctor, “there is an immense colony of them, so the natives say, about six miles away. I know some men who live close by. If you like we can send for them and go to-morrow.”

I could have hugged the Doctor; here was sport and amusement of which I had never thought. It was arranged in five minutes that we should make an expedition to the City of the Flying-Fox, and the Doctor made his farewell salaam. He must have been quite flattered by the hearty maimer in which my guests returned his salutation and bid him goodnight.

“Sensible fellow that,” said Jephson, when he was out of hearing.

“Very intelligent, I should say,” said Dan. “I wonder he wears those slops about his legs and heels; the turban’s well enough.”

“Why, you see he’s a high-caste man, and dare not compromise himself; but you’d think nothing of that, if you knew some of their other customs and superstitions—there’s one we might sensibly adopt among ourselves, at least a good many Englishmen would think so, I suspect.”

“What is it?—washing?”

“Oh, no, nothing of the sort; it’s a cat’s regulation; he’s never allowed to see his mother-in-law: will you believe it, he’s lived in that mud-hut, or another just like it, which only contains three rooms and a kitchen, none of ’em much bigger than a closet, for nearly four years with his wife and her mother, and never yet seen the latter lady in his life! What do you think of that?”

“Oh, nonsense!” said Jephson, while Dan gave his opinion that it was too good to be true.

“It is true for all that,” said I. “I don’t doubt his word, for he can have no object in gammoning me; but I’m going too fast, for one day he did see her ancles, as she was scuttling away behind the curtain when he came in rather suddenly.”

“Well, and is he glad or sorry?”

“He has no opinion on the point that I know of: the thing is never contemplated among their caste. Mothers-in-law always reside as the family skeletons in English houses, which are never seen.”

“And upon my word,” said Dan, waving his cheroot aloft, “the most sensible thing I’ve heard for these many days past; and it’s a custom we ought to introduce among Englishmen; I’ve often thought that if it wasn’t for the old woman I’d take a wife myself.”

Dan, like myself, had about sixpence a day to amuse himself with, when his dinner, servant, and washing were paid; and out of that he contrived to spend not one, but four or five half-crowns. A great catch he would have been for any wailing Belgravian matron with a quiet daughter or two.

“Confound all mothers-in-law,” said he, as he threw himself on the lemon grass couch, “and for the matter of that, fathers-in-law as well; but especially the first, by a thousand to one,” with which heavy reflection on those relationships in social life, he smoked himself to sleep.

Before lying down, I summoned David the faithful to counsel, and ordered him, upon pain of horrible penalties, to have coffee ready before sunrise, and to fin the chatties over night with water for bathing. Then, I set to work to clean the guns, and make other preparations, so as to leave nothing whatever for the morning. No fear of weather in this climate when projecting any little expedition; no sudden clouding over of the sky, and scattering of all your pleasant plans to the winds on this account. For six months at a time, the wind lies in one direction; and, then, like a good lawyer, it turns round and lies in exactly the opposite direction. The rains come at fixed times, nay, one might almost say, fixed hours; and if Murphy published his almanack in these latitudes, he might actually, to his own astonishment wake up morning after morning, and find himself a true prophet!



There is out of the twenty-four, but one short hour, during which in the central tropics, the incessant buzz of animal life appears to rest and pause. In that brief sixty minutes or so, before the first streak in the east heralds the rapid rise of the King of Day, all nature, even in the densest forest, appears hushed and still. Often have I awoke, and listening in the pitchy darkness for the accustomed sounds, which would indicate roughly the time of night, soon discovered, by the silence, the quick approach of daylight. The roving night-hunters had slunk back to their lairs, the jackal had buried himself again in his den, and the tatties of the natives who rise before the sun, still hermetically closed the doors of their windowless, leaf-thatched huts. The work of life was suspended, but the material labour of nature, which never ceases, was heard in the nearer murmur of the river, ever rushing on and on, and frittering away its rocks and banks for some new deposit hereafter to be uplifted from the bed of ocean. Hark! from the boughs of some bamboo, dropping over its rapid current, comes the sharp “Hoo” of a monkey; he has untucked his head from between his legs, and looking out into the darkness recognised—by senses keener than mine, the approach of light; his call is answered, and rapidly taken up among his mates, and I know as well, as if I had the best chronometer hanging by me, that in a quarter of an hour it will be broad daylight. Little by little, I lose the pleasant, soothing companionship of the rippling water, itself lost and mingled alternately in the busy sounds which the wary sentinel has evoked from the throats of the vast multitudes of the busy creatures by whom we are surrounded. I fancy, suddenly, that it is lighter, then I am sure it is. Up, to spring and plunge into a bath, is the work of an instant, and before I have finished throwing three chatties of water over my head, the east has broken into broad flames of fire. Ten minutes more, and when David, the laggard, brings in the coffee, the sun is over the horizon; the fairy labourers have continued the building of their mysterious ark; the little copper-coloured children are running about the road, and the doves are cooing lovingly from the nearest thickets. The work of the day is fairly begun, and we must not be sluggards, thinks I to myself, as David patiently stands with his steaming tray before the couch of my friends. He turns appealingly to me, and I see the Doctor, gun in hand, at the end of the road: there was no time for buffoonery.

“Coffee!” I roared in a voice of thunder, “Wake up!”

Lazily and heavily, they rolled off the stretchers, waking with that peculiar, unrefreshed, parched feeling belonging to tropical rest; and in a few minutes, during which I went out to meet the doctor, they joined us, gun in hand, at the wicket gate.

“The sooner, sir, we start, the better,” said the Doctor, “before it gets too hot, as it is a long walk across the paddy-fields: I have brought some of the men to carry the guns and breakfast.”

The breakfast was simply hard-boiled eggs and biscuits; we depended upon finding coffee in any cottage, and Bass’s ale I positively interdicted; as I knew how impossible and even dangerous it was to walk in the blazing sun after that fascinating beverage.

Flying-Foxes in Sri Lanka - Thomas Sulman.png

Off we started in the delicious cool morning, sheltered from the horizontal sun by the tall stems of the palms and cocoa-nuts, through which his red face glinted like an open furnace door. Following the noble road to Colombo, just opened, and as smooth and level as the most zealous Macadamite would have desired, we struck at the end of a mile off to the left into the jungle, each making the best path he could for himself through the low underwood, briars, and grass. We were all threading through the latter knee-high, when Dan turned round and said:

“I say, old boy, I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t have believed myself doing this a mouth ago.”

“Why not?”

“Why not? on account of the snakes, that’s why.”

“There’s plenty of snakes, though we don’t see them: make as much noise as you can in stepping through the underwood, and they scuttle away a-head.”

“Snakes!” said Will Jephson: “nonsense; who cares for them?”

Scarcely were the words out of his mouth, than Master Will made a jump on one side, quick as thought itself; and then, pale as ashes, stood gazing at a clump of lemon grass, behind which the short, stumpy tail of a snake was disappearing into the brushwood. It was a Ticopolonga, the most deadly brute probably known in the world; he huskily said he had almost trod on it as it was lying asleep; and, indeed, had slightly touched it with his foot.

“How long,” said Dan to the Doctor, “after biting, does the poison begin to act?”

“Well, sir,” replied the Doctor, “he couldn’t bite, I think, through a boot, but if he had struck at the leg, and got into the skin, the gentleman would possibly have been dead in ninety-two seconds!”

We all paused for a minute to think on the fact. Will Jephson pulled off’ his broad-brimmed pith hat, and wiped his forehead where the beads were standing out as thick and large as young currants on a bunch.

“It’s very warm,” he said faintly.

It was getting warm, certainly; but ninety-two seconds between this world and the next was even warmer work for the brain than ninety-two degrees in the shade for the body!

In a few minutes we emerge from the wood into the paddy fields, where the young rice is sprouting tenderly above the hot reeking mud; and changing the seething morass into lakes of waving green, through which little raised dykes, six or eight inches wide on top, ran chequer-wise in all directions. Along these we walked in Indian file three weary miles, the sun increasing in power each moment: there is nothing half so bad as the morning sun in my opinion, not a breath of air stirring, while the awkwardness of the causeway increased the pain of the march in a very large degree. Many times I inwardly groaned, and asked myself whether it was worth while to endure such sickening heat for the sake of any sight; and oh! what a relief it was to jump off that miserable ledge, and throw myself on the ground beneath the trees in a little oasis or island common in the midst of these immense rice lakes. Here the villagers who lived on this island came to meet us, and we heard that on the other side we should see the city of which we were in search, and should reach it by crossing another rice-field, about a mile in breadth. The palm grove in which we lay was full of parroquets, which screamed and sailed over our heads in all directions; we should have fired at them, but the Doctor strongly advised forbearance if we wished to see the foxes in their usual state of repose. Starting up, we crossed the island, and as we emerged from the grove at the opposite end, sure enough across the green plain we beheld a strange and unexpected sight, which the Doctor pointed at in great triumph. About a mile distant there was another island in the midst of this vegetable sea, looking like a great black coal set in aqua marine. That was all I could make of it at first, and it was only in drawing nearer to it in crossing the narrow viaduct that E could separate the resemblance from the reality. Then, indeed, I beheld the most astonishing thing I ever yet saw; although I have travelled in many countries, far and wide, yet this was so unique in its way as to eclipse all others completely. The island, which was about a mile in diameter, was covered with tall trees utterly bare of leaves, indeed there was not a vestige of a leaf to be seen; and from every bough, approaching in the least to horizontality, there hung clusters of that gigantic bat which bears the name of the flying-fox.[1] Suspended with their heads down, and their bodies entirely covered, except the tips of their noses, with their huge leathery wings, they looked for all the world like so many black Norfolk turkeys suspended from a huge poulterer’s shop about Christmas time in Leadenhall market. They hung there perfectly motionless, evidently asleep, for they are nocturnal by habit, roving about sunset for many miles all round, and making sad havoc with the fruit trees and orchards of the natives; a terrible curse to the country; the wonder being that no means are taken to extirpate the bats, a matter of no difficulty with plenty of powder, shot, and pea-rifles or air-guns, considering their gregarious nature, and the conspicuous objects they are to fire at. As it was, when nearly within range our fingers itched for the trigger, but the Doctor put up his hand gently, and whispered:

“Not yet, please, let us go into the place and look well at them first.”

Into the city we crept, quite softly, not to disturb the inhabitants; the very brushwood was bare of leaves; the ground was over an inch covered with guano; and their skeletons and skulls lay thickly in all directions. We advanced into the heart of the place, and selecting the most flourishing poulterer’s establishment for our aim, waited the doctor’s signal.

“Fire together!” said he, hoarsely. “One, two, three—fire.”

Bang went our eight barrels, and down tumbled near a dozen foxes. And now we saw why the Doctor wished us to fire together. In an instant, with terrific screams, thousands upon thousands of thousands of these animals spread their wings and rushed frantically to and fro over and among the bare branches of the trees. The sky was shut out, practically, from our gaze by their vast numbers and immense spread of wing. It was more like what the sudden opening of Mrs. Gamp’s umbrella might be over Queen Mab than anything mortal to which I can liken it; and almost quite as wonderful was the fact that although we knew they were almost blind by daylight, yet they never touched each other in their crossing and wheeling. The natives picked up the dead, and certainly the head was that of a fox to all intents and appearance, while some of them stretched over five feet between the wings. The females had their young under their armpits, clinging by their little hooks, and most strange it was to watch this arrangement of nature as they wheeled just over our heads. While we examined them the umbrella was gradually collapsing; they were recovering their alarm, and settling again on the branches to sleep, hooking on most skilfully at the end of the wing joint, and then reversing into their own law of gravity, tail up head down, at once. In a very few minutes all was silent and quiet. We opened the living umbrella once more, and then beat a retreat out of the city; where, to say the truth, the atmosphere, filled with a fœtid odour of the strong-smelling animal, impregnated with the impalpable guano dust, began to be quite insupportable. Crossing the rice-field to the village close at hand, under a tamarind, breakfast awaited us. We thanked the Doctor for this attention, surmising that he was the Melibœus “quis nobis hæc otia fecit.”

The walk back was as nothing to the fatigue of coming, for the brisk sea-breeze blew in our faces, and that, I consider, makes at any time a difference of ten degrees. We shot at paddy-birds, snipe, and in the wood at jungle-fowl, though these latter beautiful but wary game were far too wide-awake for us to make much of a bag. Then we talked of the strange sight we had seen up to the very door of the bungalow, and no sooner had we bathed and swallowed a glass of Bass (what nectar it was!) than we lay, all but as to position, like our victims of the morning, sound as tops.

But the event of the day, which I fancy stereotyped it in the memory of my friends, was yet to come. Just as the fireflies lighted their emerald lamps, in came David to prepare for dinner, and at the same moment we saw some three or four men with trays on their heads, who salaamed on entering, and said—

“Doctor, sent master one curry.”

Bravo! thought I, the medico is a trump; he never did things by halves, for there was not only the curry, but a plentiful supply of rice, white as snow, and distinct in grain as if it never had been boiled, with numberless little saucers, containing lime, sambac, pickle, mango, peppers, and half a dozen other condiments to vary the flavour of our pièce de résistance. This we at once attacked, and I was, to tell the truth, disappointed, for the meat, cut into small squares, was dark, hard, and strongly flavoured.

“What is it?” said Dan, as he mixed up various pickles with the mass.

“I can hardly say; he very often sends me curries; probably game; perhaps a hare.”

“An old bull, I should say,” put in Jephson, “or a jackal.”

“Perhaps a bit of elephant, or it may be venison; they are both sometimes to be procured I am told.”

“Hum!” said Dan, “fancy I know the flavour, too; rather ferretty; here, boy, take it away, and give me a long drink of beer.”

Just as we finished our dinner—to which, however, we had done full justice—the Doctor’s white robe crossed the threshold. We gave him hearty welcome, and handed him the tin of biscuits, of which he was excessively fond, and which, indeed, was the only thing he could touch, as he fancied there was nothing but flour and water in them, wherein he was much mistaken.

“Help yourself, Doctor, and thanks for your kind thought of the curry. What was it made of?”

“Ah!” said Dan, “What was it? Buffalo?”

“Oh, no!” replied the Doctor, “I thought you would have recognised the flavour; it was one of the big bats.”

Poor dog Tray! thought I; one of the thoughts which jerk suddenly across the brain.

There was a dead silence; a horrid pause. Dan looked queer and green: Jephson grew ashy pale; I felt all nohow. Dipping my hand into the hamper at my side, I pulled out the brandy-bottle, and took a good nip; then, hesitating for a moment as to whether I should brain the Doctor or not, passed it on to my friend.

Dan lit a cheroot, muttering something I cannot write down, but it ended with “No wonder I thought of those stinking ferrets.”

It really was no wonder.

As to Jephson, he had disappeared; from behind a clump of trees there came sounds of a strong man in travail and distress. He came back in a few minutes, and took some brandy, and to say the truth I envied him the confession. In the middle of the night I followed his example, and cast off the fœtid abomination. Dan, more ostrich-like, stood the test by dint of a heavy course of smoke. The poor Doctor, seeing he had made a mistake, quietly slipped away; and I must perforce tell the whole truth, and confess that we “condemned” him up hill and down dale with a startling gusto and emphasis. He said in explanation (so David told me) that he thought Christians ate anything!

My little party broke up next day, and I sadly returned to solitude and the theodolite; and here, save with one further remark, this little tale naturally concludes. Since that careless, happy, free-and-easy time of youth and adventure I have married a wife, and endowed myself with a mother-in-law! So have my friends, as well, and if ever this meets their eyes, will they not join with me in reversing the remark we passed on that much abused institution of wedlock? I, at any rate, must do my duty, and thank heaven! I may add that duty is a pleasure: happy the man, say I, who can cordially welcome the presence of his mother-in-law in his house; and whenever I see the cab with the huge black boxes which announce the visit of that venerable lady under my humble roof, I never fail to think of the Malabar doctor who showed us such strange sights in that immense colony of huge bats, which I have not untruly, yet fancifully christened, “The City of the Flying-fox.”

R. B. M.


  1. The Royal Zoological Society of London have recently added to their magnificent collection of animals in Regent’s Park some specimens of the Flying-Fox.