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My Tropic Isle by E J Banfield

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whiteness. In similar guise might the legend of the Southern Cross be
framed--but who has the audacity to reveal it! And have not the
unimaginative blacks anticipated the stellar romance?

As I gaze into those serene and capricious spaces separating the friendly
stars I am relieved of all consciousness of sense of duration. Time was
not made for such ecstasies, which are of eternity. The warm sand nurses
my body. My other self seeks consolation among the planets.

"Thin huge stage presenteth naught but show
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment."

A grey mist masks the winding of a mainland river. Isolated blotches
indicate lonely lagoons and swamps where slim palms and lank tea-trees
stand in crowded, whispering ranks knee-deep in dull brown water. The
mist spreads. Black hilltops are as islands jutting out from a grey
supermundane sea.

Come! Let me bid defiance to this clumsy dragon of vapour worming its
ever-lengthening, ever-widening tail out from the close precincts of a
mangrove creek. Shock-headed it rolls and squirms. Soft-headed, too, for
the weakest airs knead and mould it into ever-varying shapes. Now it has
a lolling, impudent tongue--a truly unruly member, wagging
disrespectfully at the decent night. Now a perky top-knot, and presently
no head at all. Lumbering, low-lying, cowardly--a plaything, a toy, a
mockery, a sport for the wilful zephyrs. Now it lifts a bully head as it
creeps unimpeded across the sea and spreads, infinitely soft,
all-encompassing. As if by magic the mainland is blotted out. The sea is
dark and death-like, the air clammy, turgid, and steamy. Heavy vapour
settles upon the hills of the Island, descending slowly and with the
passivity of fate, until there is but a thin stratum of clear air between
the gloomy levels and the portentous pall.

Lesser islands to the south are merely cloud-capped. This lower level with
blurred and misty edges may not be further compressed, but the air is
warm, thick, sticky, and so saturated with vegetable odours that even the
salt of the sea has lost its savour.

A low, quavering whistle heralds the approach of a nervous curlew,
running and pausing, and stamping, its script--an erratic scrawl of
fleurs-de-lis--on the easy sand. Halting on the verge of the water, it
furtively picks up crabs as if it were a trespasser, conscious of a
shameful or wicked deed and fearful of detection. It is not night nor yet
quite day, but this keen-eyed, suspicious bird knows all the permanent
features of the sand-spit. The crouching, unaccustomed shape bewilders
it; it pipes inquiringly, stops, starts with quick, agitated steps,
snatches a crab--a desperate deed--and flies off with a penetrating cry
of warning.

A long-billed shore plover takes up the alarm, and blunderingly races
towards instead of from me, whimpering "plin, plin" as it passes and,
still curious though alert, steps and bobs and ducks--all its movements
and flight impulsive and staccato.

The grey mist whitens. A luminous patch indicates the east. The light
increases. The cumbersome vapour is sopped up by the sun, and the
coo-hooing of many pigeons makes proclamation of the day. Detached and
erratic patches of ripples appear--tiptoe touches of sportful elves
tripping from the isles to the continent, whisking merrily, the faintest
flicks of dainty toes making the glad sea to smile. Parcelled into
shadows, bold, yet retreating, the dimness of the night, purple on the
glistening sea, stretches from the isles towards the long, orange-tinted

Let there be no loitering of the shadows. The gloomy isles have changed
from black to purple and from purple to blue, and as the imperious sun
flashes on the mainland a smudge of brown, blurred and shifting, in the
far distance--the only evidence of the existence of human schemes and
agitations--the only stain on the celestial purity of the
morning--betokens the belated steamer for the coming of which the
joy-giving watches of the tropic night have been kept.



"Silence was pleased."

As I lounged at mine ease on the veranda, serenely content with the pages
of a favourite author, I became conscious of an unusual sound-vague,
continuous, rhythmic. Disinclined to permit my thoughts to wander from
the text, at the back of my mind a dim sensation of uneasiness, almost of
resentment, because of the slight audible intrusion betrayed itself.
Close, as firmly as I could, my mental ear the sound persisted
externally, softly but undeniably. Having overcome the first sensation of
uneasiness, I studied the perfect prose without pausing to reflect on
the origin of the petty disturbance. In a few minutes the annoyance--if
the trivial distraction deserved so harsh an epithet--changed, giving
place to a sense of refined pleasure almost as fatal to my complacency,
for it compelled me to think apart. What was this new pleasure? Ah! I was
reading to an accompaniment--a faint, far-off improvisation just on the
verge of silence, too scant and elusive for half-hearted critical

This reading of delightful prose, while the tenderest harmony hummed in
my cars, was too rare to be placidly enjoyed. Frail excitement foreign to
the tranquil pages could not be evaded. The most feeble and indeterminate
of sounds, those which merely give a voice to the air eventually, quicken
the pulse.

An eloquent and learned man says that the mechanical operation of sounds
in quickening the circulation of the blood and the spirits has more
effect upon the human machine than all the eloquence of reason and
honour. So the printed periods became more sonorous, the magic of the
words more vivid. The purified meaning of the author, the exaltation he
himself must have felt, were realised with a clearer apprehension. But
the very novelty of the emotional undertaking drew me reluctantly from
that which was becoming a lulling musical reverie.

Still, fain to read, but with the niceties of the art embarrassed, I
began to question myself. Whence this pleasant yet provoking refrain? Not
of the sea, for a glassy calm had prevailed all day; not of the rain
which pattered faintly on the roof. This sound phantom that determinedly
beckoned me from my book--whence, and what was it?

Listening attentively and alert, the mystery of it vanished. It was the
commotion, subdued by the distance of three-quarters of a mile, of
thousands of nutmeg pigeons--a blending of thousands of simultaneous
"coo-hoos" with the rustling and beating of wings upon the thin, slack
strings of casuarinas. The swaying and switching of the slender-branched
and ever-sighing trees with the courageous notes of homing birds had
created the curious melody with which my reading had fallen into tune.

And the sound was audible at one spot only. The acoustic properties of
the veranda condensed and concentrated it within a narrow area, beyond
which was silence. Chance had selected this aerial whirlpool for my

Again taking my ease, the mellow "roaring" of the multitude of gentle
doves commingling with the aeolian blandness of trees swinging under the
weight of the restless birds, became once more an idealistic
accompaniment to the book. I read, or rather declaimed inarticulately, to
the singularly pleasing strain until light and sound failed--the one as
softly and insensibly as the other. I had enjoyed a new sensation.

Relieved of the agreeable pressure of the text, my thoughts turned to the
consideration of bird voices--more to the notes of pigeons, their variety
and range. There are sounds, little in volume and rather flat than sharp,
rather moist than dry, which seem to carry farther under favouring
atmospheric conditions than louder and more acute noises. The easy
contours of soothing sounds created in the air seem to resemble the lazy
swell of the sea; while fleeter though less sustained noises may be
compared to jumpy waves caused by a smart breeze. Pitched in a minor key
sounds roll along with little friction and waste, whereas a louder,
shriller stinging note may find in the still air a less pliant medium.
The cooing of pigeons--a sound of low velocity--has a longer range than
the shrieking of parrots. My pet echo responds to an undertone. A loud
and prolonged yell jars on its sensitiveness--for it is a shy echo,
little used to abrupt and boisterous disturbances. A boy boo-hooting into
an empty barrel soon catches the key to which it responds. He adjusts his
rhythms to those of the barrel, which becomes for the time being his
butt. "Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps," he girds at its
acoustic soul until it finds responsive voice and grunts or babbles or
bellows in consonance with his. Only when the vibrations--subdued or
lusty--correspond with the vocal content of the barrel are the responses
sensitive and in accord. On this stilly, damp evening the air in the
corner of the veranda happened to be resilient to the mellow notes of
far-away pigeons.

Thus reflecting, I was less astonished that the coo-hooing of the
congregation had reached me through three-quarters of a mile of vacant
air. There was no competing noise. It was just the fluid tone that filled
to the overflowing otherwise empty, shallow spaces.

The nutmeg pigeon has the loudest, most assertive voice of the several
species which have their home in my domain, or which favour it with
visits. Though the "coo-hoo" is imperative and proud, to overcome the
space of a mile the unison of thousands is necessary. But when the whole
community takes flight simultaneously the whirr and slapping of wings
creates a sound resembling the racing of a steamer's propeller, but of
far greater volume. The nutmeg is one of the noisiest of pigeons
individually and collectively.



"He doubted least it were some magicall
Illusion that did beguile his sense;
Or wandering ghost that wanted funerall,
Or aery spirite under false pretence."


He was a tremulous long-legged foal on the Christmas Day we became known
to each other. I accepted him as an appropriate gift, and he regarded me
with a blending of reserve, curiosity, and suspicion, as he snoodled
beside his demure old mother. The name at once suggested itself. It seems
the more appropriate now, for he is whitish, with flowing mane and
sweeping tail, of a fair breadth, and open countenance.

Can the biography of a horse be anything but crude, lacking reference to
ancestry? On this point there is the silence of a pure ignorance, and the
record will be deficient in other essentials. Moreover, none of the
phrases of the cult are at command, nor can a purely domestic story be
decorated with clipped, straw-in-the-mouth, stable-smelling terms.

Christmas's mother was a commonplace cart creature with a bad cough. It
was a chronic cough, and in course of time its tuggings took her on a
very long journey. She passed away, assisted towards the end with a
cruel yet compassionate bullet, for in my agitation I made a fluky shot.
She died on the beach, and as the tide rose we floated her carcass into
the bay to the outer edge of the coral reef. The following morning the
sea gave up the dead not its own. Once more we towed it away into the
current which races north.

Some time before these reiterated ceremonies Christmas had been born,
and I was grateful to the old mare, whose chronic cough had become one of
the sounds of the Island, for he is an ornament, a chum, a companion,
and a real character. I find myself confronted by inherent disadvantage,
for I cannot even describe his points in popular language. He is a
"clean-skin." That is the only horsey (or should it be equine?) phrase in
my vocabulary. He is a "clean-skin," and in more than one sense. Clean
describes him--character and all--and I like the word. He is 5 ft. 4˝ in.
at the shoulders, barefooted, for he has never known a shoe, and his toes
are long; his waist measurement is 6 ft. 8 in., his tail sweeps the
ground, his forehead is broad, his eyes clear, with just a gleam of
wickedness now and again; his ears neat, furry, and very mobile; his
colour a greyish roan, tending more to white in his maturity, which now
is. Lest the detail might prejudice him in his love affairs, of which he
is as yet entirely innocent, I am determined not to mention his age, even
in the strictest confidence, and though the anniversary of his birth is
at hand.

Though he spends most of his time in the forest, he takes astounding
interest in maritime affairs, watching curiously passing sailing boats
and steamers. More than once he has been first to proclaim, "A sail!"
for when he flourishes his head and tosses his mane and gives a
semi-gambol with his hind quarters, we know that he sees something
strange, and look in the direction in which he gazes.

But I am ahead of my story. When he was in his shy, frisky foalage--as
nervous and twitchy as might be--one lucky day I offered him from a
distance of thirty yards one of the luscious bananas I was enjoying as I
strolled down the path to the beach. The aroma was novel, and apparently
very pleasant, for to my astonishment he walked towards me gingerly, but
with a very decided interest in the banana. As he approached on the pins
and needles of alertness, I extolled the qualities of the banana. He
stopped, and started again, anxious to taste the hitherto unknown
delicacy, but not at all trustful. Soon he came boldly up, and taking the
banana from my hand, ate it with the joy of discovery in his features,
and calmly demanded another. Thus began the breaking of Christmas, and if
I had had sense enough to have followed up his education on similar
lines, a deal of hard work, risk to life and limb, and the loss of some
little personal property might have been saved. Ever after, Christmas
could not resist the decoy of a banana.

When he was two and a half years old we decided to break him in. He was
big, and strong, and wilful, and how was a feeble man with no experience
and a black boy confessedly frightened of the big horse to accomplish
such purpose? Tom is at home on a boat, and enjoys outwitting fish and
turtle and dugong. However unstable his craft and surly the sea, he keeps
calm; but with a tempestuous horse, who was wont to play about on the
flat, pawing the air like a tragic actor, and kicking it with devastating
viciousness, well--"Look out!" As was the horse, so was the yard
designed--big and strong. Some of the posts are one foot in diameter, and
four and a half feet in the ground. As neither of us had built a yard
before, there may be original points about this one; but I would admonish
others not to imitate them unless they have time, heaps of time, and an
oppressive stock of enthusiasm, and I may add, fascinating experience,
upon which to draw. The last-mentioned quality is invaluable in all such
enterprises. If you have it, full play is permitted the speculative, if
not the imaginative, faculties. If you have it not, then the work is
merely a brutal exercise, in which a dolt might excel.

During the building of the yard I frequently reflected whether, though
Christmas lived to enjoy a long and laborious age, would all the work he
performed compensate for the strains and aches and bruises suffered.
Circumstances prevented the completion of the yard in exact accordance
with plans, for experience, that harsh stepmother, proved that the
enclosure was unnecessary. The yard exists as a monument to profane
misunderstanding of Christmas's character. Had I realised his
high-mindedness, his amiability, his considerateness and shrewdness, the
yard would never have been built; a month of fearful over-exertion, and
many pains would have been obviated, and poor Christmas saved much
physical weariness and perplexity. At the cost of three ripe bananas all
the virtue of the yard might, had we but known, have been purchased.

High and strong, and especially ponderous where it was weak, the yard
was at last ready. The next process was to induce Christmas to enter it.
We had another horse, Jonah, the nervous, stupid, vexatious skew-ball. In
the absence of saddle and bridle, Tom deemed it wise not to attempt to
round up Christmas. I admired his wisdom without exactly committing
myself, and we resorted to strategy.

Naturally Christmas is inquisitive. He watched the building of the yard
so intently that we half expected his curiosity might prompt him to try
if it were adapted to his tastes and requirements. But when we chuckled
and coaxed he grew suspicious, behaved quite disdainfully with his heels,
and took a marine excursion to a neighbouring island. When he came back
after three days, a banana tempted him. He was a prisoner before he
realised. We giggled. The next thing was to rope him. Our perversity
converted a trustful, gentle creature temporarily into a ramping rogue.
Twice he snapped a new Manilla rope of like make and dimensions to that
which is used in the harpooning of whales. For two days the conflict
continued. Sullen and suspicious, Christmas ate scantily of the green
grass we cut for him and drank from a bucket when we were not looking.
At last a crisis came. Tom lassooed him once more. Nelly (Tom's spouse)
assisted me to take up the slack round a blockwood tree as Tom
cautiously, but with great demonstrations of evil intentions, hunted the
weary horse into the corner, where we designed to so jam him that a
halter might be put on with a minimum of risk to ourselves. Christmas
made a supreme effort. He roared and reared, and when the rope throttled
him, in rage and anger dashed his head against the foot-thick corner-post.
The shock loosened it, so that two rails sprang out (just missing my
scalp) and stunned Christmas.

As he lay on the ground with twitching lips, with frantic haste we cut
the rope, and in a few seconds he rose to his feet, discovering that he
was in the land of the living with a joyful whinnying. If he had not been
endowed with the suavity of a gentleman and the long-suffering of a
saint, he would have walked off, for the yard was in a disreputable state
of repair, and we were all shaky from the effects of nerve-shock. But no,
in spite of abuse and misunderstanding, he was resolved at cost of
whatever discomfort to himself to give us further lessons in the science
of horse-breaking. He stood patiently while we patched up the fence. Then,
taking the halter, and my courage, in both hands, I walked to his head,
and with a few comforting words put it on. The good horse looked down at
me with wondrous eloquence. His sensitive upper lip spoke, and his
sneering nostrils; his twitchy ears told his thoughts as truly as
semaphores; his clear eyes under sagacious white lashes transmitted
emotions I could not fail to comprehend. "Is that what you wanted me to
do?" said he. "Why didn't you do it before? We have quite misunderstood
one another! And what an exciting time we have had! I thought you were
going to garrotte me. Yes, give me a banana. Follow you? Yes, of course,
with pleasure; but don't attempt to hang me again or else there'll be
trouble. Another banana if you please. Now, don't be frightened, I'm not
going to run over you. I'm not that sort of horse. If I were there might
have been a beastly mess in this yard any time the last two days. I was
beginning to feel quite peevish. I don't know what might happen if I
became really vexed. Another banana. Certainly you took great risks for
a little man. We are beginning to understand one another. Are there any
more ripe bananas handy?" He said all this and more, as he looked round,
cheerfully accepting peace-offerings and listening to many consolatory
words. The next morning he showed us how a young and not foolish horse
should accept bit and bridle.

Several other episodes embellish the early career of Christmas as a
working horse, all of them, I conscientiously confess, arising from gross
misunderstanding. He knew in what manner a good-natured, competent, lusty
horse should be handled and trained. We didn't, and necessarily had to
learn. He trained himself while we took hearty lessons in holding him.
Once he decided to gallop with a sled. It was a mere whim--a gay little
prank--but Tom couldn't stop him. He ran too, holding on to the reins at
arm's length, contrary to my counsel, urged from discreet distance.
Christmas ran faster, and by and by Tom sat down on his chin, and
Christmas went on without him. He didn't quite remember the width
of the sled. Consequently when with a careless flourish he whisked
between two bloodwoods the sled struck one with a shock that for a
moment "dithered" the Island. It was just like that sucking earthquake
which went off bang under Kingsley's bed when he was in Italy. The
bruise is on the tree now, and the sled wasn't worth taking home for
firewood. Christmas went on but just as the passion of the moment calmed
down, the trailing reins--fit to hold a whale, be it repeated--caught
in a tough sapling, and it was Christmas that went down. It was only a
trip, but as he got up and faced about looking for the remains of the
sled, the harness, tugged by the reins, crowded on his neck--backband,
collar, hames, chains and all. Then began a merry-go-round, for
Christmas, properly bedevilled, lost his presence of mind, and in a fancy
costume of the Elizabethan age--a ruff of harness--waltzed most

Again a few soothing words and two bananas calmed his affrighted and
angry soul. Great is the virtue of the banana! A goodly hour was spent
in untying the knots, and Tom made the one joke of his life. "My word,
that fella Christmas he no good for boat. He make'm knot--carn let go
quick!" Christmas is not petulant, though he is occasionally indignant
on a large and complicated scale.

Early in his career Christmas showed and materialised the quality of
masterfulness, his chief trait. He bullied Jonah, now banished to "an
odd angle of the Isle," courted encounters with a huge nondescript dog
belonging to the blacks which once disrespectfully snapped at his heels
and for ever after took a distorted view of things on account of a
lop-sided jaw, and was wont to scatter the goats with a wild gallop
through the flock. How meek and gentle his demeanour when he whinnies
over the gate for bananas, or screws his head beneath the kitchen shutter
and shuts his eyes and opens his lips, tempting his mistress to treat him
to unknown dainties! And for all his masterful spirit did he not once
fly from Jonah? During one of Tom's many absences ex-trooper George was
chief assistant in the administration of the affairs of the Island,
between whom and Christmas cordial companionship was manifested; for
George, in his understanding of horses, knew how to flatter and gratify
Christmas with small attentions.

More at home in the saddle than on foot, having improvised bit and
bridle, he rode off on Jonah into the bush, unobserved of Christmas, who
had never beheld one of his species so hampered by a human being. While
George was away it occurred to one of us to suggest that a high-mettled,
never-ridden steed might be flustered when confronted with novel and
incomprehensible circumstances. When George cantered home, Christmas
gazed, horror-struck, for a moment, bounded into the air, snorted, and
with flowing mane and flying tail fled to the most secluded corner of
the paddock with strides that seemed to gulp the ground. In a few
minutes he returned at the trot, inquisitive, high-stepping, tossing
his head, flinging little clods of earth far behind, snorting, and
tail trailing like a plume of steam from a locomotive. Again he looked,
baulked, and with a contemptuous fling of heels raced up the paddock.
Retreating to him was not running away, nor was staying wisdom when
danger overbalanced hope. Again he made a gallant effort to vanquish
his fear, but at the critical moment Jonah, under the stimulus of
George's heels, charged, and Christmas, with a squeal of terror,
thundered blindly among the trees. Now was he convinced of the
grisliness of the visitation. That downtrodden, servile Jonah, from whom
he exacted prompt obedience to every passing whim, should be thus
translated and so puffed up with audacity as to chase him was proof of
the presence of incredible mischief from which the most valorous might
with discretion retire; and without pause he galloped--free and wild as
the blast of a tempest--round the paddock time and again, keeping the
greatest possible space between himself and the pursuing apparition.

George kept up the fun until Christmas, beginning to reflect, swerved
from fear to the attitude of anger, and to paw the ground and to sniff
defiantly the air. Trotting boldly up towards Jonah, he neighed
imperatively, but George waved off his assurance with his hat, and
Christmas collapsing with fright, made furious haste for non-existing
solitude. Once more he ventured, with bolder, more menacing front. He
reared, pranced, kicked, savaged the air--not an item of all his pentup
wickedness being undemonstrated. Then George dismounted suddenly, and
calling in soothing tones, Christmas realised that the appalling
creature was but a temporary compound of his playmate and the abject
Jonah. Cautiously advancing in a series of contours dislocated with
staccato stops and starts and frothy exclamations, he seemed to recognise
the whole episode as a practical joke, of which he had been the victim,
and to promise retaliation upon Jonah, for no sooner was that meek animal
at liberty than he became the sport and jeer.

From the catalogue of the more theatrical doings of Christmas one more
may be cited. Within a week of his yarding he had taught us so much,
inspired us with such confidence in his resourcefulness and ability, that
we resolved to give him a treat in the plantation dragging round a
miniature disc-harrow, a particular brand of agricultural implement
known as the "pony dot." Being so, in fact and appearance, it was quite
a misfit for Christmas--a mere toy with which a gay young horse might
condescend to beguile a few loose hours. It was a charming morning.
Birds were vulgarly sportful. Honey-eaters whistled among the trees,
scrub-fowl chuckled in the jungle. Christmas, too, was bent on amusing
himself, and he was so lusty and jocund, and the toy jangled and
clattered so cheerfully that neither Tom nor myself could bestow
much attention to the birds. What was gentle exercise to Christmas
was quite sensational to us. He did not mind what stumps and logs
were in the way. We did. Our agility was distinctly forced. But it
was a charming morning, and Christmas was out for pleasure. In an
hour or so the monotony of the picnic began to pall on Christmas,
and as Tom began to chirp at him familiarly, if not quite authoritatively,
I sat down in the shade to reflect that while Christmas had been
violently exercising me, some of the charm of the day had filtered
through my aching fingers. How pleasant it was to think that the
discordant labour of the tropical agriculturist was past! This charming
morning had settled it all. Tom and Christmas and the "pony dot" would
keep the whole plantation as innocent of weeds as the Garden of Eden.
Thus to muse in the dim arcade of the jungle absorbing the sounds of the
birds, and of the murmuring sea, while a horse did all the work, in
holiday humour, was the very bliss of the tropical farmer.

In the midst of a soothing, inarticulate soliloquy the "pony dot"
burst out into a furious jangle. Tom yelled. Quick hoofs thudded on the
soil, and Christmas swept through the banana-plants like a destroying
angel, in a glorious bolt for home. The picnic had palled; and Tom,
shouting rebukes, orders, and suggestions from behind a tree, showed by
his dun-coloured skin that he had been dragged ignominiously through the
freshly tilled soil. A remarkable feature of the plantation is a steep
bank, the original strand line of the Island. Christmas, with the reins
soaring like lassos, and harness welting his fat sides, stampeded to his
fate. In a flash I saw what a ludicrous misfit the "pony dot" was. The
impish invention--malignant purpose in its incompassionate metallic
heart--furiously pursued Christmas twenty feet at a bound, discs whirling,
every bearing squeaking with spite and fury. Struck with bewilderment,
the honey-eaters became dumb, the dismayed doves forgot to coo, the
scrub-fowl ceased their chuckling, and three cockatoos flew from the
blue-fruited quandong-tree shrieking abominable sarcasms. As Christmas
heaved over the banks the reins thrashed him. Resenting the insult, his
heels flew high. The "pony dot" flew higher and jangled and screeched with
accumulating vindictiveness. To what fearsome figure had this hasty
flight transformed the mean little emblem of rusticity? A tipsy goblin?
No--rather a limping aeroplane of the Stone Age; and it rattled like a
belfry under the shock of bombardment. Could there be any crueller device
to tie an unsophisticated horse to, and a horse whose single thought had
been a merry morning? It would, when the crisis came, leap frenziedly on
Christmas and slice him with keen, whizzing blades.

Tom raced past--a five-act tragedy in pantomime! A terrible jangle and
catastrophic silence! No groan from misused Christmas. No remarks from
the dumbfounded birds! With the vicious aeroplane hopping after him, he
had galloped for the narrow aisle through the ribbon of jungle concealing
the beach. There he had met his fate! Yes, the "pony dot" anyhow and
everywhere, and Christmas all of a heap beyond. With imprecations on all
"pony dots" in my mind, I hastened to inspect the mangled remains. They
groaned, struggled to their feet, shook themselves and went placidly
home as soon as we had unhitched the chains. One scratch on the most
rotund part of the body was the only record of the "brief, eventful
history," and Christmas smiled in Tom's face as he munched a
soul-soothing banana.



"A populous solitude of bees and birds
And fairy-formed and many-coloured things."


Was ever a more glorious season for butterflies, and, alas! be it said,
for sand and fruit and other flies of humble bearing but questionable

Light-hearted, purely ornamental insects, sober and industrious, ugly,
mischievous, destructive, all have revelled--and the butterfly brings the
art of inconsequent revelling to the acme of perfection--in the
comparatively dry air, in the glowing skies, and in the succession of
serene days. Moreover there has been no off-hand, untimely destruction
of the nectariferous blossoms of millions of trees and shrubs. Frail as
some flowers are, others linger long if unmolested by profane winds,
offering a protracted feast of honey, pure and full-flavoured. The light
sprinklings of rain have served to freshen the air and moisten the soil
without diluting the syrupy richness of floral distillations. All the
generous output has been over-proof.

Gaudy insects, intoxicated and sensuous, have feasted and flirted
throughout the hours of daylight, and certain prim moths, sonorous of
flight, find subtly scented blossoms keeping open house for them the
livelong night.

Let others vex their souls and mutter the oddest sorts of imprecations
because the fruit-fly cradles its pampered young in the juiciest of their
oranges. Me it shall content to watch butterflies sip the nerve-shaking
nectar of the paper-barks, and in their rowdy flight cut delirious scrolls
against the unsullied sky.

Shall not I, too, glory in the superb season, and its scented
tranquillity? Even though but casual glances are bestowed on the dainty
settings of the pages on which Nature illustrates her brief but brilliant
histories, understanding little, if aught, of her deeper mysteries, but
thankful for the frankness and unaffectedness of their presentation--shall
not I find abundance of sumptuous colour and grace of form for my
enjoyment, and for my pondering texts without number?

What more fantastic scene than the love-making of the great green and
gold and black Cassandra--that gem among Queensland butterflies-when four
saucy gallants dance attendance on one big, buxom, sober-hued damsel of
the species, and weave about her aerial true lovers' knots, living
chains, festoons, and intricate spirals, displaying each his bravest
feathers, and seeking to dazzle the idol of the moment with audacious
agility, and the beauty of complex curves and contours fluid as billows?

The red rays of the Umbrella-tree afford a rich setting to the scene. The
rival lovers twirl and twist and reel as she--the prude--flits with
tremulous wings from red knob to red knob--daintily sampling the spangles
of nectar.

Not of these living jewels in general, but of one in particular, were
these lines intended to refer--the great high-flying Ulysses, first
observed in Australia on this very island over half a century ago. It was
but a passing gleam, for the visiting scientist lamented that it flew so
high over the treetops that he failed to obtain the specimen. True to
name, the Ulysses still flies high, and wide--a lustrous royal blue with
black trimmings and dandified tails to his wings that answer the dual
purpose of use and ornament.

When Ulysses stops in his wanderings for refreshment he hides his
gorgeous colouring, assuming similitude to a brown, weather-beaten leaf,
and then the tails complete the illusion by becoming an idealistic stalk.
He is one of the few, among gaily painted butterflies that certain birds
like and hawk for. When in full flight, by swift swerves and doubles, he
generally manages to evade his enemies, but during moments of
preoccupation is compelled to adopt a protective disguise.

As the boat floated with the current among the bobbing, slender spindles
of the mangroves--youthful plants on a voyage of discovery for new
lands--there appeared a brown mottled leaf on the surface. A second
glance revealed a dead Ulysses--an adventurous creature which had
succumbed to temporary weakness during a more than usually ambitious
maritime excursion. Here was a flawless specimen, for the wings of
butterflies, in common with the fronds of some delicate ferns, have the
property of repelling water, and do not readily become sodden, But as I
essayed to take it up tenderly the wings boldly opened, displaying just
the tone of vivid blue for which the silvery sea was an ideal setting.

It was sad to be weary and to fail; to experience gradual but inevitable
collapse; to flop helplessly to the water to drown; but the lightest
touch of the hand of man was a fate less endurable--too, frightful by far
to submit to without a struggle. So, with a grand effort the great insect
rose; and the sea, reluctant to part with such a rare jewel, retained in
brown, dust-like feathers the pattern of the mottling of the under
surface of the wings. What finicking dilettantism--was ever such "antic,
lisping, affecting fantastico?"--that rough Neptune, who in blind fury
bombards the stubborn beaches with blocks of coral, should be delicately
susceptible to the downy print of a butterfly's wings!

Though languid and weary, the butterfly was resolute in the enjoyment of
the sweetness of life, Its flight, usually bold, free, and aspiring, was
now clumsy, wavering, erratic. Three-quarters of a mile away was an
islet. Some comely instinct guided it thitherwards, sometimes staggering
low over the water, sometimes flitting splendidly high until distance and
the glowing sky absorbed it.

My, course lay past the islet, and I stood in the boat that I might see
the coral patches slipping past beneath, the shoals of tiny fish, and the
swift-flying terns, the broad shield of the sea, and the purple mountains.
Close to the islet what I took to be the tip of a shark's fin appeared.
It seemed to be cutting quick circles, rising and dipping as does the
dorsal fin when a shark is closely following, or actually bolting its
prey. As the boat approached, the insignia of a voracious shark changed
to the spent Ulysses, making forlorn and ineffectual efforts to rise.
Once again, however, the fearsome presence of man inspired a virile
impulse. Ulysses rose, flapping wildly and unsteadily but with gallant
purpose. The islet was barely twenty yards away. Would the brave and
lovely emblem of gaiety reach it and rest? It rose higher and higher in
lurching spirals, and having gained the necessary elevation, swooped
superbly for the sanctuary of the tree-lined beach.

Rest and safety at last! But at that moment ironic Fate--having twice
averted drowning, twice waved off the hand of man--flashed out in the
guise of a twittering wood swallow. In the last stage of exhaustion no
evading swerve was possible.

Two blue wings on the snow-white coral marked where the wanderings of
Ulysses had ended, while at the corner of the little cove a dozen
heedless Cassandras rioted amongst the rays of the umbrella-tree in curves
and swoops of giddy flight.



"Dire and parlous was the fight that was fought."

With logic as absolute as that of the grape that can "the two-and-twenty
jarring sects confute," Nature sets at naught the most ancient of axioms.
How obvious is it that the lesser cannot contain the greater! Yet that
Nature under certain circumstances blandly puts her thumb unto her nose
and spreads her fingers out even at that irrefragable postulate, let this
plain statement of fact stand proof.

Where the grass was comparatively sparse a little lizard, upon whose
bronze head the sunlight glistened, sighted on a chip a lumbering "March"
fly dreaming of blood, and with a dash that almost eluded observation
seized and shook it. With many sore gulps and excessive straining--for the
lizard was young and tender--the tough old fly was swallowed. While the
lizard licked its jaws and twirled its tail with an air of foppish
self-concern and haughty pride, a withered leaf not three inches away
stirred without apparent cause, and in a flash a tiny death adder
grappled the lizard by the waist. The grey leaf had screened its

Both rolled over and over, struggling violently. For a minute or two
there was such an intertwining and confusion of sinuous bodies that it
was impossible to distinguish one from the other. The grip of the death
adder was not to be lightly shaken off. When "time" was called, the
truce lasted several minutes. Then the wrestling was continued in a
miniature cyclone of sand and grass-chips. All the energy was on the part
of the lizard. The death-adder kept on doing nothing in a dreadfully
determined way. In fighting weight the combatants seemed to be fairly
equally matched, but in length the lizard had the advantage by at least
two inches. The adder was slightly the bulkier. At times the lizard, full
of pluck, would scamper away a few inches, dragging the adder, or would
claw the sand into tiny, ineffectual furrows in vain efforts. The adder
was never able to shake the lizard; it merely maintained its grip. All
the wit and sprightliness of the fight was on the part of the lizard,
who lashed its foe with its pliant tail, and endeavoured so to swerve
as to bite. Both were light weights. One was all dash and sportive
agileness; the other played a dull waiting game with admirable finesse.

In spite of the greater activity and muscular power of the lizard, the
combat seemed unfair, for in the cunning persistency of the frail but
determined little snake there was something uncanny and nerve-shaking.
For fully ten minutes the fight continued. The violent antics of the
lizard became less and less frequent. Obviously the tactics of the snake
were wearing it down. Though the lizard seemed to have lost none of its
spirit, the flesh was becoming weak. While it panted, its eyes twinkled
with inane ferocity, and the snake, with that peculiar fearsome, gliding
movement--neither wriggle nor squirm--typical of the species, slowly edged
its victim under the shadow of a tussock. There both reposed, the snake
calm in craft and design, the lizard waiting for the one chance of its
life. Swallowing the lizard under any circumstances seemed an impossible
feat. To begin the act in the middle of the body was absolutely beyond
accomplishment. There would come a time when the death-adder must release
its hold to re-seize its prey by the head or tail, and if the soul of the
lizard could possess itself in patience until that moment, and take
advantage of it, all might be well.

Now, it seemed to me, the only witness to this fateful fray, that both
parties to it knew that the crisis had yet to come. The lizard reserved
all its energy for a supreme effort--for one leap to liberty and
life--while its impassive foe stolidly concentrated its powers in the
direction of an instantaneous release and a fresh grip at a convenient
part. Thus they lay. A thrill of excitement possessed me as I watched.
The flashing alertness of a fly-catching lizard, is it not proverbial?
Which was to be the master--the more muscular creature with four legs, the
whole previous existence of which had depended upon its agility, or the
subtle, slow, snake, which moves under ordinary circumstances not very
much faster than a clammy worm? As I watched with all possible keenness a
grey blur followed by bewildering wrigglings and contortions indicated a
new manoeuvre. Then instead of two reptiles at right angles, there
appeared to be but one, and with a tail at each end. The head of the
lizard was in the jaws of the death-adder. The fatal quickness of the
snake had decided the combat.

But the lizard was not yet resigned to its fate. It rolled and reared and
wriggled, tossing and tumbling the adder; but all in vain.

Alas! light-hearted lizard, servant and trustful companion of man, thou
art joined in woeful issue! There can be no deliverance for thy jewelled
head from that slow, all-absorbing chancery! No striving, no pushing with
frenzied fingers, no lashing with that whip-like tail may now avail.
Never more may you bask and blink in the glare, or doze in the
knife-edged shadows, or pounce upon gauze-winged flies. Thou hast learned
too late that snakes, like democracy, never restore anything.

I waited for the finish, which came with painful slowness. The sides of
the victim heaved and quivered even as they slowly disappeared and the
end of that once foppish tail twitched sadly as it hung limply from the
jaws of the gorged snake.

Although it had practically demonstrated that the lesser can contain the
greater, the snake was but triflingly increased in girth. It was just in
that phenomenal condition which entitled it to the honour of preservation
in a solution of formalin.



From the tinted tips of fragile corals to the ooze on the edge of the
beach sand there is seething life. Exposed by the ebb tide, the
sun-caressed slime glitters and shimmers, so that if the observer is
content to stand still for a few moments he shall see myriads of
obscure activities, graceful and uncouth, of the existence of which he
has not previously dreamt and among which his footsteps make a
desolating track. Perhaps in no other earthly scene do the gradations of
life blend so obviously in form and appearance. This mud is primal,
fertile with primitives, for similitude of environment checks variations.

In such tepid slime primordial life began, and in it even in these latter
days the far beginning of superior things may be discovered actively
pursuing their craft and purpose in the order of the universe. Worms are
abundant, and among them certain genera which might be taken as apt
illustrations of the more significant facts of evolution. Studying them,
the parting of the ways between two distinct orders, each having a
conspicuous feature in common while differing in appearance and habits
generally, is made strangely plain, and I propose in my unversed way to
demonstrate the line of upward development in a few examples.

Accepting as a primitive form that deplorably thin, phantasmal worm which
excavates in the ooze an appropriately narrow shaft indicated by a
dimple, or, in some cases, a swelling mound with a well-defined crater
and circular pipe, the ascent of the genealogical tree is not beset with
any great difficulty. These worms are grey in colour and shoddy in
texture, merely a tough description of slime with a crude head and long,
simple filaments. The sides of the shafts are smooth, and on the least
alarm the nervous inhabitant retracts with surprising alertness. Slightly
superior in grade, but in uninterrupted succession, is a similar worm
which solidifies its shaft with a kind of mortar and carries it up above
the level of the ooze about an inch or so--a crude effort in the
direction of the acquirement of some ease of circumstance. These flue-like
projections are more frequent on the verge of the sandy beach.

The next in order--still slim, though of a slightly more robust habit of
body--has acquired the art of spinning (caterpillar-like) a cocoon, and
of causing to adhere to the exterior thereof grains of sand and minute
chips of shell. Though this vestlet is very frail and though the sandy
outer coat is liable to drop off (when it collapses altogether), it seems
to me to indicate distinct progress, a successful accomplishment in the
direction of isolation, independence, and security. Does it not signify
that the animal has a certain perception of the knowledge of good and
evil such as dawned upon Eve as she ate the diverting apple? Eve
forthwith took to fig-leaves; the slim worm knitted a shoddy wrapper and
reinforced it with grains of sand when it realised that there was
something better than slush for a dwelling. The sandy coverlet is
evidence of the gift of discrimination.

A still more highly endowed relation spins a similar fabric, upon which
are loosely agglutinated numbers of small dead shells, grit, and even
opercula a quarter of an inch in diameter. In weight, size, and number of
its constituents this exterior armour is altogether disproportionate to
the extreme tenuity of its foundation. Too unsubstantial to sustain its
own weight, it sprawls, like the track of a tipsy snail, indeterminately,
slowly developing its sinuosities over the irregular surface of a rock,
and slightly adherent thereto, throughout its whole length. Of this there
seem to be several nicely shaded grades, some in the form of galleries
laboriously built of a mixture of mud and sand, and each indicating
superiority to the naked denizen of the clement mud. They seem to be
superior in appearances also, for some of the animals display brightly
coloured plume-like tentacles, long and capable of being ostentatiously

The individual worm next to be described typifies such a wonderful
advance that it might almost be designated a subsequent and intrusive
sport, no marked are the distinctions it exhibits. It is one of the
shell-binders (PECTINARIA), but its mansion of mosaics is unique and
beautiful. In the universal struggle for place, self-preservation, and
food, the animal has acquired a higher order of intelligence and keener
perceptions of safety and of the niceties of life than its fellows.
Living in sand and mud, in obedience to some gracious instinct, it
gathers numbers of small shells, grit, and fragments of coral wherewith
to construct a tube, somewhat similar in shape to the horn of cornucopia,
and from three to six inches long. The materials are cemented together in
accordance with a symmetrical design, the interior being lined with a
transparent substance, which, when dry, is readily separable from the
casing! This creature accomplishes by calculation, choice, and dexterity
that which a subtle chemical process does unconsciously for the more
advanced mollusc, and that it practised the art of the interlocking of
atoms ages before the birth of Macadam can scarcely be doubted.

My imagination loves to dwell on the perceptive faculties possessed by
this lowly creature, a creature soft and delicate, merely such and such a
length of gelatinous substance, slightly stiffened and toughened and
graced with a pair of tentacles glittering like tinsel extended from a
marvellously constructed tube.

In certain structural details the animal (which in appearance has greater
resemblance to a caterpillar than a worm) is even more remarkable than
the ornate dwelling it constructs, for it is an actual though living
prototype of the fabled race (catalogued by Othello with the

"Whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders."

The paradox exists, not as a whim or grimace on the part of Nature but
for a definite and vital end. In default the animal would be unable to
obey the first law of Nature--self preservation--for it is soft-bodied and
its dwelling has the serious defect of being open at both ends. In such
plight lacking special organs it would be at cruel advantage in the
struggle for existence. The posterior segment of the body is therefore
developed into an operculum-like organ, smooth and of horny texture,
which closes the narrow end of the tube. The other extremity is more
elaborately guarded, the anterior segment being fringed with a frontal
membrane, while the second segment forms a disc, the minute mouth orifice
with the true tentacles and gills being debased to the third segment.

Confronted by danger, the animal closes its front door by retracting
until the disc presses immovably against the circumference of the tube,
the retraction being so sudden that a frail spurt betrays the whereabouts
of an otherwise secret dwelling-place. In the centre of the disc is the
first segment, from which the frontal fringe is extended in the form of
an array of keen bristles as a defensive weapon. With the lid at one end
and the armed disc at the other the animal enjoys security and comfort,
and when unsuspicious the "shoulders" protrude, the head meekly
following. The tentacles are serrate and glitter like tinsel, possibly
for the fascination of the minute forms of life which the tube-dweller
consumes. To enable it to retract and emerge quickly the animal is
provided with a series of tufts of bristles on the back and on the
ventral surface of the body with a row of toothed "pads," which fulfil
the dual office of grapplers and feet.

With what skill and patience does this pectinarian construct its ornate
habitation! How artfully does it pick and choose among the tiny shells
and grit! With what rare discretion rejects the unfit, and with what
satisfaction retains a neat and dainty item of building material! How
deftly does it arrange its courses and bonds, cementing each fragment in
its place until a perfect cylinder, proportionate in dimensions,
uniformly expanding in circumference, smooth within, rugged without,
scientifically correct in design, is the result! How apt, too, the
frictionless lining! And all this laborious neatness and precision
absorbed in the construction of a tenement which has no time! Does the
inmate possess any sense of duration? Addison (quoting a French
authority) says that it is possible some creatures may think half an hour
as long as we do a thousand years! The magnificent mind of the modern
biologist regards a million of years as a mere fag-end of time. The
industrious worm which has built so choice a home may have enjoyed the
sense of comfort and security for a period representing an honourable
age, while, according to the standards of man, the home was not worth the
building for so short a tenancy.

Do we not see in this astonishing example a highly successful effort of a
marine worm to improve on the condition and habits of its barbarous
ancestors? Analyse a bulk sample of the building material, and you shall
find it not dissimilar from the shell of a mollusc, and the interior
film--no doubt a secretion of the animal--is to be safely accepted as
analogous to the silky smoothness which molluscs (often of rough and
rugged exterior) obtain by nacreous deposit and which finds its
culmination in the goldlip mother-of-pearl?

Still higher in the series, so far as the construction of a tenement is
concerned, is that known as the SERPULA, a worm which constructs a
calcareous tube more or less loosely convoluted and adherent to a shell
or stone or coral, or sometimes entwined into a self-supporting colony.

Another worm builds of sand or mud, with a rough casting of fine gravel
and shell-grit, a habitation similar in design to that of the serpula,
though on a less complete and authoritative model; indeed, it would
almost seem that the latter had designed its tenement after the fashion
of that of its poor relation--that the one made a study in mud which the
other reproduced in carbonate of lime. But the most curious fact is that
a true mollusc (VERMETUS) so far departs from the fashion prevalent in
the molluscan world of building a spiral shell, that after beginning one
in proper spiral mode it elongates itself in vermiform manner and forms
an irregular serpuloid tube on the surface of larger shells or stones
just as the SERPULA does; so that without examination of the animal one
may easily be mistaken for the other.

What a contrast is here--on the one hand a lowly worm learning to build a
solid if rude shelly covering for its tender body, on the other a
relative of the elegant, many-whorled TURRITELLA forgetting its high
station and degenerating to the likeness of a worm. No doubt it is really
a case of degeneration from the acquirement of fixed habits, just as when
a lively young crustacean larva gives up its free independent life and
glues its head to a stone--what happens? Why, he becomes a mere barnacle
instead of a spritely shrimp as he might have been! Let mankind take
note and beware.

Another group of worm-like or snaky creatures common on a coral-reef are
the sea-cucumbers or bęche-de-mer. In my experience the most singular
branch of the family is at once the longest and thinnest, for it
resembles a snake so closely that at first sight the observer
subconsciously assumes an attitude of hostility. There seem to be two
varieties of the species. One is much more ruddy in appearance than the
other, and its body is the smoother; but they are much alike in physique
and helplessness. The figure of a sausage-skin four or five and even six
feet long, and capable of elongation to almost double, containing muddy
water in circulation and one end exhibiting a set of ever-waving
tentacles, conveys a not unflattering notion of the animal as it lies
coiled among the coral, half hidden with algae. Far too feeble to be
offensive, it suffers collapse on alarm--that is to say, if such a violent
mental and physical ill can befall an animal of such crude organism. At
least, the tentacles are withdrawn, nor will they be protruded until
some sense--unlikely to be either sight, hearing, taste, or touch, but
probably nervous tension acutely susceptible to vibrations--tells that
danger is past. Then the tentacles are shyly exhibited and the agitations
of the animal are renewed.

Throughout the length of the body of the more remarkable of the two
species of which I may speak on first-hand knowledge are four rows of
bosses, closely spaced, which when the animal has dragged its slow length
along to the utmost limit diminish into mere wrinkles, and disappear
altogether when it is slung across a stick, and the fluid contents, being
precipitated, congest and woefully weight each end, sometimes to the
bursting-point. The bosses of repose seem to indicate so much length in
reserve. A dozen simple tentacles, sword-shaped, with frayed edges, and
about an inch and a half long, indicate the head without decorating it,
for they are of an inconspicuous neutral tint, closely resembling the
alga among which the animal slowly winds its way.

The progress of all species of bęche-de-mer is sedate and cautious, and
this, probably the longest and the weakest and limpest of all, surpasses
the race in deliberateness. It cannot move as a whole, so it progresses
in sections. When the head has been advanced to its utmost, about the
middle of the body an independent series of succeedant ripples or
wrinkles manifests itself and travels consistently ahead, while farther
towards the rear another series follows, and so on, until the lagging
tail is enabled to wrinkle itself along. But the animal is endowed with
the capacity of quite suddenly retracting its forepart like the bellows
of a concertina, and when so compressed to heave it backward or in any
direction, so that an immediate change of route is possible. The
retraction and uplifting of the foreshortened part is astonishingly rapid
in view of the methodic movements of the animal as a whole. It is also
notable that when the retraction takes place the tentacles are entirely
withdrawn, otherwise they are for ever anxiously exploring every inch of
the toilsome way. Scientific men have entitled one of the
species--possibly the very one blunderingly introduced--SYNAPTA BESELLII,
and brief reference is made to it elsewhere.

One member of the great "sea-cucumber," or BĘCHE-DE-MER, family is
especially noticeable because it is decorated with colours of which a
gaily plumaged bird might be envious, though it has no other claim to
comeliness. Most primitive in form--merely a flattened sac, oval and four
inches long by three inches broad, with a purple and white mouth puckered
as if contracted by a drawn string. Its general tint is grey;
longitudinal bands of scarlet, green, violet, and purple radiate from the
posterior and converge at the mouth, the hues blending rainbow-like. The
brighter colours seem to have been carelessly and profusely applied, for
they run when touched and smear the fingers. Among a family generally
sad-hued and shrinking so conspicuous an example is quite prodigal and
invites one to ponder upon the sportfulness of Nature. What special
office in her processes does this fop of the species with prismatic
complexion perform?

The functions of bęche-de-mer are not only interesting, but requisite in
the commonwealth of the coral reef, however purposeless to the observer
intent upon the obvious and external only; while the genera are so
numerous that doubtless to each species is consigned the performance of
a special office. Some seem to delight in a diet of slush of the
consistency of thin gruel; others prefer fine grit; others, again, coarse
particles of shell and coral grit and rough gravel. Peradventure the
actual food consists of the micro-organisms in the slush and on the
superficies of the unassimilatable solids.

When submitted to the sun on the dry beach death is speedy, and
decomposition in the case of some species complete to obliteration in a
few hours. An apparently solid body, weighty in comparison with its size
and apparently of such nature that rapid desiccation would convert it
into a tough, leathery substance, it melts at the sight of the sun,
leaving as a relic of existence its last meal--a handful of grit-covered
with a transparent film of varnish, which the first wavelet of the
flowing tide dissolves. Yet on the reef in a pool such an individual
endures complacently water heated to a temperature of 108°. Though
feeble and of such readily dissolvable texture, bęche-de-mer may be
regarded as among the mightiest agents in the conversion of the waste of
the coral reef into mud--the sort of mud of which some of the toughest of
rocks are compounded. Graded by this and that species, the debris is
reduced to fine particles, which upon sedimentation help to raise the
level of the reef and thus prepare foundations for dry land.

For richness of colour and diversity of design some of the lovely corals
and sponges, which seem to counterfeit the inventions and contrivances of
man, and the algae, and those anomalous "growths" which fixedly adhere
to the under surface of stones and blocks of coral debris, are not to be
surpassed. These dull stones, partly buried in sand, reveal in blotches,
daubs, and smears the crude extravagances of a painter's palette. Can it
be that such brilliant colours and tints, so profuse and delicate, are
necessary features of animals of such crude organisms that they appear to
be merely disembodied splashes and driblets from the brush of the Great
Artist? Look at this fantastic patchwork, brightening the obscurity of
an upturned stone with glowing orange. In perfectly regular minute dots a
pattern of quartered squares, raised slightly in the centre, is being
worked out. Many of the squares are finished, but the fabric is rugged at
the edges, where, with miraculous precision, the design is being
followed, each tiny stitch the counterpart of its fellow. Unless this
gross and formless blotch of sage green interferes or this disc of royal
blue expands, the whole under surface of the stone may be covered with an
orange coloured quilt as dainty as if wrought by fairy fingers.

Why, again, is this particular miniature dome of coral so precisely
spirally fluted, like the dome of a Byzantine cathedral? Why of so pure a
mauve and bespangled with so many millions of snow-white crystals?
Why--where no eyes see them--should parti-coloured algae flaunt such
graceful, flawless plumes? What marvellous fertility of imagination in
form and design is exhibited in every quiet coral garden! Stolid
battlemented walls, massive shapeless blocks, rollicking mushrooms, tipsy
toadstools; narrow fjords, sparklingly clear, wind among and intersect
the stubborn masses. Fish, bright as butterflies and far more alert,
flash in and out of mazes more bewildering than that in which Rosamond's
bower was secluded. Starfish stud the sandy flats, a foot in diameter,
red with burnished black bosses, and in all shades of red to pink and
cream and thence to derogatory grey. Here is a jade-coloured
conglomeration of life resembling nothing in the world more than a loose
handful of worms without beginning and without end, interloped and
writhing and glowing as it writhes with opalescent fires; and here a
tiny leafless shrub, jointed with each alternate joint, ivory, white, and
ruby-red respectively; again this tracery of gold and green and salmon
pink decorating a shiny stone, in formal and consistent pattern. What is
it? why is it? and why are such luminous tints so sordidly concealed?



"And call up unbound
In various shapes old Proteus from the sea."


During the cool season the tides on the coast of North Queensland offer
peculiar facilities to the observer of the thousand and one marvels of
the tropic sea. Spring tides throughout the warm months range low at
night and high during the day. In other words, the lowest day
spring-tide in winter exposes far more of the reefs than the lowest day
tide of summer, while the highest night tide of summer sweeps away the
data of the corresponding tide of winter. When, therefore, the far
receding water makes available patches of coral reef exposed at other
times of the year merely to the cool glimpses of the moon, I am driven to
explore them with an eagerness, if not of a treasure-seeker or in the
frenzies of naturalistic fervour, at least with the enthusiasm of an
ardent student.

It may be that most of the sights which are revealed are of common
knowledge among scientific men, and if one is inclined to preach a
little sermon on the text of the living stones and polyps and animated
jelly, and if such text be trite, let it be granted that the sermon is at
least original. Necessarily the sermon will lack commentary and
application, and be very imperfect in many other details. If it possesses
any virtues, you must apply them personally, for the preacher is not
enlightened enough to expound them even to his own, much less to the
satisfaction of others.

In many places on this reef little secrets, well kept throughout the rest
of the year, are boldly proclaimed when the sea retreats. A fairly common
one is a huge anemone of a rich cobalt blue which opens out like a
soup-plate with convoluted edges. Another has a form something resembling
a hyacinth-glass. The more public parts are not unlike a dwarf growth of
that old-fashioned flower the Prince of Wales's feather, save that the
colour is a rich brown. Being an animal, it possesses senses in which the
most highly specialised vegetable is deficient. It has the power of
waving its spikelets, and of the thousand of truncated tentacles which
cover the spikelets each seems to possess independent action. Though all,
no doubt, contribute to the sustenance of the animal, they, at will, rest
from their labours or assume great activity.

It is natural to suppose that the diet of such an animal must be of
microscopic proportions. The other day I happened on one which had seized
a fish about four inches long, and seemed to be greedily sucking it to
death. The fish was still alive, and as it looked up at me with a
pathetic gleam in its watery eyes, I released it. It was very
languid--indeed, so feeble and faint that it could not swim away. Aid had
come too late. The fish was the legitimate prey of the anemone. My
interference had been at variance from the laws of property and right. As
the vestige of life which remained to the fish was all too fragile for
salvation, and as I saw the chance of ascertaining whether the anemone
had consciously seized it, or whether it had by mishap blundered against
the anemone and had been arrested for its intrusion, I placed the fish
close to the enemy. I am certain the anemone made an effort to reach it.
There was a decided swing of one of the spikes in the direction of the
fish, and decided agitation among the hundreds of minute tentacles. When
I, in the interests of remorseless truth, placed the fish in the anemone
it was immediately held fast, the activity on the part of the tubes
subsiding with an air of satisfaction at the same moment.

It is well known that sea anemones do assimilate such robust and rich
diet as living fish. If one's finger is presented the spikelets adhere to
it. I cannot describe the sensation as seizure, for it is all too
delicate for that; but at least one is conscious of a faint sucking
pull. If the finger is rudely withdrawn, some of the tentacles which
have taken a firm hold are torn away. Again, the animal is often found
apparently asleep, for it is languid and listless, and will not respond
to the bait of a finger, however coaxingly presented.

There is another giant anemone (DISCOMA HADDONI) known to the blacks as
"pootah-pootah," whose inner, reflexed, convoluted edges are covered with
tentacles of brown with yellow terminals. This is friendly to fish--at
any, rate to one species. It is the landlord or host of one of the
prettiest fish of all the wide, wide sea, and seems proud of the company
of its guest, and the fish is so dependent upon its host as to be quite
helpless apart from it. The fish (AMPHIPRION PERCULA) "intel-intel" of
the blacks, is said to be commensal (literally, dining at the same table
with its host), as distinguished from the parasite, which lives on its

The good-fellowship between the dainty fish--resplendent in carmine,
with a broad collar, and waist-band of silvery lavender (or rather silver
shot with lavender) and outlined with purple--and the great anemone is
apparent. If the finger is presented to any part of the latter, it
becomes adherent; or if the anemone is not in the mood for food, it
curls and shrinks away with a repulsive demeanour. But the beautiful
fish on the least alarm retires within the many folds of its host,
entirely disappearing, presently to peep out again shyly at the intruder.
It is almost as elusive as a sunbeam, and most difficult to catch, for if
the anemone is disturbed it contracts its folds, and shrinks away,
offering inviolable sanctuary. If the fish be disassociated from its
host, it soon dies. It cannot live apart, though the anemone, as far as
can be judged from outward appearances, endures the separation without a

However, it is safe to assert that the association between the stolid
anemone and the painted fish--only an inch and a half long--is for their
mutual welfare, the fish attracting microscopic food to its host. And why
should one anemone greedily seize a fish, and another find pleasure in
the companionship of one of the most beautiful and delicate of the

This hospitable anemone occasionally takes another lodger--very frail and
beautiful. All that is visible on casual inspection is an irregular smear
of watery, translucent violet, flitting about in association with
disjointed threads--stiff, erratic, and delicately white. There is no
apparent connection between the spectral patch of colour and the animated
threads, though they are in company. If, determined to investigate the
mystery, the finger is presented, the colour evades it. It is conscious
and abhors the touch of man. Follow it up in the pellucid water, and make
of your hand a scoop, and you will find that you have captured, not a
phantom but a prawn, compact of one bewildering blotch--and that is a word
of doubtful propriety in connection with so elfin an organism--a mere
shadow tinted the palest violet, and transparencies, with legs and
antennae frail as silken threads.

"Substance might be called what shadow seemed,
For each seemed either."

So far I have never seen this lovely lodger in the same anemone with the
painted fish. The latter, perhaps, admires it too ardently and literally.

Another marvel, the sea-hare (APLYSIA), is a crudely wedge-shaped body
but incomparable in its ruggedness to that or any other model, and the
colour of mud and sand and of coral, dead and sea-stained. It reposes,
with its back flush with the surface, beside a block of coral or stone
defiantly indistinguishable from the ocean floor--a stolid, solid, inert
creature, eight or ten inches long, the under part smooth, presenting the
appearance of wet chamois-leather, and irresponsive to touch--"the
mother tongue of all the senses." Ugly, loathsome, and tough of texture,
it is so helpless that if it is placed on the sand it is extremely
doubtful whether of its own volition it could regain its natural
position. The surge of the sea might roll it over, and it might then be
able to regain the grovelling attitude essential to life. Otherwise, I
am inclined to think fatal results would follow the mere placing of the
creature sideways on the sand. It seems to possess but the feeblest spark
of life, and yet it has its sentiments and love for its kind, for often
three or four are huddled together. And how, it may be asked, is this
creature, so apt at concealment and so completely disguised, made visible
to human eyes?

The answer is that if by chance the animal is disturbed it makes a
supreme effort at further concealment, and that impulse--perfect as it may
be when set in opposition to the wit of the creature's nervous and
apprehensive enemies--reveals it most boldly to man. From a funnel-shaped
opening between two obscure flaps on the back--ordinarily invisible--there
is emitted a gush of liquid, royal purple in hue, which stains the sea
with an impenetrable dye for yards around. The colour, which is
delightfully gorgeous, mingles with the water in jets and curling
feathery sprays, enchanting the beholder with unique and ever-changing
shapes until a glorious cloud is created and he forgets the ugliness and
forgives the humility of the originator in the enjoyment of an artistic
treat. If the cloud which Jupiter assumed was of the imperial tone and of
the fascinating fashion which the groveller in the mud creates, Aegina
would have been superfeminine had she not joyously surrendered. Between
the neutral tints of the squalid sprawler and the fluid which it excretes
the contrast is so surprising that one involuntarily raises his hat by
way of apology for any slighting thoughts which may have arisen from
first and imperfect acquaintance.

There are grounds for the entertainment of the belief that the ejected
fluid not only effectually conceals the scarcely discernible animal but
that it harshly affects the sensibilities of fish.

In a partially submerged coral grotto were two small spotted sharks
(Wobbegong, CROSSORHINUS sp.) notoriously sluggish and averse from
eviction from their quarters during daylight. The larger callously
disregarded the tickling of a light fish spear, but lashed out vigorously
when a decisive prod was administered. In its flurry it must have
disturbed one of the dye-secreting molluscs, which had escaped my notice,
for in a few seconds the water was richly imbued. Thereupon both the
sharks began to manifest great uneasiness, and eventually with fluster
and splashing they worked among the fissures of the coral and shot out
into the unimpregnated sea. The sharks seemed to find the presence of the
forlorn groveller in the mud unendurable when it stained the water red,
though apparently indifferent to its presence as long, as it remained
quiescent, which facts lend confirmation to the popular opinion that the
fluid possesses a caustic-like principle violently irritative to the

And why should this uncouth creature with scarcely more of life than a
lump of coral have within it a fountain filled with Tyrian dye? Why?
Because it has enemies; and though it seems to be SANS mouth, SANS eyes,
SANS ears, SANS everything it is instinct with the first law of

A fairly common inhabitant of the sandy shallows diversifying the coral
reef is a slim snake (? AIPYSINAS FUSCUS), sand-coloured, with a
conspicuous dark brown stock, defined with white edgings, a whitish nose
and pectoral fins so large as to remind one of those defiant collars
which Gladstone was wont to wear with such excellent effect. Blacks
invariably give the snake and its retreat a wide berth on the principle
enunciated by Josh Billings: "Wen I see a snaik's hed sticking out of a
hole I sez that hole belongs to that snaik." Among them this species has
the reputation of attacking off-hand whosoever disturbs it, and of being
provided with deadly venom. My experience, however, bids me say that the
pretty snake has the typical dread of the family of man, which dread
expresses itself in frenzied efforts to get out of the way when suddenly
molested. For the most part it lives in a neat hole, oubliette-shaped, and
in its eagerness to locate and reach its retreat it darts about with a
nimbleness which almost eludes perception. These frantic quarterings, I
believe, led to the opinion that the snake is specially savage, whereas
it is merely exceptionally nervous and eager for the security of its
home. Twice recently when I have startled one in an enclosed pool it has
darted hither and thither in extreme excitement, even passing between my
legs without offering any violence or venom, and has eventually
disappeared in a miniature maelstrom of mud, as the reptile often does.
Like that lively fellow of whom Chaucer tells:

"He is heer and there,
He is so variant, he bideth nowhere."

Dickens had in his mind a similarly elusive character when he wrote: "You
look at him and there he is. You look again--and there he isn't."

This habit of furiously seeking a lair might pass casually but for an
astonishing detail, of which I was not well assured until it was
confirmed by repeated observations and by knowledge current among the
blacks. When the scared snake descends into its own well-defined well,
very little disturbance and no discoloration of the water takes place.
But when in desperation it disappears down a haphazard hole, a dense
little cloud of sediment is created. By careful watching I discovered
that the snake entered its home head first, but in any other hole the
tail had precedence, and that the frantic wriggling as it bored its way
down caused the obscuration. Moreover the snake--as subtle as any beast of
the field--first detects a befitting temporary retreat from apparent or
fancied danger, and then deliberately turns and enters tail first. Does
the fact justify the conclusion that the creature, in the moment
intervening between the detection of a present refuge in time of trouble
and its dignified retreat thereinto, calculates the possibility that the
unfamiliar habitation may be so narrow as to prevent the act of turning
round? Does this sea-snake match its wonderful nimbleness of body with an
equally wonderful nimbleness of brain? I do not presume to theorise on
such a conundrum of Nature, but mention an undoubted fact for others to

One of the salt sea snakes is distinguished by its odd, deceptive
shape--a broad, flattened tail whence the body consistently diminishes
to the head, which is the thinnest part. Other aquatic snakes have
paddle-shaped tails.

Another singular denizen of the reef is a species of Acrozoanthus (?)--a
compound animal having a single body and several heads. The body is
contained in a perpendicular, parchment-like, splay-footed tube a foot
and a half or two feet long, whence the heads obtrude alternately as
buds along a growing branch. Many of the tubes are vacant--the skeletons
of the departed. From those which are occupied the heads appear as
bosses of polished malachite veined and fringed with dusky purple, and


"The dewdrop slips into the shining sea."

So Edwin Arnold. Here is an observation illustrating the manner in which
certain pellucid sea-drops materialise and ultimately shed themselves as
living organisms "into the shining sea."

On November 6, 1908, the sea tossed up on the beach an exceptionally
large and absolutely perfect specimen of the egg-cluster of that spacious
and useful mollusc known as the Bailer Shell (MELO DIADEMA or CYMBIUM
FLAMMEUM). Its measurements were: length, 16ź in.; circumference at
base, 12ž in.; at middle, 11ź in.; at apex 7 1/8 in. It weighed 1ž lb. and
comprised 126 distinct capsules. The photograph presents a candid

During the same month and the first two weeks of December portions of
several other egg-clusters came ashore, and as they were in nicely
graduated stages of development I was enabled to indulge in an
exceptionally entertaining study--no less than the observation of the
transformation of glistening fluid into solid matter and life. In passing
it may be mentioned that the first and the last two months of the year
appear to constitute the period when the offspring of the species see the
light of day, proving that the natural impulses of some molluscs are
subject to rule and regulation similarly to those of birds and other
terrestrial forms.

Each of the capsules composing the cluster is a cone with the apex free
and interior, while the base is external and adherent to its immediate
neighbours, but not completely so throughout its circumference. It
follows, therefore, that the cluster of capsules is hollow and that water
flushes it throughout. In appearance it resembles a combination of the
pineapple and the corncob, and to the base a portion of the coral-stem to
which it had been anchored by its considerate parent was firmly attached.

When the cluster of capsules (the substance of which is tough,
semi-transparent, gelatine, opal-tinted, soon to be sea-stained a
yellowish green) is slowly expelled from the parent's body--I have been
witness to the birth--each contains about one-sixth ounce of vital
element, fluid and glistening. Physical changes in this protoplasm
manifest themselves in the course of a few days. The central portion
becomes a little less fluid, and from an inchoate blur a resemblance to a
diaphanous shell develops and floats, cloud-like, in a perfectly limpid
atmosphere. Gradually it becomes denser though still translucent, as it
seemingly absorbs some of the fluid by which it is surrounded. The model
of the future animal, exact even to the dainty contours and furrows around
that which represents the spire of the ultimate shell, is still without
trace of visible organs. That, however, its substance is highly complex is
obvious, for as imperceptible development progresses the exterior is
transformed into a substance resembling rice tissue-paper--an infinitely
fragile covering--which from day to day insensibly toughens in texture and
becomes separate from the animal. Faint opaque, transverse ribs are at
this stage apparent, though disappearing later on. Opacity is primarily
manifested at the aperture of the infant mollusc where a seeming
resemblance to an operculum forms, possibly for the protection of vital
organs during nascency. This plaque of frail armour is, however, soon
dismantled, and of course much more happens in the never-ceasing process
than is revealed to the uninitiated.

As the calcareous envelope becomes opaque and solid, the animal within
loses its transparent delicacy, and coincidentally the apex of the
capsule opens slightly. In the meantime the fluid contents have
disappeared, as if the animal had resulted from its solidification. The
animal, too, is a very easy fit in its compartment, and incapable, in its
extreme fragility of withstanding the pressure of a finger. Now it begins
to increase rapidly in bulk and sturdiness; the shell becomes hard, and
as the exit widens it screws its way out of a very ragged cradle,
emerging sound and whole as a bee from its cell, all its organs equipped
to ply their respective offices.

With pardonable affectation of vanity it has finally fitted itself for
appearance in public by the assumption of three or four buff and brown
decorations upon its milk-white shell, which quickly blend into a pattern
varying in individuals, of blotches and clouds in brown, yellow, and
white. In maturity the mollusc weighs several pounds, its shell has a
capacity for as much as two gallons of water, and is coloured uniformly
buff, while in old age infantile milk-white reasserts itself.

It is not for such as I am in respect of the teachings of science to say
whether the development of the perfect animal from a few drops of
translucent jelly--as free from earthly leaven as a dewdrop--is to be more
distinctly traced, in the case of this huge mollusc than in other
elementary forms. All that it becomes an unversed student of life's
mysteries to suggest is that this example gives bold advertisement to the
marvellous process.

Many of the secrets of life are written in script so cryptic and obscure
that none but the wise and greatly skilled may decipher it, and they
only, when aided by the special equipment which science supplies. In this
case the firm but facile miracle is recorded in words that he that runs
may read. Independent of microscope the unskilled observer may trace
continuity in the transformation of jelly to life.

The sea-drop, lovely in its purity, knowing neither blemish nor flaw,
becomes an animal with form and features distinctive from all others,
with all essential organs, means of locomotion, its appetite, its
dislikes, its care of itself, its love for its kind, its inherent malice
towards its enemies--all evolved in a brief period from the concentrated
essence of life.

"If, as is believed, the development of the perfect animal from
protoplasm epitomises the series of changes which represent the
successive forms through which its ancestors passed in the process of
evolution" (these are the words of Professor Francis Darwin) what a
graphic, what a luminous demonstration of evolution is here presented!

In a brief previous reference to this mollusc it was stated that the
infants in their separate capsules were in a state of progressive
development from the base to the apex of the cluster, those in the base
being the farther advanced. Investigations lead to a revision of such
statement. No favour seems to be enjoyed by first-born capsules.
Development is equable and orderly, but as in other forms of life the
contents of certain capsules seem to start into being with a more
vigorous initial impulse than others, and these mature the more speedily.
A sturdy infant may be screwing its way out of its cradle, while in a
weakly and degenerate brother alongside the thrills of life may be far
less imperative.

The pictures illustrate isolated scenes in the life-history of the
mollusc, which in a certain sense offers a solution to, the conundrum
stated by job "Who, hath begotten the drops of dew?"


July 17, 1909.

Found a small cowry shell of remarkable beauty on dead coral in the Bay.
At first sight it appeared as a brilliant scarlet boss on the brown
coral, and upon touching it the mantle slowly parted and was withdrawn,
revealing a shell of lavender in two shades in irregular bands and
irregularly dotted with reddish brown spots; the apertures were richly
stained with orange, and the whole enamel exceedingly lustrous. Most of
the molluscs of the species conceal themselves under mantles so closely
resembling their environments as to often render them invisible. In this
case the disguise assumed similitude to a most conspicuous but common
object of anomalous growth, seeming to be a combination of slime and



Though certain species of molluscs have their respective habitats, and
that which is considered rare in one part may be common in another, there
are few which have not a general interest for the scientific
conchologist. Collectors prize shells on account of their rarity and
beauty; the man of science because of the assistance they afford in the
working out of the universal problems of nature. Neither a collector nor
a scientific student, my attitude towards marine objects is that of a
mere observer--an interested and often wonder-struck observer--so that
when I classify one species of mollusc as common and another as rare I am
judging them in accordance with my own environment and information, not
from a general knowledge of one of the most entertaining branches of
natural history. From this standpoint I may refer to four or five species
which stand out from the rest in interest and comparative rarity.

An oyster (OSTREA DENDOSTREA FOLIUM), too mean of proportions, too dull
and commonplace of colour to be termed pretty, worth nothing, and
justifying, in appearances its worthlessness, is remarkable for the
exercise of a certain sort of deliberate wit in accordance with special
conditions. Nature provides various species of the great oyster family
with respective methods of holding their own in the sea, and in the case
under review she permits the individual to exercise a choice of two
different methods of fixture as chance and the drift of circumstances
decide its location. From the bases of the valves spring three or more
pairs of hook-like processes which, if Fate decides upon a certain coral
host, encircle a slim "twig," creating for the mollusc a curious
resemblance to a short-limbed sloth hugging tightly the branch of a tree.
When the spat happens to settle in places where coral is not available
the hooks or arms are but crudely developed. It becomes a club-footed
cripple, its feet adherent by agglutination or fusion to a rock or other
and larger mollusc, dead or alive. In fact, the shrewd little oyster
responds to its environment, clasping a twig with claws or cementing
itself to an unembraceable host in accordance as contingencies insist.

Another mollusc (AVICULA LATA), sometimes found in company with the
clinging oyster, resembles, when the fragile valves are expanded, a
decapitated butterfly, brick-red in colour, with an overshirt of fine and
elaborate network, orange tinted. The interior is scarcely less
attractive, the nacre having a pink and bluish lustre, while the "lip" is
dark red. This is found (in my experience) only in association with a
certain species of coral (GORGONIA), which flourishes in strong currents
on a stony bottom three or four fathoms deep. Apart from the unusual
shape and pleasing colours of the shell, it is remarkable because
it seems to be actually incorporated with its host. The foot of the
mollusc is extended into a peduncle, consisting of fibres and tendons, by
which the animal is a fixture to a spur of coral. At the point of union
(to facilitate which there is a hiatus in the margins of the peduncle)
the sarcode or "flesh" of the coral is denuded, its place being
occupied by ligaments, which by minute ramifications adhere so intimately
to the coral stock or stem that severance therefrom cannot be effected
without loss of life to the mollusc.

On a single spray of ruddy Gorgonia several of these commensal molluscs
may occur in various stages of development--the smaller no bigger than the
wing of a fly and almost as frail, the larger three and four inches long,
and each whatsoever its proportions securely budded on and growing from a
spur, while frequently the valves of the large are bossed with limpets
and other encumbrances. In appearance the shell represents a deformity in
usurpation of a thin pencilate "growth" of coral a foot long, for the
exterior colouration is that of the coral. Quite independent of their
host for existence, these molluscs are not to be stigmatised as
parasites, though the individual spur to which each is attached is
invariably destroyed by the union, merely sufficient remaining for the
support of the intruder. Natural science provides many illustrations of
symbiosis, or the intimate association of two distinct organisms. This
example may be out of the common, and therefore worthy of inclusion in a
general reference to the life of the coral reef.

A third species, rare in a certain sense only, is of a most retiring, not
to say secretive, disposition. For several years I sought in vain a
living specimen of a flattened elongated bivalve (VALSELLA),
buff-coloured externally, very lustrous within, with a hinge the centre
of which resembles a split pearl. The blacks could offer no information
beyond that which was delightfully indefinite. "That fella plenty alonga
reef. You look out. B'mbi might you catch 'em!" "Tom," who never
wilfully parades his ignorance, boldly asserted that they favoured rocks,
but he had no name for them, and no living specimen was ever forthcoming
to substantiate confident opinions.

An exceptionally low tide revealed several hitherto cautiously preserved
secrets of the reef, among them the location of a species of sponge, dark
brown, some semi-spherical, some turreted in fantastic fashion. Embedded
upright in the sponges, like almonds in plum-puddings, so that merely the
extremities of the valves were visible as narrow slits, were the
long-sought-for molluscs. Judging by the extreme care of the species for
its own protection--for it is ill-fitted in model and texture for a
rough-and-tumble struggle for existence--one is inclined to the opinion
that it must have many enemies. The valves are frail and brittle, and
only when they gape are they revealed, and the gape is self consciously
polite. The sponge embraces the slender mollusc so maternally that rude
yawning is forbidden. It may lisp only and in smooth phrases, such as
"prunes" and "prisms"; and, moreover, the host further insures it
against molestation by the diffusion of an exceptionally powerful odour,
which, though to my sense of smell resembles phosphorus, is, I am
informed on indubitable authority, derivable from the active form of
oxygen known as ozone. Experimentally I have placed these molluscs in
fresh water, to find it quickly dyed to a rich amber colour while
acquiring quite remarkable pungency. Even after the third change the
water was impregnated.

Interest in the mollusc became secondary upon the discovery of the host
and in consideration of the part it plays in the production of one of the
special effects of coral reefs; but the mollusc serves another and
timely purpose--purely personal and yet not to be disregarded. It
indicates a dilemma with which the wilful amateur in the first-hand study
of conchology is confronted. Although, as I have said, no local knowledge
of identity was available, reference to a well-disposed expert secured
the information that its title in science is VULSELLA LINGULATA; that
some twenty species are known; that they all associate with sponges, and
that possibly different species inhabit different kinds of sponges. It
may seem unpardonably gratuitous on the part of one professedly ignorant
to offer general observations upon natural phenomena; but as I find
myself among the great majority who do not know and who may be more or
less interested and anxious to learn, I claim justification in describing
that which to me is novel and rare. In this splendid isolation I cannot
hope to illuminate primary investigations with the searching light in
which science basks unblinkingly, for the nearest library of text-books
is close on a thousand miles away. Nor can I keep all my observations to
myself. There are some which, like murder, "will out," conscious though I
am of meriting the censure of the learned.

With this off my mind, let me return to the tenement sponges, which may
be likened to so many independent and flourishing manufactories of ozone.
Apart from the odour of brine common to every ocean and the scents of the
algae and some of the flowering plants of the sea, which are similar all
over the world, a coral reef has a strong and specific effluence. The
skeletonless coral (ALCYONARIA) has a sulphurous savour of its own, and
the echini and bęche-de-mer are also to be separately distinguished by
their fumes. Anemones, great and small, seem to disperse a recognisable
scent as from a mild and watery solution of fish and phosphorus. But of
all the occupants of the reef none are so powerful or so characteristic
in this respect as sponges. Puissant and aggressive, these exhalations
are at times so strong as to almost make the eyes water, while exciting
vivid reminiscences of old-fashioned matches and chemical experiments.
Substantial, wholesome, and clean--though generated by a wet, helpless
creature having no personal charms, and which, having passed the phase of
life in which it enjoyed the gift of locomotion, has become a plant-like
fixture to one spot--the gas mingles with other diffusions of the reef,
recalling villanous salt-petre and sheepdips and brimstone and treacle to
the stimulation of the mental faculties generally.

Invariably an afternoon's exploration of the coral reef is followed by a
drowsy evening and a night of exceptionally sweet repose. No ill dreams
molest the soothing hours during which the nervous system is burnished
and lubricated, and you wake refreshed and invigorated beyond measure. I
have endeavoured to account for the undoubted physical replenishment and
mental exhilaration largely from the breathing of air saturated with
emanations from the coral and sea things generally.

In the course of three hours' parade and splashing in the tepid water,
ever so many varieties of gas more or less pungent and vitalising--gas
which seems to search and strengthen the mechanism of the lungs with
chemically enriched air, to tonic the whole system, and to brighten the
perceptive faculties, have been imbibed. Exercise and the eagerness with
which wonders are sought out and admired may account in part for present
elation and balmy succeeding sleep, but the vital functions seem, if my
own sensations are typical, to receive also a general toning up. Twice a
month at least a man should spend an afternoon on a coral reef for the
betterment of body and brain. On the face of it this is counsel of
perfection. Only to the happy few is such agreeable and blest physic
proffered gratis. Yet the whole world might be brighter and better if
coral reefs were more generously distributed. Breathing such subtle and
sturdy air, men would live longer; while the extravagant life of the
reef, appealing to him in fine colours and strange shapes, would avert
his thoughts from paltry and mean amusements and over-exciting pleasures.
The pomp of the world he would find personated by coral polyps; its
vanities by coy and painted fish; its artfulness represented by crabs
that think and plan; its scavenging performed by aureoled worms.

Although students of conchology are familiar with several species of
LIMA, I am eager to include it in these haphazard references, because my
first acquaintance with a living specimen afforded yet another experience
of the versatility of the designs of Nature. It is truly one of the
"strange fellows" which Nature in her time has framed. Living obscurely
in cavities, under stones, inoffensive and humble, the Lima enjoys the
distinction of being, the permanent exemplification of the misfit, its
body being several sizes too large as well as too robust for its fragile,
shelly covering. The valves are obtusely oblong, while the animal is
almost a flattened oval, the mantle being fringed with numerous bright
pink tentacles, almost electrical in their sensitiveness.

Though anything but rotund, so full in habit (comparatively speaking) is
the body of the lima that the valves cannot compress it. Except at the
hinges they are for ever divorced, an unfair proportion of the bulging
body being exposed naked to the inclemency and hostility of the world.
"All too full in the bud" for those frail unpuritanical stays, the animal
seems to be at a palpable disadvantage in the battle of life, yet the
lima is equipped with special apparatus for the maintenance of its right
to live. By the expansion and partial closing of the valves it swims or
is propelled with a curiously energetic, fussy, mechanical action, while
the ever-active pink rays--a living, nimbus--beat rhythmically,
imperiously waving intruders off the track.

The appearance and activities of the creature are such as to establish
the delusion that it is not altogether amicable in its attitude towards
even such a bumptious and authoritative product of Nature as man. Its
agitated demonstrations--whatever their vital purpose may be--to the
superficial observer are danger signals, a means of self-preservation, as
a substitute for the hard calcareous armour bestowed upon other molluscs.
The fussy red rays may impose upon enemies a sense of discretion which
constrains them to avoid the lima, which, though hostile in appearance,
is one of the mildest of creatures. The tentacles, too, have a certain
sort of independence, for they occasionally separate themselves from the
animal upon the touch of man, adhering to the fingers, while maintaining
harmonic action, just as the tip of a lizard's tail wriggles and squirms
after severance.

Most of the blocks of submerged, denuded coral are the homes of certain
species of burrowing molluscs, the most notable of which are the "date
mussels" (LITHOPHAGA). The adult of that designated L. TERES is over two
inches long and half an inch in diameter; glossy black, with the surface
delicately sculptured in wavy lines; the interior nacreous, with a bluish
tinge. This excavates a perfectly cylindrical tunnel, upon the sides of
which are exposed the stellar structure of the coral. A closely related
species (STRAMINEA), slightly longer, and generally of smooth exterior,
partially coated with plaster, muddy grey in colour, adds to the comfort
and security of existence by lining its tunnel with a smooth material, a
distinction which cannot fail to impress the observer. In each case the
mollusc is a loose fit in its burrow, having ample room for rotation, but
the aperture of the latter is what is known as a cassinian oval, and
generally projects slightly above the surface of the coral.

The animal is a voluntary life prisoner, for the aperture has the least
dimension of the tunnel. The genus is known to be self luminous--a decided
advantage in so dark and narrow an habitation. It seems to me to be
worthy of special note that an animal enclosed by Nature in tightly
fitting valves should also be endowed with the power of mixing plaster or
secreting the enamel with which its tunnel is lined and of depositing it
with like regularity and, smoothness to that exhibited in its more
personal covering which grows with its growth. The mollusc in its
burrow in the depths of a block of coral, white as marble, with its own
light and its self-constructed independent wall, appeals to my mind as
evidence of the care of Nature for the preservation of types, while from
such retiring yet virile creatures man learns earth-shifting lessons. A
quotation from Lyell's "Principles of Geology" says that the
perforations of Lithophagi in limestone cliffs and in the three upright
columns of the Temple of Jupiter Serapis at Puzzuoli afford conclusive
evidence of changes in the level of sea-coasts in modern times--the
borings of the mollusc prove that the pillars of the temple must have been
depressed to a corresponding depth in the sea, and to have been raised
up again without losing their perpendicularity.

The date-mussels play an important part in the conversion of
sea-contained minerals into dry land. Massive blocks of lime secreted by
coral polyps being weakened by the tunnels of the mussels are the more
easily broken by wave force; and being reduced finally to mud, the lime,
in association with sand and other constituents, forms solid rock.

A feature of another of the coral rock disintegrating agents is its
extreme weakness. It is a rotund mollusc with frail white valves, closely
fitting the cavity in which it lives. As it cannot revolve, the
excavation of the cavity is, possibly, effected by persistent but
necessarily extremely slight "play" of the valves; but the animal
appears to be quite content in its cramped cell with a tiny circular
aperture (generally so obscured as to be invisible), through which it
accepts the doles of the teeming, incessant sea.



"Reasoning, oft admire
How Nature, wise and frugal, could commit
Such dispositions with superfluous hand."


So much of the time of the Beachcomber is spent sweeping with hopeful
eyes the breadths of the empty sea, policing the uproarious beaches,
overhauling the hordes of roguish reefs, and the medley concealed in cosy
caves by waves that storm at the bare mention of the rights of private
property, that he cannot avoid casual acquaintance with the scores of
animated things which ceaselessly woo him from the pursuit of his
calling. Should he be inclined to ignore the boldly obvious distractions
from serious affairs, there are others, not readily discernible, which
have singularly direct and successful methods of fixing attention upon

Roseate or sombre your humour as you patrol the reefs, it is liable to be
changed in a flash into clashing tints by inadvertent contact with a
warty ghoul of a sea-urchin, a single one of whose agonising spines never
fails to bring you face to face with one of the vividest realities of
life. A slim but shapely mollusc known as Terebellum or augur, to mention
another conceited little disturber of your meditations, stands on its
spire in the sand, and screws as you tread, cutting, a delightfully
symmetrical hole in the sole of your foot, and retaining the
core--perfect as that of a diamond drill.

Many and varied are the inconspicuous creatures with office to remind the
barefooted trespasser that no charter of the isles and their wrecks is
flawless, and that they are prepared to inflict curious pains and limping
penalties for every incautious intrusion on their domicile. Few of the
denizens of the unkempt coral gardens are more remarkable than the crabs.
By reef and shore I have come literally into contact with so many quaint
specimens, and they have so often afforded exhilarating diversion and
sent brand-new startling sensations scurrying along such curious and
complicated byways, that courtesy bids me tender a portrait of one of the
family which (in appearance only) may be described as a dandy, and to
tell of two or three others whose intimacy is invariably enlivening.

Shall I dispose of the dandy first? Perhaps it were better so, for I
confess to a very slight acquaintanceship with him, and as I am ignorant,
too, of its ceremonious as well as familiar title, the pleasure of a
formal introduction is denied. In the portrait the ruling
passions--modesty and meekness--are graphically displayed. When it lies
close--and it moves rarely, and then with a gentle lateral swaying--the
fancy dress of seaweed is a garment of invisibility. It is far more true
to character alive than as a museum specimen, for its natural complexion
is a yellowish grey, the neutral tint of the blending of sand and coral
mud upon which it resides. The preserving fluid added a pinkish tinge to
the body and limbs. Blame, therefore, the embalmer for the
over-conspicuous form which is not in the habit of the creature as it
lived. Neither are the plumes those of pomp and ceremony, but merely the
insignia of self-conscious meekness--the masquerade under which the
shrinking crab moves about, creating as little din and stir as possible,
in an ever-hungry world. With such unfaltering art does it act its part
that it is difficult to realise the crab's real self unless aided by
mischance. Conscious of the terrors of discovery, it rocks to and fro,
that its plumes may sway, as it were, in rhythm with the surge of the
sea. Can there be such a thing as an unconscious mimic? If not, then the
portrait is that of an ideal artist.

Those who know only the great flat, ruddy crabs with ponderous pincers
and pugnacious mien, which frequent fish shop windows, can form but a very
unflattering opinion of the fancy varieties which people every mile of
the Barrier Reef.

The struggle for existence in this vast, crowded, and most cruel of
arenas is so appalling that the great crab family has been battered by
circumstances into weird and fantastic forms. Only a few come up to the
human conception of the beautiful either in figure or colouring. While
some shrink from observation, others, though themselves obscure to the
vanishing-point, seem to be endowed with a vicious yearning for

A certain cute little pursuer of fame is absolutely invisible until you
find it stuck fast to one of your toes with a serrated dorsal spur a
quarter of an inch long. It is invisible, because Nature sends it into
this breathing world masquerading, as she did Richard III, deformed,
unfashioned, scarce half made-up. In general appearance it closely
resembles a crazy root-stalk of alga--green and not quite opaque, and
clinging to such alga it lives, and lives so placidly that it cannot be
distinguished from its prototype except by the sense of touch. When you
pick it gingerly from between your toes there is a malicious gleam in the
pin-point black eyes, and then you understand that it is one of the many
inventions designed for the torment of trespassers.

I have often sought specimens of this poor relation of the fish-shop
window aristocrat, but invariably in vain, until I have found myself
suddenly shouting "Eureka!" while balancing myself on one foot eager
for the easement of the other, and the giggling demeanour of the imp as
it parts company with his spur gives a sort of comic relief to the
thrilling sensations of the moment. Upon examination this imp seems to be
an example of arrested development. Whimsical fate has played upon it a
grim practical joke, flattering it primarily by resemblance to a
grotesquely valorous unicorn, and then, having changed her mood to mere
pettishness, finished it offhand by adding a section of semi-animate

Although among the commonest of the species, the grey sand crab, which
burrows bolt-holes in the beaches, is by no means an uninteresting
character. Surrounded by enemies, and yet living on the bare, coverless
beach, its faculties for self-preservation are exceptionally refined.
The eyes are elongated ovals, based on singularly mobile pivots, while
the pupils resemble the bubble of a spirit-level. Not only is the range
of vision a complete circle, but the crab seems able to concentrate its
gaze upon any two given points instantly and automatically. To spite all
its skill as a digger, to set at naught its superb visual alertness, the
sand crab has a special enemy in the bird policeman which patrols the
beach. Vigilant and obnoxiously interfering, the policeman has a long and
curiously curved beak, designed for probing into the affairs of crabs,
and unless the "hatter" has hastily stopped the mouth of its shaft with
a bundle of loose sand--which to the prying bird signifies "Out! Please
return after lunch!"--will be disposed of with scant ceremony and no
grace, for the manners of the policeman are shocking.

This quick-footed sand-digger enhances its reputation by the performance
of feats of subtlety and skill. Its bolt-hole is sometimes three feet
deep, generally on an incline. Piled in a mound the spoil would
inevitably betray the site of the operations to the policeman, thus
seriously facilitating the duties of that official towards the
suppression of the species. From remote depths the crab carries a bundle
of sand. You remember the trenchant way in which Pip's sister cut the
bread and butter, her left hand jamming the loaf hard and fast against
her bib? Just so the crab with its bundle of loose sand, though it has
the advantage in the number of limbs which may be pressed into service.
The feat of carrying an armful of sliding sand in proportion to bulk
about one-third of the body, is far away and beyond the capacities of
human beings, but to the crab, which has acquired the trick of temporary
consolidation by pressure, it is merely child's play. Arrived at the
mouth of the shaft, it elevates its eyes (which in the dark have rested
in neatly fitting recesses) for the purpose of a cautious yet sweeping
survey. Seeing nothing alarming, it emerges with the alertness of a
jack-in-the-box, races several inches, and scatters the load broadcast as
the sower of seed who went forth to sow. Then, as suddenly, the crab
pauses and flattens itself--its body merging with its surroundings almost
to invisibility--preparatory for a spurt for home. During these
exertions the intellect of the crab has been concentrated for outwitting
the vigilance of enemies, for the plodding policeman is not singular in
appreciation. The lordly red-backed sea-eagle occasionally condescends to
such humble fare, and the crab must needs be alert to evade the scrutiny
with which the eagle searches the sand.

This passing reference to the wit and deftness of the crab would be quite
uncomplimentary in default of special notice of the plug of sand with
which it stops its burrow. As a rule it is about an inch thick, and in
content far more than a crab could carry in a single load. How does the
creature, working from below and with such refractory material, so
arrange that the plug shall be flush with the surface and sufficiently
consolidated to retain its own weight? Of what art in loose masonry has
the crab the unique secret? Shakespeare speaks of stairs of sand, and Poe
laments the "how few" grains of golden sand which crept through his
fingers to the deep; but who but a crab possesses the secret for the
building of a roof of the material which is the popular emblem of
instability and shiftiness?

The impartial student must not restrict his notions as to the
possibilities of sand to the admirable accomplishments of crabs. He may
also inspect with profit the handicraft of a lowly mollusc which
agglutinates sand-grains into a kind of plaque, in the substance of
which numerous eggs are deposited.

To attribute manual dexterity and a calculating mind to a mere crab, is,
no doubt, an insult to the intelligence of those who "view all culogium
on the brute creation with a very considerable degree of suspicion and
who look upon every compliment which is paid to the ape as high treason
to the dignity of man." But the truthful historian of the capabilities
of crabs, the duty of one who stands sponsor to some of the species and
who has the hardihood to indite some of the manifestations of their
intelligence, wit, and craft, must discard the prejudices of his race,
abandon all flattering sense of superiority, forbear the smiles of
patronage, and contemplate them from the standpoint of fellowship and

In this spirit he watches another expert digger which has a sharp-edged
shovel affixed to the end of each of its eight legs, and is so deft in
their use that it disappears in the sand on the instant of detection,
without visible effort, and almost as quickly as a stone sinks in water.

Unless a crab is a giant in armour, or is endowed with almost
supernatural alertness, or is an artist in the art of mimicry, or unless
it cultivates some method of rapid disappearance, it has little chance of
holding its own in the battle raging unceasingly over the vast areas of
the Great Barrier Reef.



"Up with a sally and a flash of speed
As if they scorned."

The rains which came at the New Year flooded all the creeks of the
Island. Accumulations of sand usually form beds through which the sweet
water slowly mingles with the salt, but with the violence and impetus of
a downpour of ten inches during the night, each torrent had cut a
channel, through which it raced from the seclusion of the jungle to the
free, open sea. Twice in the twenty-four hours the impassive flowing tide
subdued the impertinence of each of the brawlers, smothered its gurgling,
and forced it back among the ferns and jungle and banana-plants which
crowded its banks.

The largest stream at high water was four feet deep. As I prepared to
wade across George, the black boy, shouted over his shoulder towards a
slowly swaying cloud in the deep pool overhung with foremost flounces of
the jungle. The cloud was a shoal of sea mullet. Save for a clear margin
of about three feet, the fish filled the pond--an alert, greyish-blue mass
edged with cream-coloured sand. There were several hundred fish, all
bearing a family resemblance as to size as well as to feature.

It was slack water. The fish were, no doubt, about to move down-stream to
the sea, for all headed that way when the disturbing presence of man
blocked the passage. A thrill went through the phalanx, and it swayed to
the left and then to the right. The movement--spontaneous and
mechanical--slightly elongated the formation, and three scouts in single
file slid down to reconnoitre, and with a nervous splash as they scented
danger, dashed back and blended imperceptibly with the mass.

"We catch plenty big fella mullet!" George exclaimed, as he gleefully
splashed the water, and the cloud contracted and shrank back. The stream
was about ten feet wide. Our equipment for sport consisted of a tomahawk
and a grass-tree spear so frail that any of the mullet could have swum
off with it without inconvenience.

Straddling the stream side by side we splashed and "shooed" when the
slightest symptom of a sally on the part of the fish was betrayed. A few
brave leaders darted down, generally in pairs, and flashed back in fright
at our noisy demonstrations, and so the blockade of the mullet began.

While I stood guard shouting and "shooing" and making such commotion as I
trusted would convince the fish that the blockading force was ever so
much stronger and more truculent than it really was, George began to
construct a pre-eminently practical wall. Its design was evolved ages
upon ages ago by black students of hydrostatics and fish. George had
imbibed the principles of its construction with his mother's milk. He cut
down several saplings, and, screwing the butt ends into the soft sand
about a foot apart, interlaced them with branches of mangrove and
beach-trailers and swathes of grass. But the tide began to ebb. The
pent-up current, strong and rapid, frequently carried portions of the
structure away. George had to duck and dive to tie the vines and creepers
to the stakes close down to the sandy bottom. Though armfuls of leafage
floated to the surface and rolled out to sea, George worked with joyful
desperation. Presently the fish began to make determined rushes. Shouting
and splashing, tearing down branches, capturing driftwood, diving and

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