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MY TROPIC ISLE
E. J. BANFIELD
AUTHOR OF “THE CONFESSIONS OF A BEACHCOMBER”
T. FISHER UNWIN
LONDON: ADELPHI TERRACE
LEIPSIC: INSELSTRASSE 20
“What dost thou in this World? The Wilderness For thee is fittest place.”
“Taught to live
The easiest way, nor with perplexing thoughts To interrupt sweet life.”
Much of the contents of this book was published in the NORTH QUEENSLAND REGISTER, under the title of “Rural Homilies.” Grateful acknowledgments are due to the Editor for his frank goodwill in the abandonment of his rights.
Also am I indebted to the Curator and Officers of the Australian Museum, Sydney, and specially to Mr. Charles Hedley, F.L.S., for assistance in the identification of specimens. Similarly I am thankful to Mr. J. Douglas Ogilby, of Brisbane, and to Mr. A. J. Jukes-Browne, F.R.S., F.G.S., of Torquay (England).
I. IN THE BEGINNING
II. A PLAIN MAN’S PHILOSOPHY
III. MUCH RICHES IN A LITTLE ROOM
V. FRUITS AND SCENTS
VI. HIS MAJESTY THE SUN
VII. A TROPIC NIGHT
VIII. READING TO MUSIC
IX. BIRTH AND BREAKING OF CHRISTMAS X. THE SPORT OF FATE
XI. FIGHT TO A FINISH
XII. SEA WORMS AND SEA CUCUMBERS
XIII. SOME MARINE NOVELTIES
XIV. SOME CURIOUS BIVALVES
XV. BARRIER REEF CRABS
XVI. THE BLOCKADE OF THE MULLET
XVII. WET SEASON DAYS
XVIII. INSECT WAYS
XIX. INTELLIGENT BIRDS
XX SWIFTS AND EAGLES
XXI. SOCIALISTIC BIRDS
XXII. SHARKS AND RAYS
XXIII. THE RECLUSE OF RATTLESNAKE
XXIV. HAMED OF JEDDAH
XXV. YOUNG BARBARIANS AT PLAY
XXVI. TOM AND HIS CONCERNS
XXVIII. TO PARADISE AND BACK
XXIX. THE DEATH BONE
(Not included in this eBook)
“AT ONE STRIDE COMES THE DARK”
Photo by Caroline Hordern
Photo by Caroline Hordern
FERN OF GOD
THE COVE, PURTABOI
BRAMMO BAY, FROM GARDEN
CLAM SHELL (Tridaena gigas) EMBEDDED IN CORAL FIRE FISH (Pterois lunulata).
TRIGGER FISH (Balistapus aculeatus) CORALS
EGG CAPSULES OF BAILER SHELL
DEVELOPMENT OF BAILER SHELL
EGG CAPSULES OF MOLLOSC, ATTACHED TO FAN CORAL HARLEQUIN PIGFISH (Kiphocheilus fasciatus) “FAERY LANDS FORLORN,” TIMANA.
NEST OF GREEN TREE ANT
WHERE SWIFTLETS BUILD
H. Barnes, Jun., Photo. Australian Museum UMBRELLA TREE (Brassaia actinophylla)
Photo by Caroline Hordern
HAMED OF JEDDAH
BLACKS’ TOYS–1. PIAR-PIAR; 2. BIRRA-BIRRA-GOO; 3. PAR-GIR-AH TURTLE ROCK, PURTABOI
DISGUISES OF CRABS
THE DEATH BONE
YANCOO’S LAST RITE
MY TROPIC ISLE
IN THE BEGINNING
Had I a plantation of this Isle, my lord–
* * * * *
I’ the Commonwealth I would by contraries Execute all things; for no kind of traffic Would I admit . . . riches, poverty
And use of service, none.
How quaint seems the demand for details of life on this Isle of Scent and Silence! Lolling in shade and quietude, was I guilty of indiscretion when I babbled of my serene affairs, and is the penalty so soon enforced? Can the record of such a narrow, compressed existence be anything but dull? Can one who is indifferent to the decrees of constituted society; who is aloof from popular prejudices; who cares not for the gaieties of the crowd or the vagaries of fashion; who does not dance or sing, or drink to toasts, or habitually make any loud noise, or play cards or billiards, or attend garden parties; who has no political ambitions; who is not a painter, or a musician, or a man of science; whose palate is as averse from ardent spirits as from physic; who is denied the all-redeeming vice of teetotalism; who cannot smoke even a pipe of peace; who is a casual, a nonentity a scout on the van of civilisation dallying with the universal enemy, time–can such a one, so forlorn of popular attributes, so weak and watery in his tastes, have aught to recite harmonious to the, ear of the world?
Yet, since my life–and in the use, of the possessive pronoun here and elsewhere, let it signify also the life of my life-partner–is beyond the range of ordinary experience, since it is immune from the ferments which seethe and muddle the lives of the many, I am assured that a familiar record will not be deemed egotistical, I am scolded because I did not confess with greater zeal, I am bidden to my pen again.
An attempt to fulfil the wishes of critics is confronted with risk. Cosy in my security, distance an adequate defence, why should I rush into the glare of perilous publicity? Here is an unpolluted Isle, without history, without any sort of fame. There come to it ordinary folk of sober understanding and well-disciplined ideas and tastes, who pass their lives without disturbing primeval silences or insulting the free air with the flapping of any ostentatious flag. Their doings are not romantic, or comic, or tragic, or heroic; they have no formula for the solution of social problems, no sour vexations to be sweetened, no grievance against society, no pet creed to dandle. What is to be said of the doings of such prosaic folk–folk who have merely set themselves free from restraint that they might follow their own fancies without hurry and without hindrance?
Moreover, if anything be more tedious than a twice-told tale, is it not the repetition of one half told? Since a demand is made for more complete details than were given in my “Confessions,” either I must recapitulate, or, smiling, put the question by. It is simplicity itself to smile, and can there be anything more gracious or becoming? Who would not rather do so than attempt with perplexed brow a delicate, if not difficult, duty?
I propose, therefore, to hastily fill in a few blanks in my previous sketch of our island career and to pass on to features of novelty and interest–vignettes of certain natural and unobtrusive features of the locality, first-hand and artless.
This, then, is for candour. Studiously I had evaded whensoever possible the intrusion of self, for do not I rank myself among the nonentities– men whose lives matter nothing, whose deaths none need deplore. How great my bewilderment to find that my efforts at concealment–to make myself even more remote than my Island–had had by impish perversity a contrary effect! On no consideration shall I part with all my secrets. Bereave me of my illusions and I am bereft, for they are “the stardust I have clutched.”
One confessedly envious critic did chide because of the calculated non-presentation of a picture of our humble bungalow. So small a pleasure it would be sinful to deny. He shall have it, and also a picture of the one-roomed cedar hut in which we lived prior to the building of the house of comfort.
Who could dignify with gilding our utterly respectable, our limp history? There is no margin to it for erudite annotations. Unromantic, unsensational, yet was the actual beginning emphasis by the thud of a bullet. To that noisy start of our quiet life I meander to ensure chronological exactitude.
In September of the year 1896 with a small par of friends we camped on the beach of this Island–the most fascinating, the most desirable on the coast of North Queensland.
Having for several years contemplated a life of seclusion in the bush, and having sampled several attractive and more or less suitable scenes, we were not long in concluding that here was the ideal spot. From that moment it was ours. In comparison the sweetest of previous fancies became vapid. Legal rights to a certain undefined area having been acquired in the meantime, permanent settlement began on September 28, 1897.
For a couple of weeks thereafter we lived in tents, while with clumsy haste–for experience had to, be acquired–we set about the building of a hut of cedar, the parts of which were brought from civilisation ready for assembling. Houses, however, stately or humble, in North Queensland, are sacrificial to what are known popularly as “white ants” unless special means are taken for their exclusion. Wooden buildings rest on piles sunk in the ground, on the top of which is an excluder of galvanised iron in shape resembling a milk dish inverted. It is also wise to take the additional precaution of saturating each pile with an arsenical solution. Being quite unfamiliar with the art of hut-building, and in a frail physical state, I found the work perplexing and most laborious, simple and light as it all was. Trees had to be felled and sawn into proper lengths for piles, and holes sunk, and the piles adjusted to a uniform level. With blistered and bleeding hands, aching muscles, and stiff joints I persevered.
While we toiled our fare, simplicity itself, was eaten with becoming lack of style in the shade of a bloodwood-tree, the tents being reserved for sleeping. When the blacks could be spared, fish was easily obtainable, and we also drew upon the scrub fowl and pigeon occasionally, for the vaunting proclamation for the preservation of all birds had not been made. Tinned meat and bread and jam formed the most frequent meals, for there were hosts of simple, predestined things which had to be painfully learned. But there was no repining. Two months’ provisions had been brought; the steamer called weekly, so that we did not contemplate famine, though thriftiness was imperative. Nor did we anticipate making any remarkable addition to our income, for the labour of my own hands, however eager and elated my spirits, was, I am forced to deplore, of little advantage. I could be very busy about nothing, and there were blacks to feed, therefore did we hasten to prepare a small area of forest land, and a still smaller patch of jungle for the cultivation of maize, sweet potatoes, and vegetables. Fruit, being a passion and a hobby, was given special encouragement and has been in the ascendant ever since, to the detriment of other branches of cultural enterprise.
I have said that our Island career began with an explosion. To that starting-point must I return if the narration of the tribulations our youthful inexperience suffered is to be orderly and exact.
While we camped, holiday-making, the year prior to formal and rightful occupancy, in a spasm of enthusiasm, which still endures, I selected the actual site for a modest castle then and there built in the accommodating air. It was something to have so palpable and rare a base for the fanciful fabric. All in a moment, disdaining formality, and to the, accompaniment of the polite jeers of two long-suffering friends, I proclaimed “Here shall I live! On this spot shall stand the probationary palace!” and so saying fired my rifle at a tree a few yard’s off. But the stolid tree–a bloodwood, all bone, toughened by death, a few ruby crystals in sparse antra all that remained significant of past life–afforded but meagre hospitality to the, soft lead.
“Ah!” exclaimed one of my chums, “the old tree foreswears him! The Island refuses him!”
But the homely back gate swings over the charred stump of the boorish tree burnt flush with the ground. Twelve months and a fortnight after the firing of the shot which did not echo round the world, but was merely a local defiant and emphatic promulgation of authority, a fire was set to the base of the tree, for our tents had been pitched perilously close. Space was wanted, and moreover its bony, imprecating arms, long since bereft of beckoning fingers, menaced our safety. I said it must fall to the north-east, for the ponderous inclination is in that direction, and therein forestalled my experience and delivered the whole camp as hostages into the hands of fortune.
In apparent defiance of the laws of gravity the tree fell in the middle of the night with an earth-shaking crash to the south-east. There was no apparent reason why it did not fall on our sleeping-tent and in one act put an inglorious end to long-cogitated plans. Because some gracious impulse gave the listless old tree a certain benign tilt, and because sundry other happenings consequent upon a misunderstanding of the laws of nature took exceptional though quite wayward turnings, I am still able to hold a pen in the attempt to accomplish the task imposed by imperious strangers.
And while on the subject of the clemency of trees, I am fain to dispose of another adventure, since it, too, illustrates the brief interval between the sunny this and the gloomy that. Fencing was in progress–a fence designed to keep goats within bounds. Of course, the idea was preposterous. One cannot by mere fencing exclude goats. The proof is here. To provide posts for the vain project trees were felled, the butts of which were reduced to due dimensions by splitting. A dead tree stood on a slope, and with the little crosscut we attacked its base, cutting a little more than half-way through. When a complementary cut had been made on the other side, the tree, with a creak or two and a sign which ended in “swoush,” fell, and as it did so I stepped forward, remarking to the taciturn black boy, “Clear cut, Paddy!” The words were on my lips when a “waddy,” torn from the vindictive tree and flung, high and straight into the inoffensive sky, descended flat on the red stump with a gunlike report. The swish of the waddy down-tilted the frayed brim of my cherished hat!
The primary bullet is not yet done with, for when the tree which had reluctantly housed it for a year was submitted to the fires of destruction among the charcoal a blob of bright lead confirmed my scarcely credited story that the year before the datum for our castle, then aerial and now substantial, had been established in ponderous metal.
What justification existed for the defacement of the virginal scene by an unlovely dwelling–the, imposition of a scar on the unspotted landscape? None, save that the arrogant intruder needed shelter, and that he was neither a Diogenes to be content in a tub nor a Thoreau to find in boards an endurable temporary substitute for blankets.
It was resolved that the shelter should by way of compensation be unobtrusive, hidden in a wilderness of leaves. The sacrifice of those trees unhaply in prior occupation of the site selected would be atoned for by the creation of a modest garden of pleasant-hued shrubs and fruit-trees and lines and groves of coconut-palms. My conscience at least has been, or rather is being, appeased for the primary violation of the scene, for trees perhaps, more beautiful, certainly more useful, stand for those destroyed. The Isle suffers no gross disfigurement. Except for a wayward garden and the most wilful plantation of tropical fruit-trees, no change has been wrought for which the genius of the Isle need demand satisfaction.
Though of scented cedar the hut was ceilingless. Resonant corrugated iron and boards an inch thick intervened between us and the noisy tramplings of the rain and heat of the sun. The only room accommodated some primitive furniture, a bed being the denominating as well as the essential feature. A little shambling structure of rough slabs and iron walls contrived a double debt to pay–kitchen and dining-room.
From the doorsteps of the hut we landed on mother earth, for the verandas were not floored. Everything was as homely and simple and inexpensive as thought and thrift might contrive. Our desire to live in the open air became almost compulsory, for though you fly from civilisation and its thralls you cannot escape the social instincts of life. The hut became the focus of life other than human. The scant hut-roof sheltered more than ourselves.
On the narrow table, under cover of stray articles and papers, grey bead-eyed geckoes craftily stalked moths and beetles and other fanatic worshippers of flame as they hastened to sacrifice themselves to the lamp. In the walls wasps built terra-cotta warehouses in which to store the semi-animate carcasses of spiders and grubs; a solitary bee constructed nondescript comb among the books, transforming a favourite copy of “Lorna Doone” into a solid block. Bats, sharp-toothed, and with pin-point eyes, swooped in at one door, quartered the roof with brisk eagerness, and departed by the other.
Finding ample food and safe housing, bats soon became permanent lodgers. For a time it was novel and not unpleasant to be conscious in the night of their waftings, for they were actual checks upon the mosquitoes which came to gorge themselves on our unsalted blood. But they increased so rapidly that their presence became intolerable. The daring pioneer which had happened during its nocturnal expeditions to discover the very paradise for the species proclaimed the glad tidings, and relatives, companions, and friends flocked hither, placing themselves under our protection with contented cheepings. Though the room became mosquitoless, serious objections to the scavengers developed. Before a writ of ejection could be enforced, however, a sensational cause for summary proceedings arose.
In the dimness of early morning when errant bats flitted home to cling to the ridge-pole, squeaking and fussy flutterings denoted unwonted disturbance. Daylight revealed a half concealed, sleeping snake, which seemed to be afflicted with twin tumours. A long stick dislodged the intruder, which scarce had reached the floor ere it died violent death. Even the snake spectre did no seriously affright the remaining bats, though it confirmed the sentence of their immediate banishment. In the eye of the bats the sanctuary of the roof with an odd snake or two was preferable to inclement hollow branches open to the raids of undisciplined snakes. Definite sanitary reasons, supplemented by the fact that where bats are there will the snakes be gathered together, and a pious repugnance to snakes as lodgers, made the casting out of the bats a joyful duty.
So we lived, more out of the hut than in it, from October, 1897, until Christmas Day, 1903. We find the bungalow, though it, too, has no ceiling, much more to our convenience, for the hut has become crowded. It could no longer contain our content and the portable property which became caught in its vortex.
In the designing of the bungalow two essentials were supreme, cost and comfort–minimum of cost, maximum of comfort. Aught else was as nothing. There was no alignment to obey, no rigid rules and regulations as to style and material. The surroundings being our own, we had compassion on them, neither offering them insult with pretentious prettiness nor domineering over them with vain assumption and display. Low walls, unaspiring roof, and sheltering veranda, so contrived as to create, not tickling, fidgety draughts but smooth currents, “so full as seem asleep,” to flush each room so sweetly and softly that no perceptible difference between the air under the roof and of the forest is at any time perceptible.
Since the kitchen (as necessary here as elsewhere) is not only of my own design but nearly every part of the construction absolutely the work of my unaided, inexperienced hands, I shall describe it in detail–not because it presents features provocative of pride, but because the ideas it embodies may be worth the consideration of others similarly situated who want a substantial, smokeless, dry, convenient appurtenance to their dwelling. Two contrary conditions had to be considered–the hostility of white ants to buildings of wood, and the necessity for raising the floor but slightly above the level of the ground.
A bloodwood-tree, tall, straight, and slim, was felled. It provided three logs–two each 15 feet long and one 13 feet. From another tree another 13-foot log was sawn. All the sapwood was adzed off; the ends were “checked” so that they would interlock. Far too weighty to lift, the logs were toilfully transported inch by inch on rollers with a crowbar as a lever. Duly packed up with stones and levelled, they formed the foundations, but prior to setting them a bed of home-made asphalt (boiling tar and seashore sand) was spread on the ground where they were destined to lie. Having adjusted each in its due position, I adzed the upper faces and cut a series of mortices for the studs, which were obtained in the bush–mere thin, straight, dry trees which had succumbed to bush fires. Each was roughly squared with the adze and planed and tenoned.
Good fortune presented, greatly to the easement of labour, two splendid pieces of driftwood for posts for one of the doors. To the sea also I was indebted for long pieces to serve as wall plates, one being the jibboom of what must have been a sturdily-built boat, while the broken mast of a cutter fitted in splendidly as a ridge-pole. For the walls I visited an old bean-tree log in the jungle, cut off blocks in suitable lengths, and split them with maul and wedges into rough slabs, roughly adzed away superfluous thickness, and carried them one by one to the brink of the canyon, down which I cast them. Then each had to be carried up the steep side and on to the site, the distance from the log in the jungle being about three hundred yards.
Within the skeleton of the building I improvised a rough bench, upon which the slabs were dressed with the plane and the edges bevelled so that each would fit on the other to the exclusion of the rain. Upon the uprights I nailed inch slats perpendicularly, against which the slabs were placed, each being held in place temporarily until the panel was complete, when other slats retained them. The rafters were manipulated of odd sorts of timber and the roof of second-used corrugated iron, the previous nail holes being stopped with solder. A roomy recess with a beaten clay floor was provided for the cooking stove. Each of the two doors was made in horizontal halves, with a hinged fanlight over the lintel, and the window spaces filled with wooden shutters, hinged from the top. The floor (an important feature) is of asphalt on a foundation of earth and charcoal solidly compressed. But before carting in the material boards were placed temporarily edgeways alongside the bedlogs round the interior. Then when the earthen foundation was complete the boards were removed, leaving a space of about an inch, which was filled with asphalt, well rammed, consistently with the whole of the floor space.
All this laborious work–performed conscientiously to the best of my ability–occupied a long time, and from it originated much backache and general fatigue, and at the end I found that I had been so absorbed in the permanence rather than the appearance of the dwelling that one of the corner posts was out of the perpendicular and that consequently the building stood awry. Grace of style it cannot claim; but neither “white ants” nor weather trouble it.
And to what sweet uses has adversity made us familiar! When I bought a boat to bring hither I knew not the distinguishing term of a single halyard, save the “topping lift,” and even that scant knowledge was idle, for I was blankly ignorant of the place and purpose of the oddly-named rope. Necessity drove me to the acquirement of boat sense, and now I manage my home-built “flattie”–mean substitute for the neat yacht which necessity compelled me to part with–very courageously in ordinary weather; and I am content to stay at home when Neptune is frothy at the lips.
A preponderant part of the furniture of our abode is the work of my own unskilled hands–tables, chairs, bookshelves, cupboards, &c. There is much pleasure and there are also, many aches and pains in the designing and fashioning serviceable chairs from odd kinds of bush timber.
In the making of a chair, as in the building of a boat by one who has had no training in any branch of carpentry, there is scope for the personal element. Though the parts have been cut and trimmed with minute care and all possible precision, each, according to requirements, being the duplicate of the other, when they come to be assembled obstructive obstinacy prevails. One of the most fiendish things the art of man contrives is a chair out of the routine design made by a rule-of-thumb carpenter. Grotesque in its deformities, you must needs pity your own mishandling of the obstinate wood. Have you courage to smile at the misshapen handiwork, or do you cowardly, discard the deformity you have created? How it grunts and groans as pressure is applied to its stubborn bent limbs! Curvature of the spine is the least of its ills. It limps and creaks when fixed tentatively for trial. Tender-footed, it stands awry, heaving one leg aloft–as crooked and as perverse as Caliban. In good time, botching here, violent constraint there, the chair finds itself or is forced so to do, for he is a weak man who is not stronger than his own chair. So, after many days’ intense toil–toil which even troubled the night watches, for have I not lain awake with thoughts automatically concentrated on a seemingly impossible problem, plotting by what illicit and awful torture it might be possible for the tough and stubborn parts to be brought into juxtaposition–there is a chair–a solid, sitable chair, which neither squeaks, nor shuffles, nor shivers. May be you are ashamed at the quantity of mind the dull article of furniture has absorbed; but there are other reflections–homely as well as philosophic.
A PLAIN MAN’S PHILOSOPHY
“‘Be advised by a plain man, (said the quaker to the soldier), ‘Modes and apparels are but trifles to the real man: therefore do not think such a man as thyself terrible for thy garb nor such a one as me contemptible for mine.'”–ADDISON.
Small must be the Isle of Dreams, so small that possession is possible. A choice passion is not to be squandered on that which, owing to exasperating bigness, can never be fully possessed. An island of bold dimensions may be free to all–wanton and vagrant, unlovable. Such is not for the epicure–the lover of the subtle fascination, the dainty moods, and pretty expressions of islands. The Isle must be small, too, because since it is yours it becomes a duty to exhaustively comprehend it. Familiarity with its lines of coast and sky, its declivities and hollows, its sunny places, its deepest shades, the sources of its streams, the meagre beginning of its gullies cannot suffice. Superficial intimacy with features betrayable to the senses of any undiscriminating beholder is naught. Casual knowledge of its botany and birds counts for little. All–even the least significant, the least obvious of its charms are there to, give conservative delight, and surly the soul that would despise them.
If you would read the months off-hand by the flowering of trees and shrubs and the coming and going of birds; if the inhalation of scents is to convey photographic details of scenes whence they originate; if you would explore miles of sunless jungle by ways unstable as water; if you would have the sites of camps of past generations of blacks reveal the arts and occupations of the race, its dietary scale and the pastimes of its children; if you desire to have exact first-hand knowledge, to revel in the rich delights of new experiences, your scope must be limited.
The sentiments of a true lover of an Isle cannot without sacrilege be shared. The love is an exclusive passion, not of Herodian fierceness, misgiving, and gloom, but of joyful jealousy, for it must be well-nigh impossible to every one else.
Such is this delicious Isle–this unkempt, unrestrained garden where the centuries gaze upon perpetual summer. Small it is, and of varied charms–set in the fountain of time-defying youth. Abundantly sprinkled with tepid rains, vivified by the glorious sun, its verdure tolerates no trace of age. No ill or sour vapours contaminate its breath. Bland and ever fresh breezes preserve its excellencies untarnished. It typifies all that is tranquil, quiet, easeful, dreamlike, for it is the, Isle of Dreams.
All is lovable–from crescentric sandpit–coaxing and consenting to the virile moods of the sea, harmonious with wind-shaken casuarinas, tinkling with the cries of excitable tern–to the stolid grey walls and blocks of granite which have for unrecorded centuries shouldered off the white surges of the Pacific. The flounces of mangroves, the sparse, grassy epaulettes on the shoulders of the hills the fragrant forest, the dim jungle, the piled up rocks, the caves where the rare swiftlet hatches out her young in gloom and silence in nests of gluten and moss–all are mine to gloat over. Among such scenes do I commune with the genius of the Isle, and saturate myself with that restful yet exhilarating principle which only the individual who has mastered the art of living the unartificial life perceives. When strained of body and seared of mind, did not the Isle, lovely in lonesomeness, perfumed, sweet in health, irresistible in mood, console and soothe as naught else could? Shall I not, therefore, do homage to its profuse and gracious charms and exercise the rights and privileges of protector?
“When thus I hail the moment flying, Ah! still delay, thou art so fair!”
Sea, coral reefs, forest, jungle afford never ending pleasure. Look, where the dolorous sphinx sheds gritty tears because of the boldness of the sun and the solvency of the disdainful sea. Look, where the jungle clothes the steep Pacific slope with its palms and overskirt of vines and creepers! Glossy, formal bird’s-nest ferns and irregular mass of polypodium edged with fawn-coloured, infertile fronds fringe the sea-ward ending. Orchids, old gold and violet, cling to the rocks with the white claws of the sea snatching at their toughened roots, and beyond the extreme verge of ferns and orchids on abrupt sea-scarred boulders are the stellate shadows of the whorled foliage of the umbrella tree, in varied pattern, precise and clean cut and in delightful commingling and confusion. Deep and definite the shadows, offspring of lordly light and steadfast leaves–not mere insubstantialities, but stars deep sculptured in the grey rock.
And when an intemperate sprite romps and rollicks, and all the features of prettiness and repose are distraught under the bluster and lateral blur of a cyclone, still do I revel in the scene. Does a mother love her child the less when, contorted with passion, it storms and rages? She grieves that a little soul should be so greatly vexed. Her affection is no jot depreciated. So, when my trees are tempest-tossed, and the grey seas batter the sand-spit and bellow on the rocks, and neither bird nor butterfly dare venture from leafy sanctuary, and the green flounces are tattered and stained by the scald of brine spray, do I avow my serenity. How staunch the heart of the little island to withstand so sturdy a buffeting!
In such a scene would it not have been wicked to have delivered ourselves over to any cranky, miserly economy or to any distortion or affectation of thrift? Had fortune smiled, her gifts would have been sanely appreciated, for our ideas of comfort and the niceties of life are not cramped, neither are they to be gauged by the narrow gape of our purse. Our castles are built in the air, not because earth has no fit place for their foundations, but for the sufficient reason that the wherewithal for the foundations was lacking. When a sufficiency of the world’s goods has been obtained to satisfy animal wants for food and clothing and shelter, happiness depends, not upon the pleasures but the pleasantnesses of life; not upon the possession of a house full of superfluities but in the attainment of restraining grace.
It might be possible for us to live for the present in just a shade “better style” than we do; but we have mean ambitions in other directions than style. Style is not for those who are placidly indifferent to display; and before whom on a comely, scornful Isle shall we strut and parade? “You and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country’s fashions,” for do we not proclaim and justify our own? Are we not leaders who have no subservient, no flattering imitators, no sycophantic copyists? The etiquette of our Court finds easy expression, and we smile decorously on the infringements of casual comers.
Once a steamer anchored boldly in the bay–a pert steamer with a saucy, off-duty air. Certain circumstances forewarned us of a “formal call.” So that the visit should not partake of an actual surprise a boat containing ladies and gentlemen was rowed ostentatiously across to land awkwardly at such a point as would herald the fact and afford a precious interim in which we were plainly invited to embellish ourselves–to assume a receptive style of countenance and clothes and company manners. Careless of dignity, the charitable prelude was lost upon us. Our self-conscious and considerate visitors dumbly expressed amazement at their informal reception and our unfestive attire. Yet my garments were neat, sufficient, and defiantly unsoiled. Had I donned a full, white suit, with neat tie and Panama hat, and stood even barefooted on the beach, conspicuous, revealed as a “gentleman” even from the decks of the defiant steamer, the boat-load would have come straight to the landing smiling, and chatting, to drop “their ceremonious manna in the way of starved people.” They would have been elated had I assumed robes of reverence–a uniform indicative of obligation–a worthy response to their patronage. With compliments expressed in terms of functionary clothes they had hoped to soothe their vanity. White cotton and a tinted tie would have been smilingly honoured; and the mere man was not flattered to perceive that he was less in esteem than the drapery common to the species. I never will be content to be a supernumerary to my clothes.
Our visitors reflected not on their intrusion. My precious privacy was gratuitously violated, and in such circumstances that my holiday humour was put under restraint for the time being. Though I do profess love for human nature, for some phases I have but scant respect.
But our house was open. None of the observances of the rites of hospitality was lacking. Gleams of good humour dispersed the gloom on the faces of our guests. They had penetrated the thin disguise of clothes, and it was then that I silently wished in Portia’s words that “God might grant them a fair departure.”
Another class of visitor came on a misty morning in a fussy little launch. After preliminary greetings on the beach he remarked on my name, presuming that I belonged to a Scotch family.
“A good family, I do not question.”
“Oh, yes. A family of excellent and high repute.”
“Then, I cannot be any connection, for I am proud to confess that our family is distinguished–greatly distinguished–by a very bad name. It comes from Kent. I am a kinsman of a king–the King of the Beggars!”
“Ah! Quite a coincidence. I remarked to my friend as we came up to your Island: ‘If the exile is a descendant of the King of the Beggars, this is just the kind of life he would be likely to adopt.'”
“Exactly. I am indeed complimented. Blood–the blood of the vagabond–will tell!”
And my friendly visitor–a man whom the King had delighted to honour–with whimsical glances at my clothes, which tended to “sincerity rather then ceremony,” strolled along the beach.
If we were disposed to vaunt ourselves, have we not, in this simplicity and lack of style, the most persuasive of examples?
Indifferent to style, we do indulge in longings–longings pitifully weak–longings for the preservation of independence toilfully purchased during the poisonous years of the past. Beside all wishes for books and pictures and means for music and the thousands of small things which make for divine discontent, stands a spectre–not grim and abhorrent and forbidding, but unlovely and stern, indicating that the least excess of exotic pleasures would so strain our resources that independence would be threatened. If we were to buy anything beyond necessities, we might not be certain of gratifying wants, frugal as they are, without once more being compelled to fight with the beasts at some Australian Ephesus. Rather than clog our minds with the thought of such conflict and of fighting with flaccid muscles, dispirited and almost surely ingloriously, we choose to laugh and be glad of our liberty, to put summary checks upon arrogant desires for the possession of hosts of things which would materially add to comforts without infringing upon pleasures, and find in all serene satisfaction.
We have not yet pawned our future. No sort of tyranny, save that which is primal, physical, and of the common lot, puts his dirty foot on our haughty, sun-favoured necks.
“It is still the use of fortune
To let the wretched man outlive his wealth, To view with hollow eye and wrinkled brow An age of poverty.”
May Heaven and our thrift avert the fate!
The nervous intensity, the despotic self-sufficiency of this easy and indifferent existence may expose us to taunts; but how sublimely ineffective the taunts which are never heard and which, if heard through echoing mischance, would provoke but serene smiles; for have we not avoided the aches of uniformity, the seriousness of prosperity, most of the trash of civilisation, and the scorn of Fortune when she sniggers?
How magnificently slender, too, is our boasted independence! What superb economists are we! Astonishment follows upon an audit of our slipshod accounts at the amount spent unconsciously on small things which do not directly affect the actual cost of living. Taking the mean of several years’ expenditure, the item “postage stamps” is a little larger than the cost of my own clothing and boots. The average annual cost of stamps has been £5 4s.; clothing and boots, £4 12s. Indeed, this latter item is inflated, since, while I have stamps worth only a few shillings on hand, clothes are in stock sufficient (in main details) to last twelve months. The “youthful hose, well kept,” with other everlasting drapery brought from civilisation, is still wearable. The original clothing, such as conformity with the rules of the streets implies, remains serviceable, however obsolete in “style,” which is another word for fashion, “that pitiful, lackey-like creature which struts through one country in the cast-off finery of another.” For the privilege of citizenship in what, at present, is the freest country in the world my direct taxation amounts to £1 5s. per annum; and, since “luxuries” are not in demand, indirect contributions to State and Commonwealth are so trivial that they fail to excite the most sensitive of the emotions. All our household is in harmony with this quiet tune, and yet we have not conquered our passion for thrift but merely disciplined it.
A young missionary who became a great bishop, after some experience of “the wilds,” expressed the opinion that there were but six necessaries–shelter, fuel, water, fire, something to eat, and blankets. Our practical tests, extending over twelve years, would tend to the reduction of the list. For the best part of the year one item–blankets–is superfluous. Water and fuel are so abundant that they count almost as cheaply as the air we breathe; but we do lust after a few clothes–a very few–which the good missionary did not catalogue. Our essentials would therefore be–shelter, something to eat, and a “little” to wear. Fire is included under “something to eat,” for it is absolutely unnecessary for warmth. We do still appreciate a warm meal. Our house contains no means for the production of heat, save the kitchen stove.
Fruit, vegetables, milk, eggs, poultry, fish, and nearly all the meat consumed–emergency stocks of tinned goods are in reserve–are as cheap as water and fuel. Our unsullied appetites demand few condiments. Why olives, when if need be–and the need has not yet manifested itself–as shrewd a relish and as cleansing a flavour is to be obtained from the pale yellow flowers of the male papaw, steeped in brine–a decoration and a zest combined? Our mango chutney etherealises our occasional salted goat-mutton–and we know that the chutney is what it professes to be.
What more wholesome and pleasant a dish than papaw beaten to mush, saturated with the juice of lime, sweetened with sugar, and made fantastic with spices? What more enticing, than stewed mango–golden and syrupy–with junket white as marble; or fruit salad compact of pineapple, mango, papaw, granadilla, banana, with lime juice and powdered sugar?
We lack not for spring chicken or roast duck whenever there is the wish; for the best part of the year eggs are despicably common. Every low tide advertises oysters gratis, and occasionally crabs and crayfish for the picking up. Delicate as well as wholesome and nutritious food is ours at so little cost that our debt to smiling Nature, if she kept records and tendered her accounts, would be somewhat embarrassing. And if Nature frowns with denial and there are but porridge and goat’s milk and eggs and home-made bread and jam, thank goodness she blesses such fare with unjaded appreciation!
Since deprived of the society of blacks, our domestic expenditure has dwindled by nearly one-half. Indeed, it is almost as costly to feed and clothe three blacks as to provide essentials for three whites of frugal tastes. Here are a few items of annual domestic expenditure, proffered not in the spirit of gloating over our simplicity or of delighting in economy of luxuries, but to illustrate how few are the wants which Nature (with a little assistance) leaves unsatisfied. The figures are presented with the utmost diffidence, but with indifference alike to the censure of those who may scent obsequiousness to the stern philosophy of Thoreau in the matter of diet, or to the jeers of others who despise small things:
Flour £ 4 5 0
Groceries, lighting, &c. 40 0 0 Sundries 12 0 0
Total £56 5 0
And the irreducible minimum has yet to be reached. For many years my exacting personal needs demanded the luxury of coffee. Pure and unadulterated, I quaffed it freely, and (being no politician) neither did it enhance my wisdom nor enable me to see through anything with half-shut eyes. Yet did it make me too glad. Under such vibrant, emphatic fingers my frail nerves twanged all too shrilly, and of necessity coffee was abandoned–not without passing pangs–in favour of a beverage direct from Nature and untinctured by any of the vital principles of vegetables. Thus is economy evolved, not as a foppish fad but as due obedience to the polite but imperious decrees of Nature.
And having confessed–far too literally, I fear–to so much on the expenditure side of the simple life in tropical Queensland, it might be anticipated that the items of income would be stated to the completion of the story. The affairs of the busy world were discarded, not upon the strength of large accumulated savings or the possession of means by inheritance or by the success of investments or by mere luck, but upon merely imperative, theoretic anticipations upon the cost of living the secluded life. We had little in reserve, how little it would be unbecoming to say. Our theories proved delusive, though not bewildering. Some of the things abandoned with unphilosophic ease at the outset proved under the test of experience to be essential. Others deemed to be needful to desperation were forsaken unconsciously. Under the light of experience forecasts as to actual requirements were quite as vain as our preconceptions contrariwise. No single item which was not subjected to regulation. Without imposing any more impatient figures, be it said, then, that, though all preliminary estimates of ways and means underwent summary evolution, the financial end was close upon that on which we had calculated. Compulsion had all to do with the result. During each of the years of Island life our total income has never exceeded £100 and has generally fallen considerably below that amount. From the beginning we felt–and the foregoing lines have failed of their purpose if this acknowledgment has not been forestalled
“To be thus is nothing,
But to be safely thus”;
and to draw again from the unplumbed depths of Shakespeare:
“What’s sweet to do, to do will aptly find.”
“MUCH RICHES IN A LITTLE ROOM”
“Go and argue with the flies of summer that there is a power divine yet greater than the sun in the heavens, but never dare hope to convince the people of the South that there is any other God than Gold.”–KINGLAKE.
No “saint-seducing gold” has been permitted to ruffle this placidity. Gold! Our ears were tickled by the tale that good folks had actually thrilled when we slunk away to our Island. Rumour wagged her tongue, abusing God’s great gift of speech, until scared Truth fled. She said–how cheap is notoriety!–that secret knowledge of hidden wealth which good luck had revealed during our holiday camp had induced us to surreptitiously secure the land, that in our own good time we might selfishly gloat over untold gold! Some came frankly to prospect our hills and gullies, others shamefacedly, when our backs were turned; for had it not been foretold that gold was certain to be found on the Island, and were not the invincible truths of geology verified by our covert ways? Had not one of the natives told of a lump so weighty that no man might lift it and on which hungry generation after hungry generation had pounded nuts? Had not another used a nugget as a plummet for his fishing-line? It mattered not that the sordidly battered lump proved to be an ingot of crude copper–probably portion of the ballast from some ancient wrecks–and that Truth was sulking down some very remote well when the fable of the golden sinker was invented. Ordinary men–men of the type whom Kinglake designated “Poor Mr. Reasonable Man”–men with common sense, in fact, the very commonest of sense–were not to be beguiled by the plain statement that apparently sane individuals wilfully ventured into solitude for the mere privilege of living. Gold must be the real attraction–all else fictitious, said they. “They have” [Rumour is speaking] “the option of an unwitnessed reef, sensationally, romantically rich, or know of a piratically and solemnly secreted hoard.” Indeed, we did think to enjoy our option, but over something more precious than gold.
But one visitor was so confidentially certain about the gold that he boldly made a proposition to share it. A fair exchange it was to be. He would, then and there, lead to a shaft 60 feet deep, and deep in the jungle, too, at a spot so artfully concealed that no mortal man could ever unguided hope to find it, where was to be revealed a reef–a rich reef blasted by the mere refractoriness of the ore, a disadvantage which would vanish like smoke before a man of means. To this sure and certain source of fortune he would provide safe and speedy conduct if on our part we would with like frankness confide in him our secret.
Our lack of secret, was it not boldly writ on our faces? But it was fair to assume an air of mystery. “Our secret,” said we, “is more desirable than gold, yea, than much fine gold. Yours, at the best, is but dross!”
The very worst that could happen would be the discovery on this spot of anything more precious than an orchid. Gold, which would transform the Isle into a desert, is therefore selfishly concealed, and the reason for the concealment remains an incomprehensible enigma. Was it not the pinnacle of folly to retire to an Island where gold was not to be gotten either by the grace of God or by barter or strife with man? So bold a foolishness was incredible. Yet we get more out of the life of incredible folly than the wise who think of gold and little else but gold.
The singular perfection of our undertaking–“the rarity to run mad without a cause, without the least constraint or necessity,” the exercise of that “refined and exquisite passion”–stamped me a disciple of Don Quixote, and such I remain.
Some ancient said that the more folly a man puts into life the more he lives–a precept in which I steadfastly believe, provided the folly is of the wholesome kind and on a sufficient and calculated scale.
For several years prior to our descent no blacks had been resident on the Island. After the blotting out of the great multitude, the visits of its descendants had been irregular and brief. Therefore–and the assurance is almost superfluous–most of the evidences of the characteristics of the race had, in the course of nature, been obliterated. A few frescoes adorning remote rock shelters, a few pearl shell fish-hooks, stone axes and, hammers, a rude mortar or two (merely granite rocks in which shallow depressions had been worn by the pounding of nuts), shells on the sites of camps, scars of stone axes on a few trees–these were the only relics of the departed race.
Has a decade of occupation by wilful white folks wrought any permanent change in the stamp of Nature? None, save the exotic plants, that time, fire, and “white ants” might not consume. My kitchen midden is less conspicuous than those of the blacks, and, decently interred, glass and china shards the only lasting evidence thereof, for the few fragments of iron speedily corrode to nothingness in this damp and saline air. Unwittingly the blacks handed down specimens of their handicraft–the pearl shell fish-hooks, a thousand times more durable in this climate than hooks of steel. Geologists tell us that shells with iridescent colours are found in clays of such ancient date that if stated in centuries an indefinite number of millions would have to be assigned to them. It is not strange, then, that some of my pearl shell hooks are as lustrous and sharp to-day as when the careless maker mislaid them in the sand for me to find half a century later. We leave no records on the land itself which would betray us after the lapse of half a dozen years. Is it not humiliating to find that the white man as the black records his most durable domestic history in rubbish, easily expungible by clean-fingered time?
Is humanity ever free from worries? What it has not it invents. Remote though we are from the disturbance of other folk’s troublous cries, the ocean does not afford complete exemption from the sight of the shocking insecurity of the street.
One memorable day, casually glancing at the mainland, I saw on the beach something moving at astonishing speed. Whereupon the telescope was brought to bear, and to my dismay revealed, actually and without fiction, a practical spring cart, drawn by a real horse at a trot, which horse was driven (as far as the telescope was credible) by a man! Over four years have elapsed since I saw any wheeled vehicle other than my own barrow–the speed of which is sedate (for I am a sedate and determined man, and refuse to be flurried by my own barrow). Nervousness and excitement began to play. Thank the propitious stars, two miles and more of mighty ocean separated me from the furious car. Otherwise, who may say? I might in my confusion have been unable to avoid disaster. This place is becoming thrilling. Let me move farther from the rush and bewilderment of traffic. Let me flee to some more secluded scene, where my sight, unsoiled hitherto by motor-car, may for ever preserve most excellent virginity. I have since made inquiries, and have been assured that the nerve-shocking juggernaut of the opposite beach is palsied–liable, indeed, to dissolution at any moment. When the collapse occurs I propose to venture across to inspect the remains and renew youthful memories of the species of conveyance to which it belonged.
How do we spend our day? How fill up the blank spaces? Goats are to be milked’, fowls to be fed, dough to be kneaded, breakfast to be prepared, firewood to be cut, house to be looked after. Most of the substantial improvements have long since been finished, but there is no place but has to be kept in repair. One day, a week practically, is bestowed on the steamer. All odd moments and every evening are devoted to books.
During the cool season, when day tides range low, hours are passed on the coral reef, as often as conscience permits, in contemplation of the life of that crowded area. Seldom do we leave the Island, and rarely does any but a casual visitor break in on our privacy. Satisfied of the unpotentiality of wealth, here we materialise those dreams of happiness which are the enchantment of youth, the resolve of maturity, the solace of old age. Let other questants abandon hope, for I have found the philosopher’s stone.
My concerns are far too engrossing to permit my mind to wander on the trivial, unreal, incomprehensible affairs of the Commonwealth, for the command of which practical politicians continuously grapple, though, I am one of those who mourn for democracy, since democracy has chosen to indulge in such hazardous experiments. The Government of a country which gives equal voice in the election of its representatives to university professor and unrepentant Magdalene is not altogether in a wholesome way, even though over a dozen Houses of Parliament clamour to manufacture its laws.
It is enough for me to possess the Isle of Desire–the evergreen isle that “sluttish time” has never besmeared with ruin–where one may wander whithersoever the mood of the moment wills, or loll in the shade of scented trees, or thread the sunless mazes of the jungle–that region of shadow where all the leaves are dumb–listening for faint, ineffective sounds, or bask on the sand–on clean, unviolated, mica-bespangled sand–dreamily gazing over a sea of flashing reflections where fitful zephyrs, soft as the shadows of clouds, alone make blueness visible.
The individual whose wants are few–who is content, who has no treasure to guard, whose rights there is none to dispute; who is his own magistrate, postman, architect, carpenter, painter, boat-builder, boatman, tinker, goatherd, gardener, woodcutter, water-carrier, and general labourer; who has been compelled to chip the superfine edges of his sentiments with the repugnant craft of the butcher; who, heedless of rule and method, adjusts the balance between wholesome toil and whole-hearted ease; who has a foolish love for the study of Nature; who has a sense of fellowship with animate and inanimate things; who endeavours to learn the character and the purpose of varied forms of life; whose jurisdiction extends over fifteen sacrosanct isles; who is never happier than when reading–need never bewail the absence of human schemes and sounds or fret under the galling burden of idleness. Here is no bell to affright; nor are we subject to the bidding or liable to the assault of any passer by. Smooth-flowing time knows not mud or any foulness, while its impassive surface, burnished by August sunshine, reflects fair scenes and silent doings.
The freedom from care, the vague sense of selfish property in the whole scheme of Nature, the delicious discovery of the virtues of solitude, the loveliness of this most gay and youthful earth, and the tones of the pleasant-voiced and often surly sea fill me with joy and embellish hope–vague and unsubstantial–for is not this Isle the “place where one may have many thoughts and not decide anything”?
For all my occupations, I am often driven to “dialogue with my shadow” for lack of less subservient auditor, and though, as the years pass, I find that I become more loose of soul and in broad daylight indulge the liberty of muttering my affairs and addressing animals and plants and of confiding secrets to the chaste moon–poets and dramatists term such incontinence of speech soliloquy and employ it for the utterance of edifying inspiration–it is because it is impossible to be ever quite alone. Not so very long ago in Merrie England if a person muttered to himself it was enough on which to establish a charge of wizardry; but it is also said that real witches and wizards, though subject to the most ticklish tests, never perspired–a default which hastened conviction. Therein is my hope of salvation. If it be my fate some day to be found
“With age grown double,
Picking dry sticks and mumbling to myself.”
I shall claim a profuse prerogative, and continue to saunter down into the gloom at the foot of the hill of life unblinking in the sun.
“Who has not hearkened to Her infinite din?”–THOREAU.
Free alike from the clatter of pastimes and the creaks and groans of labour, this region discovers acute sensibility to sound. Silence in its rarest phases soothes the Isle, reproaching disturbances, though never so temperate. All the endemic sounds are primitive and therefore seldom harsh. Even the mysterious fall of a tree in the jungle–not an unusual occurrence on still days during the wet season–is unaccompanied by thud and shock. Encompassing vines and creepers, colossal in strength and overwhelming in weight, which have strained the tree to breaking point, ease their burden down, muffling its descent, though now and again the primal rupture of trunk or branch rings out a sharp protest, and following the fall is silence–that varying, elusive sensation not to he expressed by the absence of actual noise.
There are silences which tinkle or buzz in the ears, causing them to ache with stress and strain; silences dull and sad as a wad of wool; silences as searching as the odour of musk–as soothing as the perfume of violets. The crisp silence of the seashore when absolute calm prevails is as different from the strained, sodden, padded silence of the jungle as the savour of olives from the raw insipidity of white of egg, for the cumbersome mantle of leafage is the surest stifler of noise, the truest cherisher of silence.
The most imperious hour of this realm of silence is three o’clock in the afternoon, when the sun has absorbed the energies of the most volatile of birds and insects. An hour later all may begin to assert themselves after a reviving, siesta; yet during the intensest hour of silence any abrupt noise–a call, or whistle, or bark of a dog–finds an immediate response. No sound has been heard for an hour. All the birds have been stricken dumb or have been banished, yet as an echo to any violation of the silence comes the sweet, mellow, inquisitive note of the “moor-goody” (to use the black’s name, for the shrike thrush). The bird seems fond of sound and will answer in trills and chuckles attempts to imitate its call.
The condition of perfect silence is not for this noisy sphere. The artist in so-called silences merely registers certain more or less delicate sound-waves flowing in easy contours, which others have not the leisure to distinguish. Often have I found myself as I strolled gloating over the exquisite absence of sound–enjoying in full mental relish the quaint and refined sensation. Yet when I have stopped and listened determinedly, viciously analysing my sensations, have I become aware of a hubbub of frail and interblended sounds. That which I had thought to be distilled silence, was microphonic Babel–an intimate commingling of analogous noises varying in quality and intensity. By wilful resistance to what Falstaff called “the disease of not listening,” I have been privileged to become aware of the singing of a quiet tune, some of the phrases of which were directly derivative from inarticulate vegetation–the thud of glossy blue quandongs on the soft floor of the jungle, the clicking of a discarded leaf as it fell from topmost twigs down through the strata of foliage, the bursting of a seed-pod, the patter of rejects from the million pink-fruited fig, overhanging the beach, the whisper of leaves, the faint squeal where interlocked branches fret each other unceasingly, the sigh of phantom zephyrs too elusive to be felt.
Echoes from vistas of silence far in the jungle lost their individuality in a sob. Grasshoppers clinked in the forest, the hum of bees and beetles, the fluty plaint of a painted pigeon far in the gloom, the furtive scamper of scrub fowl among leaves made tender by decay, the splash of startled fish in the shadows, commingled and blended to the accompaniment of that subdued aerial buzz by which Nature manifests the more secret of her functions and art–that ineffable minstrelsy to which her silent battalions keep step. Preoccupation, the whirl of my own temperate thoughts, scared silence, while as soon as the mental machine was stilled, the very trees became vocal. Thus have I caught fleet silences as they passed in chase of fugitive sounds.
Since the morning stars sang together, absolute silence has not visited the uneasy earth. In this Silent Isle the ears–
“Set to small measure, deaf to all the beats Of the large music rolling o’er the world”–
become almost supernaturally alert, catching the faintest sound. Kinglake, who heard in the Syrian desert while dozing on his camel and for ten minutes after awakening “the innocent bells of Marlen,” attributed the phenomenon to the heat of the sun, the perfect dryness, the deep stillness, “having rendered the ears liable to tingle under the passing touch of some mere memory that may have swept across my brain in a moment of sleep.” Homesick sailors, too, lost in the profound stillness of mid-ocean, have listened with fearful wonder to the phantom chiming of their village bells.
Apart from the tricks which memory plays upon the solitary individual, inviting him by scents and sounds to scenes of the past, I find that the moist unadulterated atmosphere is a most compliant medium for the transmission of certain sorts of sound waves. The actual surface of the sea–differing from its resonant bulk–seems to sap up, rather than convey sounds, though on given planes above its level sounds travel unimpeded for remarkable distances. The resonance of the atmosphere appears at times to be dependent on the tone and quality rather than on the abruptness and loudness of the sound. I have listened with strange delight to the rustle of the sea on the mainland beach–two and a half miles distant–when the air has been so idle that the sensitive casuarinas–ever haunted by some secret woe upon which to moan and sob–have been mute and unable to find excuse for the faintest sigh. The branches which thinly shaded me hung limp and still and yet the soft, white-footed sea marking time on the harder sands of the mainland set distance at naught in one continuous murmur.
However listless the air, the coral-reef, though its crowded life is inarticulate and mute is ever brisk with minor but strenuous noises. Splashes and gurgles, sighs and gasps, coughs and sneezes, sharp clicks and snaps and snarls–telling of alarms, tragic escapes, and violent death-dealings–blend with the continuous murmur of the sea, and are occasionally punctuated by sudden slaps and thuds as a blundering, hammer-head shark pursues a high-leaping eagle-ray, or the red-backed sea eagle dashes down upon a preoccupied bream, the impact of its firm breast embossing a white rosette on the blue water.
In the absence of vibratory media the noises of the reef are isolated. furtive, echoless–staccato accidentals and dull dissonances out of tune with the soothing theme of the sea. Hence, when, as I wandered absorbed in an inspection of minor details, and a mellow whistle, constant but varying in volume, broke in upon my musings, it was vain to repress the thrill of excitement. A sound so foreign and incongruous also had a certain element of mystery. In a flash unsensational ponderings were displaced by a picture of a steamer in distress far away. Had I not on a similar occasion of a secret-disclosing tide heard through seven miles of insulted and sullen air the flop of an inch or so of dynamite exploded by a heartless barbarian for the illicit destruction of vivacious fish? Had I not listened with amazement to the buzz of a steamer’s propeller and the throb of her engines six miles away when unaccustomed “nigger-heads” of coral showed yellow in the sun? The calm, shallow sea conveyed the sounds with marvellous fidelity and surety. Yet this unaccountable call came from a quarter whence steamers may not venture, and was I not the only whistler within a range of many miles? No steamer ever gloated or warned or appealed in so fluty a note–plaintive, slightly tremulous, nervously imploring.
Alert, I tracked the strange sound along an eccentric course to its haunt, finding nothing more than the empty shell of a huge sea urchin, which in accord with a whim of the sea had floated and was now held aloft slantwise to the lips of the wind, firm in the branching tines of stag’s-horn coral. A rustic pipe–giving forth a sonorous moan, now cooing and crooning, now bold and confident, and again irresolute and unschooled. Not too sure of instrumentalism, oft the note was hesitating, soliciting a compliant ear as became a modest wooer of the muses, polishing his unceremonious serenade to some, shy mermaid, or hooting at shyer silence.
A new art, a rare accomplishment! So the musician was diffident, half-ashamed, half-shocked at his audacity, wholly self-conscious; earnest to please yet doubtful of the reception awaiting his untutored, artless play. Gathering courage, the breeze moistened his lips and a triumphant spasm of sound boomed out, and again the tremulous undertone prevailed. It was more than a serenade–a primitive sensation from primitive matter–a vital function, for as long, as the wind blew and until the lapping sea gurgled in its throat and its note ceased with the bursting of a bubble, there, held fixedly by living coral, the dead shell could not choose but whistle. So I left it to its wayward pipings, happy to have been the sole auditor to a purely natural, albeit mechanical, monotone. Upon such an instrument did the heavenly maid beguile the time when she was yet uncouthly young–at the hoydenish age when men also cajoled her with clicking sticks and the beating of hollow logs, and music was but a variety of noise.
FRUITS AND SCENTS
“The pot herbs of the gods.”–THOREAU.
Those branches of the cultural enterprise which depend upon my own unaided exertions fail, I am bound to confess, consistently. However partial to the results of the gardener’s art, I admit with lamentations lack of the gardener’s touch. Since bereft of black labour by the seductions of rum and opium, the plantation of orange-trees has sadly degenerated; the little grove of bananas has been choked with gross over-bearing weeds, the sweet-potato patch has been absorbed, the coffee-trees elbowed out of existence. But how may one man of many avocations withstand acres of riotous and exulting weeds? Therefore do I attempt atonement for obvious neglect by the scarcely less laborious delight of acclimatising plants from distant tropical countries.
A valued and disinterested friend sends seeds which I plant for the benefit of posterity. Who will eat of the fruit of the one durian which I have nurtured so carefully and fostered so fondly? Packed in granulated charcoal as an anti-ferment, the seed with several others which failed came from steamy Singapore, and over all the stages of germination I brooded with wonder and astonishment. Since the durian is endemic in a very restricted portion of the globe, and since those who have watched the vital process may be comparatively few in number and therefore unlikely to be jaded by the truisms of these pages, a few words in explanation may not be resented. The seed of the durian is roughly cordate, about an inch and a quarter long. In the form of a disproportionately stout and blundering worm the sprout of my seed issued from the soil, peered vaguely into daylight, groped hesitatingly and arched over to bury its apex in the soil, and from this point the delicately white primal leaves sprang, and the growth has been continuous though painfully slow ever since.
Perhaps the deliberate development of the plant is gauged by eagerness and anticipation. Do I not occasionally indulge the hope of living long enough to sample the first fruits? When in such humour I long for the years to come, and thus does my good friend stimulate expectations:–
“I have been spending a small fortune in durians, they are relatively cheap and very good this season in Singapore. Like all the good things in Nature–tempests, breakers, sunsets, &c. durian is indescribable. It is meat and drink and an unrivalled delicacy besides, and you may gorge to repletion and never have cause for penitence. It is the one case where Nature has tried her hand at the culinary art and beaten all the CORDON BLEUE out of heaven and earth. Would to Heaven she had been more lavish of her essays!
“Though all durians are, perhaps, much alike and not divided like apples and mangoes into varieties, the flavour varies much according to size and ripeness. In some the taste of the custard surrounding the heart-like seeds rises almost to the height of passion, rapture, or mild delirium. Yesterday (21st June, 1907) about 2 p.m. I devoured the contents of a fruit weighing over 10 lb. At 6 p.m. I was too sleepy to eat anything, and thence had twelve hours of almost unbroken slumber.”
Since my friend is not an enthusiast in regard to tropical fruits, his reverie is all the more reasonable.
The Dyaks, who are passionately fond of the durian, distinguished it by the title of DIEN, which signifies the fruit PAR EXCELLENCE. Under such circumstances my anticipations are justifiable. To my friend I am also indebted for several young plants of the sapodilla plum (ACHRAS SAPOTA), sold in some parts of India under the spurious title of MANGOSTEEN, and considered to be one of the most luscious fruits of the tropics. Like the durian, the sapodilla plum grows all too slowly for my precipitate tastes, though I console myself plenteously with mangoes.
Now, the mango in its infinite variety possesses charms as engaging as those of Cleopatra. Rash and vain though it be, I am in such holiday humour in respect of the sweet anticipation of the durian that I cannot refrain from an attempt to chant the praises of the “little lower” fruit. Yet it is
“Beyond the power of language to enfold The form of beauty smiling at his heart”
whose palate is tickled with such dulcet, such fantastic flavours.
How may one hope to externalise with astringent ink the aesthetic sensation of the assimilation of gusts of perfume?
A mango might be designated the unspeakable eatable, for who is qualified to determine the evanescent savours and flavours which a prime specimen of the superb fruit so generously yields? Take of a pear all that is mellow, of a peach all that is luscious, of a strawberry all that is fragrant, of a plum all that is kindly, of an apricot all its aroma, of cream all its smoothness. Commingle with musk and honey, coriander and aniseed, smother with the scent of musk roses, blend with cider, and the mixture may convey a dim sense of some of the delectable qualities of one kind of mango. To do justice to the produce of the very next tree another list of triumphant excellences might be necessary. A first-class mango is compact of so many sensations to the palate, its theme embraces such rare and delicate surprises, that the true artist in fruit-flavours is fain to indulge in paraphrase and paradox when he attempts to record its virtues and–yes, its vanities.
There are mangoes and mangoes. The very worst is not to be wholly despised. For the best there are due moods and correct environments. For some, the lofty banquet-hall, splendid with reflected lights and the flash of crystal and silver and the triumphal strains of a full band hidden by a screen of palms and tree-ferns. There are others best to be eaten to slow, soft music in a flower-bedizened glade of fairy-land.
September is the season of scents. Partly as a result of the dryness of the month, the mango trees continue to bloom as though each had determined (for the time being) to abandon all notion of utility and to devote itself solely to the keeping up of appearances. Appearances are well worth maintaining, for however trivial from a florist’s point of view the flower of the mango in detail, yet when for six weeks on end the trees present uniform masses of buff and pink, varied with shades of grey and pale green, and with the glister of wine-tinted, ribbon-like leaves, and the air is alert with rich and spicy odour, there is ample apology ever ready for the season and the direct results thereof. The trees are manifestly over-exerting themselves, in a witless competition with others which may never boast of painted, scented fruit. There is not a sufficient audience of aesthetics to tolerate the change of which the mango seems ambitious.
In Japan, where the cultured crunch hard and gritty fruits, peach and plum trees may be encouraged to expend all their force and prime in the production of bloom. Vagrant Englishmen are still so benighted that the desire for sweet and aromatic fruit vaunts over that which gives delight merely to the eye. But to assume indifference to present conditions, to decline to accept in full measure the redolence of the season which stands for spring in tropical Australia, to refuse to be grateful for it all, would be inhuman.
The limes have flowered and scattered their petals; the pomeloes (the forbidden fruit) display posies of the purest white and of the richest odour, an odour which in its depth and drowsy essence epitomises the luxurious indolence of the tropics; the lemons and oranges are adding to the swectness and whiteness, and yet the sum of the scent of all these trees of art and cultivation is poor and insipid compared with the results of two or three indigenous plants that seem to shrink from flaunting their graces while casting sweetness on the desolate air.
Just now, in some situations, the old gold orchid rivals the mango in showiness and fragrance; the pencil orchid dangles white aigrettes from the trunks and branches of hundreds of trees, saturating the air with a subtle essence as of almonds and honey; and the hoya hangs festoons from rocks and trees in such lavish disregard of space and the breathings of less virile vegetation, that the sensual scent borders on the excessive. On the hill-tops, among rocks gigantic of mould and fantastic of shape, a less known orchid with inconspicuous flowers yields a perfume reminiscent of the violet; the shady places on the flats are showy with giant crinum lilies.
It is the season of scents, and the native, untended, unpampered plants are easily and gracefully first in an uncatalogued competition. Haunting conceit on the part of the mango will not permit acknowledgment of defeat; but no impartial judge would hesitate in making his selection from among plants which in maturing make no formal appeal whatever to man, but in some cases keep aloof from notice and renown, while dissipating scents which fertilise the brain, stimulating the flowers of fancy. Not all the scents which sweeten the air are salubrious. Several are distinctly injurious. Men do not actually “die of a rose in aromatic pain,” though many may become uncomfortable and fidgety by sniffing delicious wattle-blossom; and one of the crinum lilies owes its specific title, (PESTILENTIS) to the ill effects of its stainless flowers, those who camp in places where the plant is plentiful being apt to be seized with violent sickness. An attractive fruit with an exalted title (DIOSPYROS HEBECAPRA) scalds the lips and tongue with caustic-like severity, and a whiff from a certain species of putrescent fungus produces almost instantaneous giddiness, mental anguish, and temporary paralysis.
The most elemental of all incenses–that which arises from warm, dry soil sprinkled by a sudden shower–is undoubtedly invigorating. The spirituous scent of melaleuca-trees burdens the air, not as an exhalation but as an arrogant physical part of the Isle, while a wattle (ACACIA CUNNINGHAMI) shyly proclaims its flowering by a scent as intangible and fleeting as a phantom.
“The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense.” Not so in respect of the organ of smell. The more educated, the more practised nose detects the subtler odour and is the more offended by grossness. And upon what flower has been bestowed the most captivating of perfumes? Not the rose, or the violet, or the hyacinth, or any of the lilies or stephanotis or boronia. The land of forbidding smells produces it; it is known to Europeans as the Chinese magnolia. Quaint and as if carved skilfully in ivory, after the manner of, the inhabitants of its countrymen, the petals tumble apart at the touch, while fragrance issues not in whiffs but in sallies, saturating the atmosphere with the bouquet of rare old port commingled with the aroma of ripe pears and the scent of musk roses.
Some of the flowering plants of old England here dwell contentedly, leafage being free, however few and dwarfed in some cases the bloom. Roses, violets, honeysuckle, pansies, cosmos, phlox, balsams, sunflowers, zinnias, blue Michaelmas daisies, dianthus, nasturtiums, &c., are on common ground with purely tropical plants, while ageratum has become a pestiferous weed.
An early or late arrival among flowers and fruit cannot be hailed or chidden where there is but trifling seasonable variation. Without beginning and without end, the perpetual motion of tropical vegetation is but slightly influenced by the weather. Who is to say that this plant is early or that late, when early or late, like Kipling’s east and west, are one? It is not that all flowering trees and plants are of continuous growth. Many do have their appointed seasons, producing flowers and fruit according to date and in orderly progress, leaving to other species the duty of maintaining a consecutive, unbroken series which defies the mechanism of cold countries with their cast-iron calendars.
Here but three or four trees deign to recognise the cool season by the shedding of their leaves. FICUS CUNNINGHAMI discards–by no means consistently–its foliage in obedience to some spasmodic impulse, when the many thin branches, thick-strewn with pink fruit, stand out against the sky as aerial coral, fantastically dyed. But in two or three days burnished brown leaves burst from the embraces of elongated buds which, rejected, fall–pink phylacteries–to decorate the sand, while in a week the tree wears a new and glistening garment of green. The flame-tree (ERYTHRINA INDICA) slowly abandons its foliage; but before the last yellow-green leaf is cast aside the fringe of the blood-red robe soon to overspread has appeared. The white cedar (MELIA CONFERTA) permits its leaves to become yellow and to fall lingeringly, but its bareness is merely for a week or so. So also does the foliage of the moo-jee (TERMINALIA MELANOCARPA) turn to deepest red and is discarded, but so orderly is the disrobing and the never varying fashion of foliage that the tree averts the scorn of the most respectable of neighbours.
Month after month of warm days and plenteous rain during the early part of 1909 produced an effect in the acacias which cannot be too thankfully recorded. The blooming season extended from March 29th to July 17th, beginning with ACACIA CUNNINHHAMI and ending with the third flush of A. AULACOCARPA. During a third of the year whiffs of the delicious perfume of the wattle were never absent, for two flushes of A. FLAVESCENS filled in the brief intervals between those of AULACOCARPA. This latter, the commonest of the species on the island, produces its flowers in long spikes in the axils of the leaves on the minor branches, weighting such branches with semi-pendulous plumes laden with haunting perfume. The fragrance of the bounteous, sacrificial blooms saturates miles of air, while their refuse tricks out the webs of spiders great and small with fictitious favours, and carpets the earth with inconstant gold.
HIS MAJESTY THE SUN
“And therefore is the glorious planet, Sol, In noble eminence enthron’d and spher’d Amidst the ether, whose medicinable eye Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil.”
Twelve years of open-air life in tropical Queensland persuade me that I am entitled to prerogative of speech, not as an oracle or a prophet on the prodigious subject of the weather at large, but of the effect thereof on my sensations and constitution, since the greater part of that period has been spent under conditions calculated to put them to the test. Especially has the sun given penetrating tastes of his quality and bestowed enduring marks of his favour. During these twelve joyful years the annual rainfall has averaged over 131 inches, the average number of days on which rain has fallen being 134. Of the heat of the sun during the hottest month of the year let two unstudied records speak. As January 29, 1907, gave early promise of exceptional heat, I watched the thermometer closely, noting the consistency with which its ups and downs tallied with my perceptions These are the readings:
6 a.m. 75
10 a.m. 94
12.30 p.m. 97
1 p.m. 98
3 p.m. 97
4 p.m. 88
5 p.m. 85
6 p.m. 82
In the sun at 1 p.m. the glass registered 108°, at 2 p.m. 110°, and at 3 p.m. 107°. A thunderstorm accounted for the rather early culmination of the temperature and its rapid decline.
The shade temperature of January, 1910, at 6.30 a.m. was 73°, at 3 p.m. 88°. The sun registered 98° on the hottest day of that month when my diary tells me I took part in the erection of rough fencing, horse-driving, and lifting and carrying logs.
This salubrious sun does not excuse man from day labour in unshaded scenes. During January, I, who am blessed with but slight muscular strength and no inherent powers of resistance to noontide flames, have toiled laboriously without registering more than due fatigue. Those accustomed to manual work experience but little inconvenience. It would be palpably indiscreet and vain to say that outdoor work in excessive heat involves no discomfort, but it may be truthfully asserted that midday suspension therefrom, though pleasant, is not absolutely necessary, at any rate where the environment is such as this.
Bounteous rain and glorious sunshine in combination might seem to constitute a climate unsuitable to persons of English birth, or at least trying to their preconceptions of the ideal. My own experience is entirely, enthusiastically favourable. I proffer myself as an example, since there is none other upon whom publicity may be thrust, and really in the spirit of performing an inevitable duty, such duty being comprehended in the fervent desire to proclaim from the lowly height of my housetop how health unbought and happiness unrealisable may be enjoyed in this delicately equable clime.
When I landed feebly on September 28, 1897, and crawled up on the beach beyond the datum of the most recent high tide to throw myself prone on the consoling sand I was worn, world-weary, and pale, and weighed 8 st. 4 lb. Now my weight is 10 st. 2 lb., and my complexion uniformly sun-tinted. Perhaps it would be more exact to say that my uniform has been bestowed by the sun, because having early discovered the needlessness of clothes–that “the body is more than raiment”–most of the apparel in which civilisation flaunts was promptly discarded, and through the few thin things retained the sun soon worked his will. Latterly while in the open air I have abandoned the principal part of the superfluous remnant, to the enjoyment of additional comfort and the increase of self-complacency. As a final violation of my reserve be it proclaimed that to the super-excellence of the air of the Island, to the tonic of the sea, and to the graciousness of his Majesty the Sun–in whose radiance have I gloried–do I owe, perhaps, salvation from that which tributary friends in their meed of tenderness predicted–an untimely grave.
It is natural that those who live in cold climates and who wear for their comfort clothing designed to exclude the air from all parts of the body save the face should be steeped in conservatism; but the farther one ventures from the chaste opinion of the world the less subserviency he shows to customs and habits authoritative and relevant among century-settled folk, and the more readily he adapts himself to his environment the sooner does he become a true citizen of the country which he has chosen. Preconceptions he must discard as unfit, if not fatal. He is an alien until he learns to house, feed, and dress himself in accordance with the inviolable laws which Nature prescribes to each and every portion of her spacious and discordant realm.
Was I to remain fully clad and comfortless, or the reverse? The indulgence of my sensations has brought about revolutionary changes of costume and custom. Such changes were bound to react mentally, for are they not merely the symbols of ideas? Once it was unseemly, if not uncleanly, to perspire freely. Now the function is looked upon as necessary, wholesome, and the sign of one’s loyalty to the sun. The sun compels thoughts. Daily, hourly does he exact homage and reign supreme over mind, body, and estate. So commanding is his rule, so apparent his goodwill, so speedy his punishment for sins of disobedience, so influential his presence, that I have come to look up to him as the transcendent manifestation of that power which ordains life and all its privileges and abolishes all the noisesomeness of death. Alive, he nourishes, comforts, consoles, corrects us. Dead, all that is mortal he transforms into ethereal and vital gases. Obey him, and he blesses; flout him, and you perish.
An old historian of sport quaintly expressed a correct theory as to the virtue of profuse perspiration: “And when the hunters do their office on horseback and on foot, they sweat often; then if they have any evil in them it must come away in the sweating; so that he keep from cold after the heat.” So does the wise man in the tropics regard perspiration–not as an offensive, certainly not as a pleasant function, but as one that is really inevitable and conducive to cleanliness and health.
Can the man who swathes his body in ever so many separate, superimposed, artificial skins, and who is careful to banish purifying air from contact with him, save on the rare occasions of the bath, be as healthful as he who furnishes himself with but a single superfluous skin, and that as thin and penetrable as the laws which hold society together permit?
The play of the sterilising sun on the brown, moist skin is not only tolerable but delightful–refreshing and purifying the body, while even light cotton clothing saturated to the dripping stage with perspiration represents the acme of discomfort, and if unchanged a good deal of the actually unwholesome.
All the hotter hours of the day have I worked in the bush felling trees, sawing and splitting logs, and adzing rough timber, the while November’s unclouded sun evaporated perspiration almost as speedily as it flowed from high-pressure pores. There was no sensation of overheat, although the arms might weary with the swinging of the heavy maul and the back respond with aches to the stiffened attitude imposed by the adze.
Then at sundown to plunge into the tepid sea, to frolic and splash therein, while the red light in the west began to pale and the pink and silver surface of the ocean faded to grey; then to a vigorous soaping and scrubbing in the shady creek, where the orange-tinted drupes of pandanus-palms give to the cool water a balsamic savour; then, clad in clean cotton, to the evening meal with a prodigious appetite; and to bed at nine o’clock to sleep murmurlessly for eight hours–tell me if thus you are not fitted for another day’s toil in the sublimating sunshine!
A medical man on the staff of one of the earliest of European voyages in the Pacific Ocean expressed the opinion that the “cutaneous disorders which so generally affect the inhabitants in the neighbourhood of the equator are caused by an acrimonious alteration of the humours brought on by the great heat of these climates”; and he adds: “I have no doubt that the constant action of the air and sun upon the skin of the people who go continually naked contributes much to these maladies, and renders them more obstinate.” Though it would be presumptuous to pose as counsel for the defence of his Majesty the Sun, one who is blessed with so many of the privileges he bestows cannot ignore so scandalous albeit musty a libel which time, the only dispassionate judge, has long since condemned in respect of the generality of manhood. It is surprising, too, that Byron, though he revelled in the sea, was also under a delusion as to the more vitalising element, for he fancied the scorching rays to be “impregnate with disease,” whereas the sun, the sea, and, in lesser degree, the torrid sand do actually represent “the spice and salt which season a man,” and are the elements whence are derived many of his cleanest, superfine thoughts.
Kinship with his Majesty the Sun of the tropics is not to be claimed offhand. The imperious luminary does not grant his letters-patent to all. Very few does he permit to wanton in his presence without exacting probation. He is a rare respecter of persons. Though there are faces, like King Henry V.’s, which the sun will not condescend to burn, sometimes he smites savagely. He makes of the countenances of his foes a fry and of their bodies a comprehensive granulation. But if you find favour in his eyes–in those discriminating, ruthless, sight-absorbing glances which none may reciprocate–accept your privileges with a thrill of chastened pride that you may bask in his presence and be worthy his livery and of gladsome mind. The harpings of the sweet singer of Israel could not have been more effectual in the dispersal of depression than the steadfast beams of the sun supreme in tropic sky.
Let the sun scorch the skin and blister it until it peels, and scorches and peels again, and scorches and peels alternately until, having no more dominion over the flesh, it tinctures the very blood and transmutes mere ruddiness to bronze. Thereafter you know not for ever the pallor of the street for have you not the gold of the sun in your blood and his iron in your bones?
Of the graciousness of the sun a special instance has been preserved in my erratic diary. Here it is: November 24, 1908: Spent from 10 a.m. to 1.15 p.m. on the beach and on the Isle of Purtaboi, bare-limbed, bare-bodied, save for scant cotton pants. Above high-water mark the sand was scorchingly hot to the feet. The heat of the glowing coral drift on the Isle forced me promptly to amend my methodic gait to a quick step, though my hardened soles soon became indifferent. Nutmeg pigeons were nesting plentifully on trees and shrubs amongst masses of orchids, and on ledges almost obscured by grass. Brown-winged terns occupied cool nooks and crannies in the rocks, and other species of terns had egg reserves–they cannot be called nests–on the unshaded coral bank. After gazing intently on the white drift, eagerly making mental notes of any remarkable mutations in the colouring of the thickly strewn eggs, and admiring the fortitude or indifference with which the fledglings endured the sizzling heat, I found myself subject to an optical illusion, for when I looked up and abroad the brightly gleaming sea had been changed to inky purple, the hills of the mainland to black. Though absolutely cloudless, the sky seemed oppressed with slaty gloom, and the leaves of the trees near at hand assumed a leaden green. For a few seconds I was convinced that some almost unearthly meteorological phenomenon, before which the most resolute of men might cower, had developed with theatrical suddenness. Then I realised that the intense glare of the coral, of which I had been unconscious, and the quivering heat rays had temporarily deprived my vision of appreciation of ordinary tints. Saturated by vivid white light, my bemused sight swayed under temporary aberration. I was conscious of illusion creating symptoms, tipsy with excess of sunshine. This condition passing, I found the atmosphere, though hot, pleasant and refreshing, the labour of rowing across the bay involving no unusual exertion or sense of discomfort. During my brief absence the beach of the island seemed to have absorbed still more effectively solar rays. “Scoot” (my terrier, exulting companion on land and sea) skipped in sprightly fashion across the burning zone, while I was fain to walk on the grass, the sandy track being impracticable to bare feet. In the house protests against the intolerance of the sun were rife. Crockery on the kitchen shelves seemed to have been artificially heated, while the head of an axe exposed to the glare was blisteringly hot. Yet to me in the open air, most scantily draped and wearing a frayed, loopholed, and battered straw hat, the sunbath had been a pleasant and exhilarating indulgence in no way remarkable on the score of temperature.
Dress, other than fulfils the dictates of decency, is not only unimportant but incongruous and vexatious. During bright but cloudless days the less worn the higher the degree of comfort, and upon comfort happiness depends. Sick of a surfeit of pleasures, the whining monarch, counselled by his soothsayers, ransacked his kingdom for the shirt of a happy subject. He found the enviable man–a toil-worn hind who had never fidgeted under the discomfort of the badge of respectability.
In his native state the black fellow is nearer the ideal than the white alien in his body clothes, starched shirt, high collar, cloth suit, and felt hat. The needs and means of the black are non-existent. His dress corresponds, whereas the white usurper of his territory–servile to the malignant impositions of custom and fashion–suffers from general superfluity and winces under his sufferings. Would he not be wiser owning subservience to the sun, and adopting dress suitable to actual needs and the dominant characteristics of the land of the sun? He would pant less, drink less, perspire less, be more wholesome and sweeter in temper, and more worthy of citizenship under the sun, against whose sway there can be no revolt. Kings and queens are under his rule and governance. His companionship disdains ceremonious livery, scorns ribbands, and scoffs at gew-gaws. Bronze is his colour, native worth the only wear.
Whosoever has seen (himself unseen) an unsophisticated North Queensland black parading his native strand has seen a lord of creation–an inferior species, but still a lord. His bold front, fluent carriage, springy step, alert, confident, superior air proclaim him so, innocent though he be of the frailest insignia of civilisation. The monarch arrayed in seven colours ascends the steps of his throne with no prouder mien than that in which the naked child of the sun lords it over the empty spaces.
In civility to his Majesty the Sun do I also proudly testify to his transcendent gifts as a painter in the facile media which here prevail. Look upon his coming and his going–an international, universal property, an ecstatic delight, an awesome marvel, upon which we gaze, of which we cannot speak, lacking roseate phrases. A landscape painter also is he, for have I not seen his boldest brush at work and stood amazed at the magnificence of his art?
Do those who live in temperate and cold climates realise the effect of the sun’s heat on the sea–how warm, how hot, blessed by his beams, the water may become? The luxuriousness of bathing in an ocean having a temperature of 108° is not for the multitude who crowd in reeking cities which the sun touches tremulously and slantwise.
On November 21, 1909 (far be it from me to bundle out into an apathetic world whimpering facts lacking the legitimacy of dates), we bathed at Moo-jee in shallow water on the edge of an area of denuded coral reef fully two miles long by a mile broad. For three hours a considerable portion of the reef had been exposed to the glare of the sun, and the incoming tide filched heat, stored by solar rays, from coral and stones and sand. The first wallow provoked an exclamation of amazement, for the water was several degrees hotter than the air, and it was the hottest hour (3 p.m.) of an extremely hot day. No thermometer was at hand to register the actual temperature of the water, but subsequent tests at the same spot under similar conditions proved that on the thermometerless occasion the sea was about 108° F.–that is, the surface stratum of about one foot, which averaged from 4° to 6° F. hotter than the air. Beneath, the temperature seemed ordinary–corresponding with that of the water a hundred yards out from the shore. This delectable experience revealed that in bathing something more is comprehended than mere physical pleasure. It touched and tingled a refined aesthetic emotion, an enlightened consciousness of the surroundings, remote from gross bodily sensations. For the time being one was immersed, not in heated salt water only but in the purifying essence of the scene–the glowing sky, stainless, pallid, and pure; the gleaming, scarcely visible, fictitious sea and the bold blue isles beyond; the valley whence whiffs of cool, fern-filtered, odorous air issued shyly from the shadowed land of the jungle through the embowered lips of the creek. The blend of these elements reacted on the perceptions, rendering the bathe in two temperatures that of a lifetime and a means also whereby the clarified senses were first stimulated and then soothed. With an occasional lounge on the soft sand, when the body became clad in a costume of mica spangles and finely comminuted shell grit, the bathe continued for two hours, with an after effect of sleek and silky content.
Another date (January 10, 1910) may verify details of such a sybaritic soak in the sea as is to be indulged in only in the tropics and remote from the turmoil of man. Between noon and 3 p.m. the thermometer hanging on the wall of the house under the veranda, five feet from the corrugated iron roof, wavered between 89° and 90°, while the unshaded sun registered 98°. My noontide bath failed to detect any difference in temperature between air and water, and putting my perceptions to scientific test found the sea to be heated to 90°. With the bulb buried in the sand six feet from the edge of the water, the mercury rose to 112° in a few seconds and remained stationary.
It being far more blissful to lounge in the sea than on the veranda, I sat down, steeped chin deep in crystal clearness, warmth, and silence, passively surrendering myself to a cheap yet precious sensation. Around me were revealed infinitely fragile manifestations of life, scarcely less limpid than the sea, sparkling, darting, twisting–strong and vigorous of purpose. Tremulous filaments of silver flashed and were gone. No space but was thickly peopled with what ordinarily passes as the invisible, but which now, plainly to behold, basked and revelled in the blaze–products of the sun. Among the grains of sand and flakes of mica furtive bubblings, burrowings, and upheavals betrayed a benighted folk to whom the water was as a firmament into which they might not venture to ascend.
Sought out by the sun, translucent fish revealed their presence by spectral shadows on the sand, and, traced by the shadows, became discernible, though but little the more substantial.
This peace-lulled, beguiling, sea, teeming with myriad forms scintillating on the verge of nothingness–obscure, elusive, yet mighty in their wayward way–soothed with never so gentle, so dulcet a swaying. This smooth-bosomed nurse was pleased to fondle to drowsiness a loving mortal responsive to the blissfulness of enchantment. Warm, comforting, stainless, she swathed me with rose-leaf softness while whispering a lullaby of sighs. Her salty caresses lingered on my lips, as I gazed dreamily intent upon determining the non-existing skyline. Yet, with no demarcation of the allied elements this rimless, flickering moon, to what narrow zone, I pondered, is man restricted! He swims feebly; if he but immerse his lips below the shining surface for a space to be measured by seconds, he becomes carrion. On the mountain-tops he is deadly sick. Thus musing, the sorcery of the sea became invincible. My thoughts drifted, until I dozed, and dozing dreamt–a vague, incomprehensible dream of floating, in some purer ether, some diviner air than ever belonged to wormy earth, and woke to realities and a skate–a little friendly skate which had snoodled beside me, its transparent shovel-snout half buried in the sand. Immune from the opiate of the sea, though motionless, with wide, watery-yellow eyes, it gazed upon me as a fascinated child might upon a strange shape monstrous though benign, and as I raised my hand in salutation wriggled off, less afraid than curious.
Beyond, a shadow–a disc-shaped shadow–drifted with a regular pulsating motion. Shadowlike, my thoughts, too, drifted, but how remote from the scene! They transported me to Thisbe–Thisbe who
“Saw the lion’s shadow ere himself And ran dismayed away.”
How different the shadow of the moment from that of the king of beasts which led to the tragedy under the walls of Babylon, where the blood of the lovers dyed the mulberry red! It is the evidence of a bloodless thing, a rotund and turreted medusa, the leader of a disorderly procession, soundless and feeble as becomes beings almost as impalpable as the sea itself. Shadows of fish exquisitely framed flit and dance. I see naught but shadows, dim and thin, for I doze and dream again; and so fantastic time, whose footfalls are beads and bubbles, passes, and grosser affairs beckon me out of the sunlit sea.
Oh, great and glorious and mighty sun! Oh, commanding, majestical sun! Superfine invigorator; bold illuminator of the dim spaces of the brain; originator of the glow! which distils its rarest attars! Am I not thy true, thy joyful knight? Hast thou not touched my toughened, unflinching shoulders with the flat of thy burnished sword? Do I not behold its jewelled hilt flashing with pearls and precious stones as thou sheathest it for the night among the purple Western hills? Do I not hail its golden gleams among the fair-barked trees what time each scented morn I milk my skittish goats?
A TROPIC NIGHT
“Come and compare
Columns and idol-dwellings, Goth or Greek, With Nature’s realms of worship, earth and air, Nor fix on fond bodies to circumscribe thy prayer.”
For a week the wet monsoon had frolicked insolently along the coast, the intermittent north-east breeze, pert of promise but flabby of performance, giving way to evening calms. Then came slashing south-easters which, having discourteously bundled the cloud banks over the mountains, retired with a spasm upon the reserves of the Pacific.
All day long the sea had been pale blue with changeful silvery lights, and now the moon, halfway down on her westward course, shines over a scene solemn in its stillness–the peace and repose more impressive than all the recent riot and haste.
Here on the verge of the ocean, at the extreme limit of the spit of soft, shell-enamelled sand, where the breakers had roared in angry monotone, the ears thrilled with tender sounds. Though all the winds were dead the undertones of the sea linger in lulling harmonies. The tepid tide on the warm sand crisply rustles and hisses as when satin is crumpled and smartly rent. Weird, resonant tappings, moans, and gurgles come from a hollow log drifting, with infinite slowness. Broken sighs and gasps tell where the ripples advancing in echelon wander and lose their way among blocks of sandstone. As the tide rose it prattled and gurgled, toying with tinkling shells and clinking coral, each tone separate and distinct, however thin and faint. My solitary watch gives the rare delight of analysing the night thoughts of the ocean, profound in its slumber though dreamily conscious of recent conflict with the winds. All the frail undertones suppressed, during the bullying day now have audience. Sounds which crush and crowd have wearied and retired. The timid and shy venture forth to join the quiet revelry of the night.
On its northern aspect the sand spit is the steeper. There the folds of the sea fall in velvety thuds ever so gentle, ever so regular. On the southern slope, where the gradient is easy, the wavelets glide up with heedless hiss and slide back with shuffling whisper, scarce moving the garlands of brown seaweed which a few hours before had been torn from the borders of the coral garden with mischievous recklessness.
The sounds of this most stilly night are almost wholly of the faintly pulsing sea–sibilant and soft. Twice have the big-eyed stone plovers piped demoniacally. Once there were flutterings among the nutmeg pigeons in the star-proof jungle of the crowded inlet to the south. A cockatoo has shrieked out in dismay at some grim nightmare of a snake. Two swamp pheasants have assured each other in bell-like cadences that the night is far spent, and all is well.
As the moon sinks a ghostly silence prevails. Even the subdued tones of the sea are hushed. Though I listen with aching intentness no sense of sound comes to my relief. Thus must it be to be bereft of hearing. This death-like pause, this awful blank, this tense, anxious lapse, this pulseless, stifling silence is brief. A frail moan, just audible, comes from the direction of the vanishing moon. There is a scarcely perceptible stir in the warm air–a sensation of coming coolness rather than of motion, and a faint odour of brine. A mile out across the channel a black band has settled on the shining water.
How entrancing these night-tinted sights and soft sounds! While I loll and peer and listen I am alert and still, for the primitive passions of the universe are shyly exercised. To be sensitive to them all the faculties must be acutely strained. With this lisping, coaxing, companionable sea the serene and sparkling sky, the glow beyond the worlds, the listening isles–demure and dim–the air moist, pacific and fragrant–what concern of mine if the smoky messenger from the stuffy town never comes? This is the quintessence of life. I am alive at last. Such keen tingling, thrilling perceptions were never mine before. Now do I realise the magnificent, the prodigious fact of being. Mine not only a part in the homely world, but a fellowship with the glorious firmament.
It is night–the thoughtful, watchful, wakeful, guardian night, with no cloud to sully its tremulous radiance. How pretty a fable, I reflect, would the ancients have associated with the Southern Cross, shimmering there in the serene sky! Dare I, at this inspiring moment, attempt what they missed, merely because they lacked direct inspiration? Those who once lived in Egypt saw the sumptuous southern jewel, and it may again glitter vainly for the bewilderment of the Sphinx if the lazy world lurches through space long enough. Yes, let me invent a myth–and not tell it, but rather think of the origin of the Milky Way and so convince myself of the futility of modern inventions.
Juno’s favourite flowers were, it is written, the dittany (a milk-like plant), the flaunting poppy, and the fragrant lily. Once, as she slept, Jupiter placed the wonderfully begotten Hercules to her alien, repugnant breasts. Some of the milk dripped and as it fell was dissipated in the heavens–and there is the Milky Way. Other drops reached the earth and, falling on the lily, which hitherto had been purple, purified it to