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My Tropic Isle by E J Banfield

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MY TROPIC ISLE

BY

E. J. BANFIELD

AUTHOR OF "THE CONFESSIONS OF A BEACHCOMBER"

T. FISHER UNWIN

LONDON: ADELPHI TERRACE
LEIPSIC: INSELSTRASSE 20

1911


TO

MY WIFE



    "What dost thou in this World? The Wilderness
     For thee is fittest place."

                                   MILTON.


    "Taught to live
    The easiest way, nor with perplexing thoughts
    To interrupt sweet life."

                                   MILTON.




PREFACE

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).

THE AUTHOR.





CONTENTS

CHAPTER.

I.     IN THE BEGINNING
II.     A PLAIN MAN'S PHILOSOPHY
III.    MUCH RICHES IN A LITTLE ROOM
IV.     SILENCES
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
XXVII.  DEBILS-DEBILS
XXVIII. TO PARADISE AND BACK
XXIX.   THE DEATH BONE



ILLUSTRATIONS
(Not included in this eBook)

"AT ONE STRIDE COMES THE DARK"
    Photo by Caroline Hordern
COCONUT AVENUE
    Photo by Caroline Hordern
THE BUNGALOW
FERN OF GOD
PARASITIC FERN
THE COVE, PURTABOI
BRAMMO BAY, FROM GARDEN
PANDANUS PALM
PECTINARIAN TUBES
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
MATCH-BOX BEANS
PALL-KOO-LOO
WHERE SWIFTLETS BUILD
SWIFTLETS' NESTS
    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
WYLO DEFIANT
THE DEATH BONE
YANCOO'S LAST RITE





MY TROPIC ISLE



CHAPTER I


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.

SHAKESPEARE


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.




CHAPTER II



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 Ł5 4s.; clothing and boots, Ł4 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 Ł1 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                   Ł 4  5  0
Groceries, lighting, &c. 40  0  0
Sundries                 12  0  0
                         --------
Total                   Ł56  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 Ł100 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."




CHAPTER III



"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.




CHAPTER IV



SILENCES


"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.




CHAPTER V



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.




CHAPTER VI



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."

                                  SHAKESPEARE.

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:

                   Deg.
6 a.m.              75
10 a.m.             94
Noon                96
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?




CHAPTER VII



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."

                                                 BYRON.

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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




CHAPTER VIII



READING TO MUSIC


"Silence was pleased."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




CHAPTER IX



THE BIRTH AND BREAKING OF CHRISTMAS


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

                                    SPENSER.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




CHAPTER X



THE SPORT OF FATE


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

                                         BYRON.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




CHAPTER XI



FIGHT TO A FINISH


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




CHAPTER XII



SEA-WORMS AND SEA-CUCUMBERS


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


        "Whose heads
    Do grow beneath their shoulders."


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




CHARTER XIII



SOME MARINE NOVELTIES


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

                                         MILTON.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


SPAWN OF THE SEA


"The dewdrop slips into the shining sea."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


PROTECTIVE COLORATION


July 17, 1909.

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




CHAPTER XIV



SOME CURIOUS BIVALVES


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




CHAPTER XV



BARRIER REEF CRABS


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

                                      MILTON.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




CHAPTER XVI



THE BLOCKADE OF THE MULLET


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

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

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

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

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

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

While I stood guard shouting and "shooing" and making such commotion as I
trusted would convince the fish that the blockading force was ever so
much stronger and more truculent than it really was, George began to
construct a pre-eminently practical wall. Its design was evolved ages
upon ages ago by black students of hydrostatics and fish. George had
imbibed the principles of its construction with his mother's milk. He cut
down several saplings, and, screwing the butt ends into the soft sand
about a foot apart, interlaced them with branches of mangrove and
beach-trailers and swathes of grass. But the tide began to ebb. The
pent-up current, strong and rapid, frequently carried portions of the
structure away. George had to duck and dive to tie the vines and creepers
to the stakes close down to the sandy bottom. Though armfuls of leafage
floated to the surface and rolled out to sea, George worked with joyful
desperation. Presently the fish began to make determined rushes. Shouting
and splashing, tearing down branches, capturing driftwood, diving and
gasping, his efforts were unceasing. Understanding the guile of the fish,
he sought to make the deeper part of the weir secure, and for an hour or
so he laboured in the water with head, hands, and feet. While with deft
fingers he weaved creepers and branches to the stakes, his feet beat the
surface into surf and surge to the scaring of the fish to the remote
limits of their retreat. But the tighter the weir became, the more the
pressure was on it. Fast as repairs were made at one spot gaps appeared
in another which demanded immediate attention. The quantity of material
that our works absorbed was scarcely to be realised. But a double-ended,
amphibious black boy can work every-day wonders. Not a single fish had
escaped. We had the whole shoal at our mercy, for George had confidently
provided against all contingencies.

Buoyant on the bosom of the stream came a good-sized log with raking,
shortened limbs. Under its cover the fish sallied forth a hundred strong,
strenuous in bravery and resolution. The log swept past me, making a
terrible breach in our weir, through which many fish shot. Some leaped
high overhead. Two landed on the sand, helplessly flapping and gasping.
George occupied the breach, and as he waved his arms and shouted, a
four-pounder, leaping high, struck him on the forehead. He sat down
emphatically, and another gap was made. As he struggled to his feet the
vanquished members of the assaulting party fled to the main host. Honours
were with the besieged. Blood oozed from a lump on George's forehead,
there were cruel breaches in the weir, the fish had gained confidence
and knowledge of our works, and only two were prisoners.

Now the sallies became frequent. Sometimes the fish came as scouts, more
often in battalions, and in the dashes for liberty many were successful.
George toiled like a fiend. His repairs looked all right on the surface,
but ever and anon considerable flotsam indicated vital gaps. In spite of
splashing and "shooing" and the complications of the weir, we had had
the mortification of seeing hosts escape.

Then George changed his tactics. Abandoning his faith in the weir, he
converted it into what he called, in his enthusiastic excitement, "a
bed." He laid branches of the weir so that the leaves and twigs
interlaced and crossed, buttressing the structure with another row of
palisades. His theory was that the fish, as the water became shallower,
would cease their efforts to wriggle through, and, leaping high, would
land on the bed and be easily captured. No preliminary shouting and
splashing affected the solidity of that determined array. Mullet knew all
about blackfellows' weirs and their beds. Some slid through. Many leaped,
and, curving gracefully in the air, struck the "bed" at such an angle
that it offered no more resistance to them than a sheet of damp
tissue-paper. They sniggered as they went through it, and splashed wildly
to the sea. They were grand fish--undaunted, afraid of no man or his
paltry obstacles to liberty, up to every cunning manoeuvre.

Were we to be beaten by a lot of silly, slippery fish in a shallow
stream? Never! January's unsheltered sun played upon my tanned, wet, and
shameless back; the salt sweat coursed down my shoulders and dripped from
my face. The scrub fowl babbled and chuckled, cockatoos jeered from the
topmost branches of giant milkwood trees and nodded with yellow crests
grave approval of the deeds of the besieged; fleet white pigeons flew
from a banquet of blue fruits to a diet of crude seeds, and not a single
one of the canons of the gentle art of fishing but was scandalously
violated. It was a coarse and unmanly encounter--the wit, strategy,
finesse, and boldness of fish pitted against the empty noise and bluster
of inferior man and the flimsiness of his despicable barriers.

In silence and magnificent resolve they came at us. We fought with
sticks and all the power of our lungs. Rest was out of the question. The
leafy dyke and "bed" stood ever in need of repair; the sallies were
continuous and determined. The "bed" was not made for those knightly
fish to lie ignobly upon. A single fish would slip down-stream, and,
gathering speed and effort, leap with the glitter of heroism in its eyes.
One such George caught in his arms. Another slipped through my fingers
and struck me on the shoulders, and I bore the mark of the assault for a
week. George's brow was bleeding. Indeed, all his blood was up. His
"heroic rage" was at bursting point. We had toiled for two hours and
counted but three fish, while as many hundred had battled past our siege
works. Quite as many remained, and time, as it generally does, seemed to
be in favour of the attacking party.

Was Charles Lamb right when he spoke of "the uncommunicating muteness of
fishes"? These beleaguered mullet surely exchanged ideas and acted with
deliberation and in concert. All swayed this way or that in accordance,
so it seemed, with the will of the front rank. A tremor there was
repeated instantly at the rear. When a detachment made a bid for liberty
it was in response to a common impulse. When a single individual started
on a forlorn hope the others seemed to watch our hostile demonstrations
as it leaped--flashing silvery lights from its scales--to prove the
unworthiness of weirs and beds, and we, of the ranks of Tuscany, cheered
if its deed of derring do was neatly and successfully achieved.

Fish to the number of five having fallen into our clutches, we stood by
and watched the rest. Most of them leaped gloriously to liberty. Some
ignominiously wriggled. Others remained in the pool, their nerves so
shattered by bluster and assault that they had not the melancholy courage
to slip away. In his wrath--for blood still oozed from his forehead--
George would have exterminated the skulkers, and, checked in his
bloodthirstiness, he showered upon them contemptible titles while he
cooked two of those we had captured. Wrapped in several folds of banana
and "ginger" leaves, and steamed in hot sand, the full flavour of the
fish was retained and something of the aroma of the leaves imparted. I
was not, therefore, astonished when George, having eaten a three-pounder,
finished off my leavings--nothing to boast of, by the way--and proceeded
to cook another (for the dog); and Barry, I am bound to say, got fairly
liberal pickings. The weather was close, and being satisfied, and, for
once, frugal, George cooked the two remaining fish, and swathing them
neatly in fresh green leaves, sauntered away, cooing a corroboree of
content.




CHAPTER XVII



WET SEASON DAYS


    "The north-east spends his rage; he now shut up
    Within his iron cave, the effusive south
    Warms the wide air and o'er the vault of heaven
    Breathes the big clouds with vernal showers distent."

                                                 THOMSON.

Just as in the spring a young man's fancies lightly turn to thoughts of
love, so at the beginning of each new year in tropical Queensland the
minds of the weather sages become sensitive and impressionable. All the
tarnish is rubbed off the recollection of former ill manners on the part
of the weather, when about the middle of January the wind begins to
bluster and to abuse good-natured trees, shaking off twigs and whirling
branches like a tipsy bully striving to dislocate a weak man's arm at the
shoulder. We remember dubious events all too vividly when the recitation
of them does not make for mutual consolation.

In January, 1909, for two days the sea burst on the black rocks of the
islet in the bay in clouds of foam. It was all bombast, froth and
bubble, or rather a gentle back-hander, for the cyclone was playing all
sorts of naughty pranks elsewhere. But why were we apprehensive? In
disobedience to the scriptural injunction, we had observed the clouds and
the birds. Twice a flock of lesser frigate-birds, those dark, fish-tailed
high-fliers which are for ever cutting animated "W's" in the air with
long lithe wings--had appeared. Seldom do they come unless as harbingers
of boisterous weather. On each recent occasion they had been absolutely
trustworthy messengers. Watching them soaring and swooping, we said one
to another: "Behold the cyclone cometh!" But it did not. With a
passing flick of its tail it passed elsewhere.

Altogether, however, we had very queer weather and two or three "rum"
sorts of nights. On the 19th the morning was calm, the sky brilliantly
clear. A north-east breeze sprang up at noon. Deep violet thunder-clouds
gathered in the west, and, muttering and grumbling, rolled across the
narrow strait slowly and sullenly. Australia scowled at our penitent
Island, threatening direful inflictions--lightning, thunder, and an
overwhelming cataclysm. Behind that frowning Providence there was a
smiling face. The good storm, albeit black and angry, behaved benignly.
Gentle rain came, and a picturesque little electrical display to a
humming accompaniment of far distant thunder, followed by a soothingly
cool south-westerly breeze. Just at sundown the weather-god, repenting of
his frown, bestowed a glorious benediction.

All afternoon a damp pall had overhung the Island, mopping up feeble
sounds and strangely muffling the stronger. Now it was translated.
Lifting so that the summits only of the hills were capped, the haze (for
it became nothing more) assumed a luminous yellow saffron suffused with
sage green. Against this singularly lovely, ample "cloth" branches and
leaves of steadfast trees stood out in high relief. All the lower levels
became transparently clear, the definition of distant objects magically
sharpened, spaces translucent. In a sea which shone like polished silver
the islet was a gem--green enamel, amethyst rocks, golden sand. The bold
white trunks of giant tea-trees glowed; the creamy blooms of bloodwoods
were as flecks of snow; the tips of the fronds of coco-nut palms
flickered vividly as burnished steel; the white-painted house assumed
speckless purity. All light colours were heightened; ruddy browns and
sombre greens seemed to have been smartened up by touches of fresh paint
and varnish. An idealistic artist had revealed for once living tints and
uncomprehended hues.

Was it not a landscape fresh from Nature's brush. divinely transmogrified
by one bold smudge of yellow-green haze? Or was the effect partly due to
the dust raised by the golden fringe of the blue mantle which the sun
trailed over the glowing hills? I know naught of the chemistry of colours,
nor why this yellow-green medium should so clarify and etherealise the
atmosphere. But was ever clear sunset half so affecting? This tinted,
luminous cloud had bewitched the commonplace, converting familiar
surroundings into fairyland itself. If all the world's a stage, this truly
was one of the rarest transformation scenes.

What was about to happen? Surely this mysterious colouring portended some
astounding phenomena? Again, nothing did happen, save a stilly night and
grey.


VEGETATION AND MOISTURE


It seems fitting and quite safe to point a moral, by allusion to certain
conditions prevalent during 1907. Between January 1st and June 30th
80.80 inches of rain were registered. July, August, September, and October
provided only 1.74 inches, which quantity bespeaks quite a phenomenal
draught. The catchment area of the creek which discharges into Brammo Bay
is less than forty acres, and for the most part consists of exceedingly
steep declivities. The head of the creek is seven hundred feet above
sea level, and its total length less than three-quarters of a mile. Yet,
notwithstanding the circumscribed extent of the catchment, the steep,
in places almost precipitous, descents, and that for months the rain was
insufficient to cause a surface flow, the creek which had cut a gully or
canyon forty feet deep across the plateau, never ceased running, the
turbulence of the wet season having merely subsided into a tinkling
trickle. During the dry period the atmosphere was the reverse of humid;
but the almost impenetrable shield of vegetation--the beauty and glory of
the Island--discounted loss by evaporation. One can well imagine that in
the absence of this gracious protection the creek would cease to flow a
week or so after the cessation of rain.

The marked but consistent decrease of water in the creek by day and its
rise during the night having excited interest, a series of measurements
was taken, the result being somewhat astonishing. One day's readings
will suffice, for scarcely any variation from them was recorded for
weeks, concurrent meteorological conditions undergoing no sudden or
decided change while the experiment was in progress:

Sunday, November 10, 1907.

                        Inches.
6.30 a.m.               10 1/4
9     "                 10
Noon (high tide)         6 5/8
3 p.m.                   3
5.30 p.m.                1 1/2
6.10   " (sundown)       1 1/2
7.10  "                  3 7/8
9     "                 10 1/8


At 7 a.m. on the 11th and 12th the water stood at 10 1/4 inches and I
assume that to have been the constant level throughout the night.

The conclusion I draw (rightly or wrongly) from the fact emphasised by
these figures is that the mass of vegetation exercises a direct and
immediate effect upon the flow of water by gravitation from the
catchment. A continual and increasing demand for refreshment existing
during the day, the root spongioles are in active operation intercepting
the moisture in its descent and absorbing it, while with the lessening of
the temperature on the going down of the sun reaction begins, the stomata
of the leaves exercise their functions, and by the absorption of gas
react on the root films, which for the time relax their duty of arresting
the passage of minute particles of water, with a very definite result on
the nocturnal flow.


THE ODOUR OF THE DEATH ADDER


February 2, 1909.

Whenever I take my walks abroad I have the companionship of a couple of
Irish terriers, enthusiastic hunters of all sorts of "vermin," from the
jeering scrub fowl, which they never catch, to the slothful, spiny
ant-eater, which they are counselled not to molest. Lizards and
occasionally snakes are disposed of without ceremony, though in the case
of the snakes the tactics of the dogs are quite discreet. Several years
ago the dogs (not those which now faithfully attend my walks, for more
than one generation has passed away) attracted attention by yapping
enthusiastically. I flatter myself that I understand the language of my
own dogs sufficiently to enable me to judge when they have detected
something demanding my co-operation in the killing. When assistance is
needed, there are notes of urgent appeal in their exclamations. As a
rule my opinion is not asked in respect of lizards, or rats, or the like;
but snakes are invariably held up until an armed force arrives.

On the occasion referred to I found them in a frenzy of excitement,
feinting and snapping at something sheltering at the base of a tussock of
grass. Peering closely, I saw, half concealed beneath grass, sand, and
leaves, what I took to be a death adder, which I summarily shot. Then it
became apparent that the dogs had blundered, for the reptile was a
lizard. The mistake in identity, was, however, excusable, for in size,
shape, colouring, and marking it so closely resembled an adder that I was
not readily convinced to the contrary. Placing the two pieces into which
the shot had divided the creature in juxtaposition, I sympathised with
the dogs more strongly, feeling certain that no one would have hesitated
to give the harmless lizard a very bad character. Before firing the fatal
shot the distention of the body had confirmed my opinion as to identity,
and the method of partial concealment and of lying inert were significant
of the dangerous little snake. I had no doubt at the time, too, that it
emitted a deceptive odour, which, being similar to that of the adder, had
been chiefly instrumental in exciting extraordinary suspicion on the part
of the terriers.

Dogs of another generation were concerned in a repetition of this
experience in its significant details more recently. Having crossed a
creek ahead, frantic appeals were made, but before I could reach the spot
the excitement got beyond bounds, and I saw one of them snap up
something, shake it viciously, and toss it away with every manifestation
of repugnance and caution. Again I presumed the squirming reptile to be
an adder, for the dogs, with bristling backs and uplifted lips, walked
round it gingerly, sniffing and starting as if it were most fearsome and
detestable. The bulk of the reptile gradually subsided, confirming the
opinion that the dog had actually killed an adder, a feat I had never
known it perform. Investigation again proved that an innocent lizard
parading as an offensive snake had lost its life. Does not this evidence
suggest that the lizard assumes the similitude and the odour of the
adder, its tactics of concealment, and its characteristic habit of
puffing itself out in order to warn off its foes? The spontaneous,
unsuborned, and independent evidence of two sets of dogs cannot be wholly
disregarded.

Testimony confirmatory of the contention that adders do diffuse a
specific odour, too subtle for man's perception though readily detectable
by the sensitive faculties of lower animals, and that such odour
affrights and therefore protects them from the reptiles, is contained in
Captain Parker Gillmore's work, "The Great Thirst Land." Having killed a
small specimen of the horned adder--the "poor venomous fowl" with which
Cleopatra ended her gaudy days--and having handled it to examine the
poison glands and returned to his pony, he writes: "As soon as I
advanced my hand to his head-stall to reverse the reins over his head, he
shied back as if in great alarm, and it required some minutes before he
would permit me to closely approach. The reason of this conduct in so
staid and proper-minded an animal is obvious. In handling the adder some
of the smell attached to its body must have adhered to my hands."

When four dogs and one horse, all apparently honourable and well brought
up, agree on such a point, to theorise to the contrary would be
ungracious.


NEPTUNE'S HANDICRAFT


February 16, 1909.

An easterly breeze coincident with a flowing tide occasionally (though
not invariably) creates a gentle swirl in Brammo Bay, a swirl so placid
as to be imperceptible in default of such indices as driftwood. Under
such a condition Neptune makes playthings which possibly in some future
age may puzzle men who happen to ponder seriously on first causes. I
recall an afternoon when such playthings were being manufactured
abundantly. Globular, oval, and sausage-shaped dollops of dark-grey mud
were twirling and rolling on the fringe of listless wavelets. The
uniformity of the several models and their apparent solidity excited
curiosity. Upon investigation all the large examples were more or less
coated with sand. Some were so completely and smoothly enveloped that
they appeared to be actual balls of sand and shell grit. The mass,
however, was found to be mud mixed with fine sand, with generally a
shell or portion thereof, or a fragment of coral as a kernel or core. In
fact, each of the dollops was a fair sample of the material of the ocean
floor extending from the inner edge of the coral to the beach.

With so many samples in view one could observe the whole process of
formation. The crescentic sweep of the wavelets rolled fragments of shell
or coral in the mud, successive revolutions adding to the respective
bulks by accretion. As the tide rose each piece was trundled on to the
sloping beach, to be rolled and compressed until coated with a mosaic of
white shell chips, angularities of silica and micaceous spangles, the
finished article being cast aside as the tide receded.

Sometimes the wavelets did the kneading and rolling so clumsily that the
nodule was malformed, but the majority were singularly symmetrical,
evidencing nice adjustment between the degree of adhesiveness of the
"pug" and the applied force of the wave. Several weighed nearly a quarter
of a pound, while the majority were not much bigger than marbles, and the
oval was the most frequent form.

Is it reasonable to conjecture that some of these singular formations
which Neptune turned out by the score during an idle afternoon may be
preserved--kernels of sedimentary rock each in a case of sandstone--
throughout the wreck of matter to form the texts of scientific
homilies in ages to come?


THE ATROCITY OF THE SNAKE


September 28, 1909.

A red snake discovered in a coop with a hen and clutch of chicks. The
coop had been deemed snake-proof, but the slim snake had easily passed in
at the half-inch mesh wire-netting in front. Upon investigation it was
found that the snake had swallowed one chick (and had thereby become a
prisoner), had killed three others and maimed a fifth so that it died,
and that the hen had killed the snake by pecking its head. The snake (a
non-venomous species) was about a yard long and had killed the chicks by
constriction. If snakes are in the habit of killing more than they can
eat of the broods of wild birds, how enormous the toll they take!




CHAPTER XVIII



INSECT WAYS


    "Some day ere I grow too old to think I trust to be
    able to throw away all pursuits, save natural history,
    and to die with my mind full of God's facts instead
    of men's lies."--CHARLES KINGSLEY.

August 2, 1909.

A lanky grasshopper with keeled back and pointed prow flew before me,
settling on a leaf of blady grass, at once became fidgety and restless;
flew to another blade and was similarly uneasy. It was bluff in colour
with a narrow longitudinal streak of fawn, while the blades of grass
whereon it rested momentarily were green. Each time it settled it
adjusted itself to the blade of grass, became conscious of discomfort or
apprehensive of danger, and sought another. Presently it settled on a
yellowing leaf, the tints of which exactly corresponded with its own. The
longitudinal streak became absorbed in the midrib of the blade, and the
insect rested secure in its invisibility. The event demonstrated the
purpose of its previous restlessness.


CARNIVOROUS WASPS


October 6, 1909.

This morning the soda siphon (which had not been used for a couple of
days) refused duty, owing to a plug of terra-cotta-coloured clay.
Upon the spout being probed the gush of gas expelled a quantity of
clay and thirty-five small spiders, representative of about six
different species. The spout had been converted into a nursery and
larder by a carnivorous wasp, for in addition to the moribund spiders
stored for the sustenance of future grubs were several unhatched
eggs. Such wasps are exceedingly common, some building "nests" as
large as a tea-cup, the last compartment being fitted with an
elegantly fashioned funnel, the purpose of which is not obvious.
If these nests are broken up, after the hatching out, the grubs are
found-several in each compartment--feasting on the comatose spiders
or caterpillars stored for their refreshment. Others of the species build
a series of nests, detached or semi-detached, and shaped in resemblance
to Greek amphora. Another species selects hollows in wood in which the
eggs and insects are scaled. The larger wasps are not fearful of
attacking so-called tarantulas, one sting rendering them paralytic.


November 10 1909.

Blue has a decided fascination for the bloodsucking "March" flies. In
the "blue" tub of the laundry hundreds are lured to suicide, while the
other tubs alongside count no voluntary victims. Blue clothing attracts
scores, whereas the effect of any other colour is normal upon the
appreciative sense of the flies. I am not well assured whether an attack
of the "humph"--"the humph which is black and blue"--is not also
diagnosed by the contemplative insects and forthwith attended to.
Certainly if one has the misfortune to have become associated for the
time being with devils of cerulean hue, the company of the flies seems
all the more persistent and provocative of vexation. Imagination reels
before the consequences of a blue costume, "all's blue," and the thrice
intensified attacks of the indolent but persevering blood-suckers.


November 16, 1909.

Found a flat hairy spider, about 1 in. in diameter of body, mottled pale
brown and grey, brooding over a flat egg capsule almost of the same tints
as itself. It was on the trunk of the jack fruit tree, and so closely
resembles the egg-capsule produced by contiguous fungi as to be
absolutely invisible unless the gaze happened to be concentrated on the
spot. No doubt in my mind that the similitude of the spider, together
with its egg-capsule, to the adjacent discs of fungi enabled it to escape
detection. When disturbed the spider whisked into absolute invisibility.
I inspected the trunk of the tree for several minutes before I found it,
within six inches of its original resting-place, perfectly still, acting
the part of an obscure vegetable.


TARANTULAS AND TARANTISMUS


A few months ago I read in a text-book a dogmatic assertion to the effect
that the so-called tarantulas were perfectly innocent of venom, and
formidable only to the insects on which they prey. The great,
good-tempered fellow, as uncouth in its hairiness as Nebuchadnezzar
during his lamentable but salutary attack of boanthropy, is regarded with
a good deal of suspicion, if not dread, though it pays for its lodging by
reason of its large appetite, which latter statement seems
self-contradictory. To satisfy its pangs of hunger it captures numbers of
small insects which, willy nilly, tenant our homes.

In well-ordered establishments the aid of a tarantula or two in the
suppression of insignificant undesirable creatures should, it might be
argued, be unnecessary. Indeed, does not the presence of a fat, flat
fellow lurking behind a rafter or in some gloomy corner, ever ready to
seize cockroach or beetle, imply lack of order? Yet I have known homes
where the tarantula was an honoured, if not a petted, lodger. When it had
cleared one room it was coaxed on to a card and thereon transported to
the next, and so it went the rounds. The children were wont to say that
it knew its carriage, and would sidle on it whenever it was presented. To
those of us who live in the bush, and who suffer fresh incursions almost
every hour of the day, the help of a long-limbed, obese-bodied spider
whose docility is beyond question, whose non-poisonous character is
vouched for by high authorities, is by no means unwelcome.

But in spite of negative knowledge I have had my suspicions that the
tarantula was not altogether wholesome in his anger, and now I have proof
in support of my doubts. In a cool, dark cavity under a log in the bush
were two huge representatives of the race. Each had its own compartment,
a smooth, worn gallery, and they appear to have been on good terms until
the moment of disturbance, for which each seemed to blame the other. They
fought. It was a very brief, casual, and unentertaining encounter; but
in less than half a minute one was dead, shrivelled and shrunk as though
fire had passed over it. As no dismemberment or wound was apparent, I
was fairly well satisfied that poison, very rapid in its effect, was at
the service of the tarantula when its anger was aroused.

The next fact settled the point. Tom, the black boy, felt a nip on the
arm as he put on a clean shirt an evening or two ago, and, reversing the
sleeve, found a tarantula. Blood was oozing from two tiny incisions, the
space between which was slightly raised. For two days Tom suffered pain
in the arm, which became slightly swollen, headache, and great
uneasiness.

Reading my text-book, I found that the original tarantula spider (from
which the Australian species are misnamed) is so called from the town of
Tarentum, in Italy. Among the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood
it was a deeply-rooted belief that if any one was bitten by a tarantula
he would be instantly inflicted with a singular disease known as
tarantismus, which exhibited itself in two extremes, the one being a
profound and silent melancholy and the other a continual convulsive
movement of the whole body. It was thought that this disease could only
be cured by music, and that a certain tune was needful in each particular
case. This was the legend.

It will be remembered that among the tales told by "a great traveller" to
Pepys was one on the subject of the tarantula. He says that all the
harvest long (about which time they are most busy) there are fiddlers go
up and down the fields everywhere in expectation of being hired by
those who are stung.

Of the disease there is no doubt, and that it could be cured by dancing
stimulated by music is a natural conclusion. Each patient indulged in
long and violent exercise, which produced profuse perspiration; he then
fell exhausted, slept calmly, and awoke cured.

For the best part of a day Tom lay stretched on his face in the sun. Like
David the psalmist, he refused to be comforted. A profound and silent
melancholy subdued the wandering spirit which invariably manifests
itself on Sunday. He just "sweated out" the day he usually devotes to
hunting, and on Monday was himself again, save for a greyish blue tinge
encircling each of the little wounds on his arm.

Though it is certain that the tarantula of Italy and the spider which
robbed Tom of his Sunday are of different species, yet one is struck by
the similarity of the toxic effects of the bite with that of the
manifestations of the disease of tarantismus. The fact that after a good
sweating--hot sand and unshaded sun are fairly active sudorifics--all
untoward effects (physical and mental) passed away seems to suggest close
intimacy between the symptoms of the poison of tarantula and the disease.

I do not apologise for thus gravely recording an incident of the bush
which has neither humour nor romance to recommend it, because I think,
friendly as I am to the "tarantula," the truth--the whole truth and
nothing but the whole truth--should be told about him. Like the pet
pussy-cat, "if you don't hurt him he'll do you no harm"; but put him
in a tight corner and offer him violence and he will heroically defend
himself and be very nasty about it. Having studied Tom's demeanour while
under the effects of the poison, I am satisfied that if one desires a
visit from "divinest melancholy" without any of the thrills of poetry,
let him provoke an angry tarantula to assault him. All "vain, deluding
joys" will pass away, and for twenty-four hours he will be as dull as a
log, and as sweatful as a fat Southerner in a canefield.

The local name of the house-haunting "tarantula," though befitting and
unique, imposes a singularly slight strain upon the resources of the
alphabet. What combination of eight letters could be softer and more
coaxing? And yet the startled Eves of Dunk Island were wont not only to
specialise the spider but to shriek out affright at its unexpected
presence by the exclamation "Oo-boo-boo!"

To prove that the "Oo-boo-boo" is not always victorious in the fights
which take place in the dark, let me tell of a combat between a giant
and a slim-waisted orange and black wasp. The latter buzzed about
angrily, and, following up a feint, stung the "Oo-boo-boo," which became
nerveless on the instant and fell. As it was all too heavy to fly away
with, the wasp dragged it along the ground with much labour and incessant
fuss. The terra-cotta larder was in a hollow log, and only after immense
exertions and many failures was the limp carcass tugged to the spot. Then
there was more buzzing than ever, for the wasp discovered that its prey
was many sizes too large for the clay compartment prepared for it. No
amount of trampling and shoving of the limp tarantula was of any avail.
Several minutes elapsed before the obvious fact dawned upon the baffled
insect. Then it abandoned its efforts at compression, and with many loads
of moist clay moulded a special compartment in which the tarantula, still
in a state of suspended animation, was snugly stowed.

Just one more. A wasp dropped on the bench a few inches from my nose--a
tiny wasp with a rollicking gait. Closer inspection showed half a wasp
only. It had been neatly severed at the delicate waist and on the thatch
above was an Oo-boo-boo--a big Oo-boo-boo--and it seemed to me to be
beaming with that broad, self-satisfied expression that the cat wears
when it has eaten the canary.




CHAPTER XIX



INTELLIGENT BIRDS


I.  A BIRD SCOUT

Among those birds of North Queensland jungles which have marked
individualistic characters is that known as the koel cuckoo, which the
blacks of some localities have named "calloo-calloo"--a mimetic term
imitative of the most frequent notes of the bird. The male is lustrous
black, the female mottled brown, and during most parts of the year both
are extremely shy, though noisy enough in accustomed and quiet haunts.
The principal note of the male is loud, ringing, and most pleasant, but
its vocabulary is fairly extensive. Sometimes it yelps loud and long like
a puppy complaining of a smart whipping, sometimes in the gloom of the
evening it moans and wails pitifully like an evil thing tortured mentally
and physically, sometimes it announces the detection of unwelcome
intruders upon its haunts with a blending of purr and hiss.

When "calloo-calloo" comes to the islands, resident blacks look to the
flowering of the bean-tree, for the events are coincident; while as they
understand all its vocal inflections an important secret is often
revealed to them by noisy exclamations. Living in flowerland among the
tops of the trees, the bird is favourably located for the discovery of
snakes, but being strong and lusty there is reason to believe that the
presence of slim green and grey arboreal species is ignored. The
important office that it holds in the domestic economy of the blacks is
in the detection of carpet snakes, which to them form an ever welcome
article of diet. Thus when "calloo-calloo" shouts "snake" in excited,
chattering phrases they run off in the hope of being able to find the
game, and generally one suffices to rid the bird of a deceitful and
implacable enemy and to provide the camp with a substantial meal.

A few months ago a friend who owns a fruitful estate fronting one of the
rivers of the mainland, who was not aware of the aptitude of the bird,
was working with his blacks when "calloo-calloo" gave voice. "That's one!"
exclaimed Dilly Boy, as he rushed into a thick patch of jungle; "he
bin lookout snake!" The boss, concluding that Dilly Boy had merely
invented a plausible excuse for a spell, smiled to himself when he came
back in half an hour wearing an air of philosophic disappointment. "That
fella snake along a tree; bin lookout; too much leep [leaf]. That
calloo-calloo, him sing out proper. Him no more humbug!"

Huge carpet snakes frequently coil themselves so carefully among
parasitic ferns and orchids in the trees that it is impossible to detect
them from below. A couple of days after work was proceeding in the same
locality when a snake, 12 feet long, was found and killed, but the fact
was then not accepted as proof of the theory of the blacks. In the course
of a few days the bird again proclaimed "snake," and all the blacks
hastened to the spot to set about a systematic search. Applying the
detective principle of isolation to various parts of the tree in which by
general consent (corroborating the evidence of the bird) the snake was
concluded to be, the blacks at last decided that the only possible place
of concealment was a mass of elk's-horn fern encircling the trunk about
40 feet from the ground. One of them thereupon climbed the tree, and soon
a carpet snake, 14 feet 6 inches long and 12 inches in girth, was
writhing on the ground. It is well known that these snakes are frequently
found in pairs, and no doubt the "calloo-calloo" had signified the
presence of the mate on the occasion of the first alarm.

Other instances of the shrewdness of the bird and its care for the
wellbeing of the order generally by detecting and proclaiming the
presence of the universal enemy might be cited. One authority asserts
that the bird and the snake are nearly always found together, and seems
to imply that a friendship exists between them, for the bird is referred
to as a "messmate" of the snake. "The bird," he writes, "flies over
the snake with a 'clucky' chirp, and whenever the natives hear it in
the dense scrubs they sneak in to discover the reptile, which is caught
by being grabbed at the back of the head."

In heralding the flower of the bean-tree, and thus awakening thoughts of
the beans, and in indicating snakes (both desirable and indeed essential
articles of food), the "calloo-calloo" performs such valuable service
that it is highly commended. Those who are familiar with the unreflective
omnivority of the blacks and their indelicate appetites generally, may
with difficulty credit the fact that in those districts in which the bird
is recognised as a trustworthy guide it is honoured, and under no
circumstances will they kill it. Of course, the blacks of North
Queensland in native worth have not much art in the killing of birds, but
in every case "calloo-calloo" is tabu.

One instance may be quoted. A great outcry was heard on the edge of the
jungle, and upon investigation a grey falcon and a "calloo-calloo" were
found in such preoccupied "holts" that both were captured. Here was an
opportunity for a meal. The birds were parted, and the falcon given over
to the custody of a gin for execution, while the "calloo-calloo," which
was dazed, was petted and revived until it at last flew away with a glad
call, the blacks assuring a witness, "B'mbi that fella look out snake
belong me fella!"


II.  DO BIRDS PLAY?


A somewhat too rigorous critic of the antics of birds has expressed the
opinion that playfulness is unknown among them, that their occasional
friskiness is not an exhibition of lightness of heart, but merely a
martial exercise. The corroboree of native companions (ANTIGONE
AUSTRALASIANA) may certainly be the practice of a defensive manoeuvre,
though it has the appearance of a graceful dance. A partially disabled
bird will pirouette on tiptoes and flap its wings wildly in the face of
its foe, and it is reasonable to imagine that the great birds in
community would keep themselves well trained in their particular methods
of self-defence.

A flock of dotterels bobbing, bowing, skipping, and shouldering one
another may be merely practising some evolution with serious intent,
though it is far more natural to conclude that the frail little birds
are in holiday humour. For all their exercises, they have but one resort
in the presence of a superior foe or an alert single enemy, and that is
in hasty and inconsiderate flight.

From my own experience may be drawn proof of the contention that birds do
practise defensive and offensive tactics, and also that they have their
moments of unreflecting play.

The cassowary (CASUARIUS AUSTRALIS) is a skilful fighter. It hits out
with such force and precision that a weaponless man who stands before the
bird when it is angry and vicious is ridiculously overmatched. The great
bird is so quick that you do not realise that it has got its blow in
first until you see the blood flow. It strikes with its middle toe, and
that toe is a lance, keen if not bright. How does the regal bird of the
jungles of North Queensland acquire this lightning-like stroke? The
answer is, by constant and intelligent practice while young. A year or
two ago I had frequent opportunities for observing a pair of young
cassowaries patiently, yet playfully, performing martial exercises. They
were about the size of a full grown bustard (say, 28 lb. weight); but if
their bulk had been in ratio to their lightheartedness and playfulness,
they would have loomed large as bullocks.

Their favourite spot was round and about a stout post about three feet
high, the ground encircling which had been beaten down by constant use to
polished smoothness. That the ruling passion of the young birds during
their idle hours was determination to acquire skill and alertness there
can be no doubt. Invariably the game began in a particular way. One of
the pair striding round the post--apparently oblivious of its
existence--would lurch against it as a man inspired with rum might treat a
lamp-post intent on getting in his way. Leering at the post for a second,
the bird would march round again to shoulder it roughly a second time.
Then a queer look of simulated petulance and indignation would spread
over its features, and, taking in its measure, the bird would lash out at
the post with grim earnestness. A cyclonic attack ensued. With many
feints and huddling up of its neck, and dodges, and ducks, and lateral
movements of the head quick as thought, the post was chastised for its
insolence and stolid stupidity. It seemed to be hit in several places at
one and the same moment. Its features bore ever increasing scores and
furrows, for it was used for hours every day as a punching-ball.

When one bird grew tired the other imitated most laughably the antics of
its brother, first ignoring the presence of the post, and then, having
lurched dreamily against it, assaulting it with unrestrained fury. Play
and significant offensive tactics were undoubtedly blended in the
pastimes of the cassowary.

Before the boldest of these birds grew to maturity it became such an
expert boxer and so pugnacious and truculent that it was declared unfit
to be at large, and as the State offered no secure asylum the death
penalty was pronounced and duly carried into effect. By good luck I
happened along before all the roast leg had been disposed of, and in
spite of testimony to the contrary have pleasure in declaring that,
notwithstanding the heroic training to which the youthful bird had
subjected itself, the flesh was as tender and as gamey as that of a young
plain turkey.

The other case in point may be briefly cited. While yet young there came
into our possession a magpie (GYMNORHINA TIBICEN), to which as soon as it
was fit for responsibilities full liberty was cheerfully granted.
Breakfast, several tiffens, lunches, and afternoon snacks, and a full
evening's dinner was provided. The dish of scraps was always available.
At will the pet flew in and out of the kitchen, and if by chance food was
not spread out at the accustomed place it protested loudly, and always
effectively. Although a large quantity of food was self-earned, there was
always a substantial meal in reserve.

The bird spent many wayward hours endeavouring to sing. No cultured
relative was present to teach the notes of its kind, so that in default
it learned the complete vocabulary of the domestic poultry, besides the
more familiar calls and exclamations of its mistress, the varied barks of
two dogs, the shrieks of many cockatoos, the gabble of scrub fowls.

The bird also began to play in semi-human style, performing marvellous
acrobatic feats on the clothes-line, and lying on its back juggling with
a twig as some "artists" do with a barrel in the circus. A white-eared
flycatcher took up its abode near the house, and the magpie, after a
decent lapse of time, admitted the stranger to its companionship. The
wild, larderless bird, however, had little time to play. All its wit and
energies were devoted to the serious business of life. It knew none of
the games that the magpie invented save one, and that was a kind of
aerial "peep-bo" to which the brainier bird lured it by means of a
prize.

The magpie found a moth, big of abdomen, fat, and brown, a tempting
morsel to any insectivorous bird. Envious of the dainty, the wagtail
fluttered and skipped about the magpie with cheerful chatter; but the
fluttering moth, daintily held by the extremity of its body, was
alternately presented and denied. They danced about a bush, the magpie
tantalisingly holding the moth for acceptance and hopping off as the
wagtail was about to snatch it. To the tame bird, fortified by knowledge
that its meals were provided, it was all fun. To the hungry wild one the
moth dangled temptingly before it and whipped disappointingly away was a
meal almost to be fought for. It was a game equally sincere but of varied
interest. The one assumed a whimsical air, chuckling in encouraging
tones; the other took it all in earnest.

At last, unable to restrain an exclamation of delight, the magpie
unwarily slackened its hold, and the moth fluttered off to be snapped up
on the instant by the wild bird and gulped without ceremony. After this
the game was frequently played, but the magpie had invariably to make it
worth the while of the wagtail by offering a prize in the shape of some
tit-bit.

Do not these cases support the theories that birds sharpen their
faculties by the exercise of defensive and offensive tactics, and also
that they do indulge in irresponsible play?


III.  BIRDS WHICH HAVE REASONED


If one begins to reflect upon the mental attributes of inferior animals,
how aptly is evidence in support of a favourite theory presented? Are
the actions of birds due to automatic impulses or hereditary traits? Is
instinct merely "lapsed intelligence," or do birds actually reflect? Are
they capable of applying the results of habit and observations in respect
of one set of circumstances to other and different conditions? John
Burroughs expresses the opinion that birds have perceptions, but not
conceptions; that they recognise a certain fact, but are incapable of
applying the fact to another case. I am almost convinced that some birds
are capable of logical actions under circumstances absolutely new to
them, and as a bright and shining affirmation quote "Baal Burra."

Beautiful in appearance, for it was what is generally known as a blue
mountain parrot (red-collared lorikeet), its cleverness and affectionate
nature were far more engaging than all the gay feathers. It came as the
gift of a human derelict, who knew how to gain the confidence of dumb
creatures, though society made of him an Ishmaelite. Vivacious, noisy,
loving the nectar of flowers and the juices of fruits, Baal Burra was
phenomenal in many winsome ways, but in a spirit of rare self denial
I refrain from the pleasure of chronicling some of them in order to
give place to instance and proof of the reasoning powers of an
astonishingly high order.

Are apologies to be offered, too, for the homeliness of the example--its
unrelieved domesticity? I must begin at the very beginning lest some
necessary point be lost, and the beginning is porridge! A small portion
was invariably left for Baal Burra. On the morning of this strange
history a miniature lagoon, irregular in shape, of porridge and milk had
settled in the very centre of the dry desert of plate. In response to
customary summons to breakfast, Baal Burra skipped along the veranda. It
was a daily incident, and no one took particular notice until unusual
exclamations on the part of the bird denoted something extraordinary. By
circumnavigating the plate and at the same time stretching its neck to
the utmost it had contrived to convert the shapeless lagoon into a
perfectly symmetrical pond just out of the reach of the stubby tongue.
Hence the scolding. Three witnesses--each ardently on the side of the
bird--watched intently. Decently mannered, it refused to clamber on to the
edge of the plate, for it was ever averse from defilement of food. The
tit-bit was just beyond avaricious exertions--just at that tantalising
distance and just so irresistibly desirable as might be directly
stimulative of original enterprise towards acquirement.

The chatter and abuse continued for a couple of minutes. Then the bird
stood still while seeming to reflect, with wise head askew after the
manner of other thinkers. Hurrying, to its playthings--which happened to
be at the far end of the veranda--it selected a matchbox, dragged it
clatteringly along, ranged it precisely close to the plate, mounted it,
and from the extra elevation sipped the last drop with a chuckle of
content. That the bird on deliberation conceived the scheme for
over-reaching the coveted food I have not the slightest doubt.

Baal Burra bestowed frank friendship on a fat, good-humoured, yellow cat,
fond of luxury and ease during the day, a "rake-helly" prowler at
night. Into Sultan's fur Baal Burra would burrow, not without occasional
result, if the upbraiding tongue was to be believed. Baal Burra would
fill its lower mandible with water from a drinking dish and tip it neatly
into the cat's ear, and scream with delight as Sultan shook his sleepy
head. To dip the tip of the cat's tail into the water and mimic the
scrubbing of the floor was an everyday pastime. In addition to being an
engineer and a comedian the bird was also a high tragedian. In the cool
of the evening upon the going down of the sun the cat and the bird would
set out together to the accustomed stage. Baal Burra burrowing through
the long grass, painfully slow and cheeping plaintively, while Sultan
stalked ahead mewing encouragingly. The tragedy, which was in one act,
was repeated so often that each became confidently proficient, while the
setting--free from the constraints of space--helped towards that degree of
deception which is the highest form of art. Often we feared lest Sultan,
carried away by enrapt enthusiasm, would unwittingly sustain his part
even to the lamentable though natural DÉNOUEMENT. Baal Burra was, of'
course, the engaging and guileless victim, while Sultan, with triumphant
realism, rehearsed a scene ruthlessly materialised elsewhere.

Climbing into a low-growing bush, Baal Burra would become preoccupied,
innocently absorbed in an inspection of the young shoots and tender
leaves which it seemed to caress. Assuming a ferocious mien, Sultan
approached soliloquising, no doubt, "Ah, here is another silly wild-fowl!
Come, let me indulge my bloodthirstiness!" His eyes glittered as he
crouched, his tail thickened and swayed, his ears were depressed, his
whiskers and nose twitched, his jaws worked, his claws were unsheathed
and sheathed spasmodically as he crept stealthily towards the apparently
unconscious bird. After two or three preliminary feints for the perfect
adjustment of his faculties and pose, he bounded into the air with
distended talons well over his screeching playmate. The scene would be
rehearsed several times before Sultan, tired of mummery and eager for
actualities, slunk yawling into the bush, while Baal Burra, whimpering in
the dusk, waddled home to be caged.

Towards the further justification of the argument two cases in which
scrub fowl (MEGAPODIUS DUPERREYI TUMULUS) are concerned may be cited.
Being a previously recorded fact, the first is excusable only on the
grounds of its applicability to a debatable point.

1. On a remote spot in a very rough and rugged locality, hemmed in by
immense blocks of granite, is a large incubating mound. Save at one point
it is encompassed by rocks, but the opening does not grant facilities
for the accumulation of vegetable debris, yet the mound continually
increases in dimensions. At first glance there seems no means by which
such a large heap could have been accumulated. for the birds do not carry
their materials, but kick and scratch them to the site. A hasty survey
shows that the birds have taken advantage of the junction of two
impending rocks which form a fortuitous shoot down which to send the
rubbish with the least possible exertion on their part. The shoot is
always in use, for the efficacy of the mound depends upon the heat
generated by actually decaying vegetation. Did the birds think out this
simple labour-saving method before deciding on the site for the mound, or
was it a gracious afterthought--one of those automatic impulses by which
Nature confronts difficulties?

2. As I wandered on the hilltops far from home I was astonished when Tom,
the cutest of black boys, dropped on his knees to investigate a crevice
between two horizontal slabs of granite filled with dead leaves and loam.
The spot, bare of grass, was about twenty yards from the edge of a fairly
thick, low-growing scrub where scrub fowls are plentiful. I was inclined
to smile when he said, "Might be hegg belonga scrub hen sit down!" He
scooped out some of the rubbish--the crevice was so narrow that it barely
admitted his arm--and finally dug a hole with his fingers fully fourteen
inches deep, revealing an egg, pink with freshness.

A more unlikely spot for a scrub fowl to lay, could hardly be imagined.
There was no mound, the crevice being merely filled flush, and the
vegetable rubbish packed between the flat rocks did not appear to be
sufficient in quantity to generate in its decay the temperature necessary
to bring about incubation. Yet the egg was warm, and upon reflecting that
the sun's rays keep the granite slabs in the locality hot during the day,
so hot, indeed, that there is no sitting down on them with comfort, I
perceived that here was evidence on which to maintain an argument of rare
sagacity on the part of the bird, and that the hypothesis might be thus
stated: This cool-footed cultivator of the jungle floor had during the
casual rambling on sunlit spaces become conscious of the heat of the
rocks. Being impressed, she surveyed the locality, and of her deliberate
purpose selected a spot for the completion of her next ensuing maternal
duties which, while it scandalised the traditions of her tribe, presented
unrealised facilities.

This was a natural incubator, certainly, but superior to those in common
use in that the solar heat stored by the stone during the day rendered
superfluous any large accumulation of vegetable matter. Surely it is but
a short and easy step from the perception of solar heat to the conception
that such heat would assist in the incubation of eggs. None but a
mound-builder who, of course, must have general knowledge on the subject
of temperatures and the maintenance thereof, could conceive that these
heated rocks would obviate the labour of raking together a mass of
rubbish. Further, her inherent perception that moist heat due to the
fermentation was vital towards the fulfilment of her hopes of posterity
would avert the blunder of trusting to the dry rocks alone. The hot rocks
and a small quantity of decaying leaves stood in her case for a huge
mound, innocent of extraneous heat. Having, therefore more time to
scratch for her living, she would naturally become a more robust bird,
more attractive to the males, and the better qualified to transmit her
exceptional mental qualities to her more numerous offspring.

These are the bare facts. Let those who believe that birds are capable of
taking the step from the fact to the principle continue the trains of
thought into which they inevitably lead. Will this particular scrub fowl
by force of her accidental discovery start a revolutionary change in the
life-history of mound-builders generally? Or will the bird----? But there
are the facts to conjure or to play with.




CHAPTER XX



SWIFTS AND EAGLES


I.  A RARE NEST

Among the resident birds one of the most interesting from an
ornithological standpoint is that known as the grey-rumped swiftlet
(COLLOCALIA FRANCICA), referred to by Macgillivray as "a swallow which
Mr. Gould informs me is also an Indian species." That ardent naturalist
is, therefore, entitled to the credit of discovery. Sixty-one years had
passed since Macgillivray's visit, during which no knowledge of the
life-history of the bird which spends most of its time hawking for
insects in sunshine and shower had been revealed, when a fragment of a
nest adhering to the roof of a cave on one of the highest points of the
Island attracted attention. Submitted to an expert (Mr. A. J. Campbell,
of Melbourne, Victoria), the identity of the builder was guessed.
Subsequently I had the satisfaction of finding a colony close to the
water's edge, on the weather side, where the birds had frequently been
seen darting among blocks of granite almost obscured by jungle.

No nests were found in crevices deemed to be favourable spots, though
the predilection of the genus for gloom was appreciated, but upon the
exploration of a confined cave the excited flutterings of invisible birds
betrayed a hitherto well-kept secret. When my eyes became accustomed to
the dimness I saw that the roof of the cave (which is fairly smooth and
regular with an inclination of about thirty degrees) was studded with
nests. Fifty-three were placed irregularly about the middle of the roof,
some in pairs, none on the walls. Some were not quite finished; twenty
contained a single white egg each; none contained young. All were
adherent to the stone by a semi-transparent white substance resembling
isinglass, with which also the fine grass, moss, and fibre composing the
nests were consolidated. The vegetable material of the first fragmentary
nest (found September 17, 1908) was quite green and the gluten moist and
sticky. Those now described (two months later) were dry and tough, the
dimensions being 2 to 2˝ inches across and about ž inch deep. The cave is
only about 30 feet above high-water mark and the entrance the birds
favour is, strange to say, averse from the sea and much obscured by
leafage.

After the first fright the birds became quiet and confident. A young one
flew into my half-closed hand, and I detained it for a while and it
never struggled. Another tried to snoodle into the shirt-pocket of the
black boy who accompanied me. Several brushed against our faces. Clouds
partially obscured the sun and what with the screen of foliage and the
prevailing gloom of the cave we could not always distinguish the nests.
When the sun shone brightly all were plainly discernible, those with the
single pearly egg being quaintly pretty. As they flitted in and out of
the cave, the birds were as noiseless as butterflies save when they
wheeled to avoid each other. Those which were brooding, as they flitted
over the nests or clung to the edges, uttering a peculiar note hard to
vocalise. To my cars it sounded as a blending of cheeping, clinking, and
chattering, yet metallic, and not very unlike the hasty winding up of a
clock.

One bird flew to her nest a foot or so from my face and clung to it. To
test its timidity or otherwise I approached my face to within two inches,
but she continued to scrutinise me even at such close quarters with
charming assurance. Then I gently placed my hand over her. She struggled.
but not wildly, for a few seconds and then remained passive with bright
eyes glinting in the gloom. She was a dusky little creature, the
primaries, the back of the head, neck, the shoulders, and tail being
black, but when the wings were extended the grey fluff of the base of the
tail was conspicuous. After a few minutes I put her back on the nest,
and she clung, to it having no shyness or fear. I noticed that the beak
was very short, the gape very large, the legs dwarfed, and the toes
slender.

We remained in the cave for about half an hour, during which time the
birds came and went indifferent to our presence. As far as I am aware
members of the species never rest save in their headquarters, clinging to
the roof or the nests and never utter a sound except the reassuring,
prattle upon alighting on the edge of the nest. It was interesting to
note that while many young birds were fluttering about in the cave none
occupied a nest, and eggs were in successive stages of incubation, as
proved by appearance and test.

The fact that the nests of these swifts are cemented with coagulated
saliva establishes analogy with that other member of the family which
builds in the caves of frowning precipices near the sea, making edible
nests greatly appreciated by Chinese gourmands, some of whom maintain the
fantastic theory that the swift catches quantities of a small, delicately
flavoured fish which it exposes on rocks until desiccated, to be
afterwards compounded into nests. The ancients were wont to believe in
the existence of hostile mutuality between the swifts and the
bęche-de-mer, though they have little in common in respect of appearance,
attributes, and habits. If memory serves, one of the genera had the
specific title of HIRUNDO, founded on the faith that the swift, by flying
over the sea-slug exposed by receding tide, and vexing it by jeers,
caused it to exude glutinous threads which the swift seized and bore away
to its cave to be consolidated and moulded into a nest. To the fable was
appended a retributive moral, viz., that the bęche-de-mer occasionally
revenged itself by expelling such a complicated mass of gluten that it
became a net for the capture of the swift, which was slowly assimilated
by its enemy. The Chinese, it may be said, with but slight perversion of
fact, show equal partiality for the respective emblems of speed and
sloth.

Since the dates mentioned it has been ascertained by personal observation
that the breeding season of the swiftlet extends over four months,
during which probably four young are reared, each clutch being single.
The nests do not provide accommodation for more than one chick, which
before flight is obviously top large for its birthplace. Looking down
into the cave, the eggs well advanced towards incubation seem to have a
slight phosphorescent glow. The earliest date so far recorded of the
discovery of a newly laid egg is October 14th, but there is reason to
believe that the breeding season begins at least a month earlier. On
January 10th this year (1910) half the nests in the cave originally
described contained eggs, in most of which (judging by opacity)
incubation was far advanced, while in several were young birds, some
newly hatched, others apparently ready to depart from their gloomy,
foul-smelling quarters. These latter clung so determinedly to their nests
with needle-like toes that the force necessary to remove them would
certainly have caused injury.

It may be remarked that the breeding season of the nutmeg pigeon is also
protracted over a third of the year--from September to the end of
January, two or three single successive clutches being reared. The pigeon
is a visitor, the swift a resident.


II.  THREE FISHERS


At the outset it is almost incumbent to announce that this is not a fish
story. It is not even a story, though fish play a secondary part in it.
Therefore it should not make shipwreck of the faith of those who smile
and sniff whensoever a fish or a snake is informally introduced in print.
The imagination of some observers of the wonders of natural history
paints incidents so extravagantly that their illustrative value is
depreciated if not entirely distorted.

As I would wish to establish a sort of general confidence with any chance
reader of these lines who, like myself, finds no need for exaggeration
in the chronicling of observations, being well aware that Nature with the
ease of consummate art outwits the wisest and laughs at the blotches of
the boldest impressionist, it seems but common politeness to explain that
though the Island may be romantic, the art of romancing is alien from its
shores, albeit (as some one has hinted) that in imagination reverently
applied lies the higher truth.

The distance from the mainland is not so great as to deprive the Island
of generally distinctly Australian characteristics. It was, no doubt, in
the remote past, merely a steep and high range of hills separated from
other hills and mountains by plains and lagoons. Delicate land shells,
salt-hating frogs, and subtle snakes are among the living testifiers to
past connection with Australia, but while all the animals and nearly all
the birds native to the island are common on the mainland, several
mainland types are conspicuously absent.

If, therefore, the birds and mammals seem in these literal chronicles to
have little ways of their own, may they not owe obedience to true and
abiding circumstances--a kind of unavoidable fate--due to isolation? It
would indeed be singular if an island so long separated from Australia as
to possess no marsupial did not impress certain idiosyncrasies upon its
fauna and flora. It would be absurd to contend that. as a rule, the
untamed creatures carry any marks of distinction, but I have had the
opportunity of studying facts of which I have never been fortunate to
have confirmation either by reading or by "swapping lies" with other
students of Nature.

Occasionally when bewilderment has come I call to mind what Mrs. Jarley
said of her waxwork, and let the case pass: "I won't go so far as to
say that, as it is, I've seen waxwork quite like life but I've certainly
seen some life that was exactly like waxwork." When I see a crab not
easily distinguishable from a piece of sponge and a piece of sponge far
more like a crab generally than the crab, that unconsciously mimics it,
and possessing just as much apparent animation, I am content to be
tricked in many other ways by the good mother of us all.

Having ventured so far by way of preface, it is quite possible that the
reader may have concluded that something exceptionally marvellous is to
follow. Disappointment was inevitable from the first. The relation of
some of the quaint distinguishing traits of the Island fauna must be left
until the historian imagines that he has established a reputation for
subduing, rather than heightening, the tone of his facts. This
introduction has not a particular but a wide bearing.

Chief among the birds of prey are the osprey, the white-headed sea-eagle,
and the white-bellied sea-eagle. The great wedge-tailed eagle (eagle-hawk)
is a rare visitor, and is not a fisher. The others are resident and are
industrious practisers of the art which, according to their
interpretation, is anything but gentle. As they indulge in it, the sport
is so rough and boisterous and clumsy that one wonders that so many fish
should be caught. Each soars over the sea in circles at a height of
about 60 feet or 80 feet, and when fish are seen flies down and, plunging
into the water, seizes its prey with its talons. Unless the bird is
watched closely its attitudes while preparing for the downward cast and
during the descent are misunderstood. "And like a thunderbolt he falls"
is quite, according to local observations, an erroneous description of
the feat performed by the fishing eagle. Take as an example of the others
the actions of the noble bird the white-headed sea-eagle. As it circles
over the blue water its gaze is fixed and intent. Flight seems
automatic--steady, fairly swift, rippleless. Immediately a fish is
sighted, attitudes and poses become comparatively strained and awkward.
Flight is checked by the enormous brake-power of outspread tail, and
backward beating wing. The eagle poises over the spot, stretches out its
legs, and extends its talons to the utmost; flies down in a series of
zig-zags, and with the facial expression of the dirty boy undergoing the
torture of face-washing, plunges breast first with outstretched wings
with a mighty splash into the water. Disappearing for four or five
seconds, it finds it no easy task to rise with a two-pound mullet.

Splendid as the feat undoubtedly is, it does not coincide with the
description usually given. Have we not often been told of the headlong,
lightning like drop that almost baffles eyesight? The circumstance that
baffles is that fish are so unobservant or so slow that they do not
always, in place of sometimes, escape. For the excuse of the fish it must
be acknowledged that very few members of the tribe are fitted with eyes
for star-gazing. The eagle captures a dinner, not by the exercise of any
very remarkable fleetness or adaptiveness or passion for fishing, but
because of certain physical limitations on the part of the fish.


    "As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
    By sovereignty of nature."


The subserviency of fish to the osprey was noted by the ancients, who
attributed a fabulous power of fascination to the bird so that as it flew
over the ponds the fish "turned their glistering bellies up" that it
might take liberal choice. Certainly some limitation on the part of the
fish seems to operate in favour of the osprey, otherwise the clumsy
fisher would oft go hungry.

It goes against the grain to speak slightingly of the knightly,
white-headed sea-eagle--a friend and almost a companion; but as any one
may see that it fishes not for the sport but for the pot, and that the
plunge into the water is a shock that is dreaded, no injustice is done.
Some birds--and they the most graceful--seem to fish for sport alone. These
three fishers fish because, like Kipling's kangaroo, they have to--only
the kangaroo hopped.

Now, the white-headed sea-eagle, which seems, and with good reason, to be
proud of its ruddy back, appears to have no enemy of its kind. While the
osprey and the white-bellied sea-eagle fall out and chide and fight, it
looks down from some superior height and placidly watches the fish
trap, for though knightly it is not above accepting tribute, for it likes
fish though it hates fishing.

The great osprey seldom crosses the bay without a challenge from its
stealthy foe, the white-belly. The voices of both are alike in their
dissonance though different in quality and tone, and the smaller bird is
invariably the aggressor. This is how they fight, or rather engage in a
vulgar brawl which has in it a smack of tragedy. The osprey, with steady
beat of outstretched wing, flies "squaking" from its agile enemy, who
endeavours to alight on the osprey's back. Just as white-belly stretches
its talons for a grip among the osprey's feathers, the osprey turns--and
turns without a tremor in its long, sweeping wings--to shake hands with
white-belly. For a moment the huge bird rests on its back, silhouetted
against the luminous sky, to interlock talons with its nimble foe. But
white-belly is fully alive to the risk of getting "into hoults" with so
heavy a weight, for on the instant it swoops up with a harsh cry of rage
or disappointment. With but a single flap and no quiver of wing the
osprey rights itself and sails away (a methodic, unflurried flight) with
fleeter white-belly in pursuit, which when within striking distance
swoops again, to be faced by the grim, outstretched talons of the osprey,
who has turned in flight with machine-like precision. So swift and sudden
is the discreet upward swoop of the white-belly that it almost appears to
be a rebound after contact with the bigger bird. So the scrimmage, or, to
be exact, screamage, proceeds, for each party to it tells the whole
Island of its valour, and business stands still as the series of most
graceful, yet savage, aerial evolutions is repeated until the rivals are
blotted out by distance.

Once I saw a bunch of feathers fly from the osprey's back. The aerial
capsize had not been timed with accustomed accuracy. Weight told, and it
speedily shook itself free; but I am waiting for the day when, in
mid-air, the osprey and the white-bellied sea-eagle shall clasp hands. It
will be an exciting moment for the sea-eagle. The osprey is a cuter as
well as a heavier bird, and, in the phrase of the blacks, "That fella
carn let go!"

When the osprey comes skirting the hollows of the hills for cockatoos,
its hunger will be unsatisfied until, by elaborate and disdainful
manoeuvres, the cockatoos are induced to take flight. Perched on the top
of a tree, they may jeer in safety as long as they like; but let the
flock fly into the open and the osprey will be surprised if it does not
get one, and that which is singled out it follows "like a grim murderer
still steady to his purpose." Now is the time for this, greatest of the
three fishers, to, wax fat and become pompous, for its diet is to be
varied with nutmeg pigeons, and the pigeons have come in their thousands
and tens of thousands, and if the eaglets do lack and suffer hunger, it
will be on account of the laziness of their parents.

For all its laborious fishing, the red-backed sea-eagle is sometimes
deprived of its spoil by a bird much inferior in size and weight and
which has not the slightest pretensions to the art. An eagle had captured
a "mainsail" fish (banded dory) which loomed black against its snowy
breast as in strenuous spirals it sought to gain sufficient height whence
to soar over the spur of the hill to its eyrie. The fish, though not
weighty, was awkward to carry, and the presence of the boat rather
baffled the bird, which was shadowed in envious though discreet flight by
a white-bellied eagle. Low over the water, close to the fringe of jungle
the eagle flew, when a grey falcon dashed out, snatched from its talons
the wriggling fish, and with one swoop disappeared under a
yellow-flowered hibiscus bush overhanging the tideway. The falcon is no
match for the eagle; but, most subtle of birds of prey, it had watched
the perplexity of its lord and master, and with audacious courage taken
advantage of a moment's embarrassment.




CHAPTER XXI



SOCIALISTIC BIRDS


Repeated observations and diary records have established August 12th as
the beginning of the local "bird season." About that date two of the most
notable birds arrive from the North--the nutmeg pigeon (MYRISTICIVORA
SPILORRHOA) and the metallic starling (CALORNIS METALLICA). Having spent
five months in Papua, Java, Borneo, and the Malay Peninsula, the former
revisit the islands for incubating purposes.

Where the metallic starlings spend their retreat I know not; but they
return with impetuous haste, as if absence had been disciplinary and not
for pleasure. They assemble in glittering throngs, shrilly discussing
their plans for the season, without reserve debating important concerns
of house and home. Shall the tall Moreton Bay ash in the forest be again
occupied and the shabby remnants of old nests designedly destroyed before
departure last season be renovated, or shall a new settlement be
established and the massive milkwood-tree overtopping the jungle be
selected as a capital site? Discussion is acidulous and constant. For
days the majority of the burnished citizens do little else but talk,
while the industrious few begin, some to build nests on the sites of the
old, others to lay hasty foundations among the leaves of the milkwood.
Each faction wishes to carry its point, for ever and anon both rejoin the
main body and proclaim and testify. Then all adjourn to the disputed
sites successively and join in frantic commotion until some sage makes an
entirely original proposition, and off they all go on a flight of
inspection and abruptly end all differences of opinion by favouring a
tree which appears to have no distinctive merits.

These delightfully engaging birds have been known to nest in a particular
tree for a quarter of a century, and again they may select a different
site every year. Though I have no evidence in confirmation of the theory,
I am inclined to think that arboreal snakes are influential in causing
changes. Although the domed nests must be difficult for even a snake to
enter. so large a congregation of noisy birds would inevitably attract
these slim nocturnal marauders.

Moreover, a case may be cited in support of the theory. In a Moreton Bay
ash (EUCALYPTUS TESSELARIS), not far from this spot, there nested a pair
of white-headed sea eagles, a pair of cockatoos, and a colony of metallic
starlings, four or five hundred strong. The memory of man knows not the
first settlement of this amicable community, which remained until during
temporary absence the blacks were suborned to climb the tree to secure
the eggs of the eagle. They also helped themselves to a few of the callow
starlings. The sea eagles and cockatoos discarded the tree forthwith, and
the starlings in a couple of years. And why? Because, in my opinion at
least, the eagles had policed the tree, killing offhand any green or grey
snake which had the stupidity to sneak among the nests. When the
policemen went to another beat the snakes took to frightening the
unprotected birds and to the burgling of their nest. This incident caused
a revision of the protective laws. They are much more explicit, and the
pains and penalties for the violation of them are now absolutely unholy
in their truculence.

During the 1909 season a serious diminution was noted in the number of
metallic starlings and nutmeg pigeons. In the case of the former I am at
a loss to account for the cause of the comparatively few visitors--always
highly esteemed and admired and preserved from interference--except on
the theory of the outbreak of an epidemic or in the possible fact that
they are falling victims to the feminine passion for fine feathers.

The Grouse Disease Commission has found a recognised period in the
fluctuations of the number of those game birds. During a cycle of sixty
years there recur the good year, the very good year, the record year, the
bad disease year, the recovery, the average, and the good average. The
round is said to be almost invariable. So may it be with the metallic
starling.

With the nutmeg pigeons the case is different. Here we have direct
evidence of the desolating effects of the interference of man.
Congregating in large numbers on the islands to nest, and only to nest,
these birds offer quite charming sport to men with guns. They are the
easiest of all shooting. Big and white, and given to grouping themselves
in cloudy patches on favourable trees, I have heard of a black boy, with
a rusty gun, powder, and small stones for shot, filling a flour-sack full
during an afternoon. It is, therefore, not strange that men shoot 250 in
an hour or so. The strange thing is that "men" boast of such butchery. On
the very island where this bag Of 250 was obtained a little black boy,
twelve years old, killed four pigeons with a single sweep of a long
stick. He did not boast--to his father and mother and himself the four
birds represented supper; but in the case of the sportsman it might be
asked, how many of the butchered doves went into the all-redeeming pot?

These pigeons are one of the natural features of the coast of North
Queensland, in the conservation of which the State and the Commonwealth
are concerned. It may be contended that the extermination of a species
represented by such multitudes is impossible. But while the history of
the passenger pigeon of North America is extant such argument carries no
weight.

When the birds are, so to speak, shot on their nests or sitting in their
crowded dormitories a whole season's natural increase may be discounted
by an afternoon's wretched "sport." If nutmeg pigeons are to be preserved
as one of the attractions and natural features of the coast of North
Queensland, extensive sanctuaries must be established. Strict prohibition
might be enforced for a period of, say, five years to enable the colonies
to regain their population, and thenceforward they might--if the shooting
of sitting birds is still deemed to be "sport"--be allowed a "jubilee"
every second year.

If the unrestricted molestation is permitted, the day is not far distant
when indignation will arise and lovers of Nature will ask passionately
why a unique feature of the coast was allowed to be obliterated in blood.
True sportsmen would unanimously rejoice in the permanent preservation of
birds elegant and swift of flight, not very good to eat, and which visit
us at a time when inhospitality is a wanton crime.

For this indulgence of my feelings I have, I am aware, laid myself open
to censure. It is foreign to, indeed, quite out of place in, a book which
professes neither message nor mission. Yet, mayhap, some kindred spirit
having influence and judicious eloquence at command may read these lines.
Then the birds need not much longer fear the naughty local man. Long may
the dulcet islands within the Barrier Reef burst morn and eve into snowy
bloom as the pigeons go and come!

So having soothed my fretfulness by irresponsible scolding, consigned
countless white pigeons to inviolable sanctuary and thereby confirmed to
perpetuity the charter under which a bustling interchange of seeds and
the kernels of fruit-trees between isle and mainland is maintained, I am
at liberty to chronicle certain every-day incidents in the establishment
of a colony by those other companionable birds, metallic starlings, also
under engagement to Nature as distributing agents.

Whereas the bulk of the traffic of the pigeons is with the mainland, that
of the metallic starlings is purely local, though, perhaps, just as
important. The insular communities do not venture for their merchandise
across the water, and those of the mainland have no dealings with the
isles.

Reference has been made to the disappointment occasioned by the violation
of a colony at the instance of a semi-professional egg-snatcher, and of
the subsequent abandonment of the tree which had been used as a building
site by the birds as far back as the memory of the blacks went.

The tree was in the midst of the forest, and season after season upon the
return of the members of the colony they assembled in the vicinity, but
never again built in the neighbourhood. Last season, however, the pent-up
exasperation of years found a certain sort of relief, for a new colony
was started in a Moreton Bay ash-tree not a hundred yards away and in
full view from my veranda. There are five other colonies of these
socialistic, disputative birds on this Island; but they happen to be in
out-of-the-way spots, where continuous detailed observation of their
habits and customs would be impossible. Hence, when I saw the noisy
throng gather together discussing the imperious business of nesting, I
watched with eager and hopeful anticipation. About the third day from the
first demonstration in favour of the particular tree building operations
began, and thenceforward daily notes were taken of the doings of the
colony. Great pleasure was found in being the spectator of the
establishment of a new colony.

In 1908 the earliest arrivals appeared, on August 2nd--eight days before
the herald of the nutmeg pigeons. The colony the history of which it is
proposed to relate was no doubt an offshoot of the first brood of those
which had arrived on that date. Circumstances exist which persuade me
that the shining Calornis rear two broods during the season. Nutmeg
pigeons rear as many as three young successively.

Just about the time the site of the new colony was selected young birds
were fairly numerous, so that it seems safe to assume that, expelled from
parental nests, they determined to set up an establishment on their own
account forthwith. In their industry they seemed to display the defects
and advantages of the quality of youth--enthusiasm, impulsiveness and
vigour, inexperience, haste, and irrelevance.

Let the diary notes tell of the enterprise as scrutinised through the
telescope:


Nov. 15. Shining Calornis (all young birds, mottled grey and black with
green sheen on back) busy surveying tree (Moreton Bay ash) on plateau to
the north.

16. Birds seem inclined to build.

17. Notice that the birds are in pairs; no old, full-plumaged among them.

18. First beginning of nests. About thirty birds. All seem very excited
and full of business.

20. Several nests well forward. Other parts of the tree now being
occupied.

22. Seventeen nests; some nearly complete

23. Eighteen nests; several apparently complete, save for the overhanging
entrance. Many quarrels and squabbles in the family, for the nests are in
groups and in close quarters.

27. Three new nests, or rather foundations thereof.

Dec. 1. Now 25 nests. Those which appeared to be near completion are
still being added to. Many have entrances, so that one of the pair works
from inside, placing and threading the materials. Sometimes one sits for
a long time with the head protruding, as if testing the comfort of the
nest. Squabbles are frequent. The backs of some betray a lovely green
sheen in the sunshine, with rich purple at the base of the neck.

4. After two days' heavy rain the birds are as busy as ever. Many
flirtations. The great want of the colony seems to be insect powder.

5. The tree now is in full flower. I watch the birds making feints at
bees and butterflies visiting the blooms. but they do not seem to catch
insects. Fruit, seeds, and nuts form their diet. The nests, which are
composed of tendrils and pliant twigs elaborately intertwined, are domed,
and in size somewhat less than a football.

6. Birds very busy. Most of the nests appear to be fit for habitation.
Work is suspended at sundown. They do not roost in the tree. Have not
detected their resting-place; but it seems to be some distance in the
jungle.

7. Sunset (6.45). The birds disappeared from vicinity of the tree almost
immediately, though twilight lasted half an hour.

8. Three minutes before sunrise (5.48) birds' voices heard as they
approached trees. They were in three or four companies in a
bloodwood-tree, where they flirted and fussed and made violent love; then
in a trailing mob flew noisily and began work in haste and excitement,
one eager bird manipulating a long, slender, partly dry leaf,
industriously trying to fit it in various spots. Finding its due place,
the limp leaf was thrust in among the compact twigs and tendrils. The
leaf was seized close to the stalk, which was deftly inserted, then it
was gripped a trifle farther back and pushed and re-gripped, the process
being repeated rapidly until nothing but the tip remained visible.

9. Most of the exterior of the nests is now finished. Work continues
briskly on the lining, though the material used therefor does not seem to
be different from the bulk. When one of a pair has disappeared inside of
the tunnel-like entrance, if the other arrives it clings to the threshold
until its mate emerges, and then briskly enters. This evening work was
suspended at 6.40--cloudy. A few butterflies still flitting about the
flowers.

10. Another new nest. As with the others, a few tendrils are laid across
dependent sprays of leaves, engaging and intertwining them. These
represent the foundations upon which the superstructure is partly built,
but both sides and dome are made to entangle other frail branches and
leaves, so that the nest is supported throughout its various parts. A
considerable quantity of material is lost from each nest, owing to the
difficulty of contriving to make initial tendrils engage the leaves and
pedicels. The space for the circular entrance is sketched out at quite an
early stage. In this colony with few exceptions it faces the south, and
is so overhung by a veranda as to be undiscernible except from
immediately below.

The situation of the nests on the extremities of the outermost branches,
parts of some being lower than the leaves to which they are attached, is
no doubt an illustration of acquired sagacity. Such impetuous birds
living in large communities, and thus compounding a savour calculated to
attract arboreal snakes, would in the course of nature take precautions.
The nests in position and design represent the crystallisation of the wit
of the bird in antagonism to the wile of the snake.

In the morning, fuss, fierce purpose, and hurry are shown. As the
afternoon wears on, less and less industry prevails. Work is suspended at
6.45 p.m. when the last of the crowd hastily departed. Before sundown all
are spent and weary. Some of the birds begin to darken on the sides of
the upper part of the breasts. The purple sheen on the back of the neck
is more brilliant. There is a glowing patch, too, at the base of the
tail, though the other parts of the back are dingy with a green tinge in
reflected light. The nuptial costume is fast becoming, more attractive.

14. Nests were not deserted until 7.30 p.m. The last half-dozen birds,
alert and anxious, dashed off upon a common impulse noisily. They roost
in the jungle adjoining.

15. A more sedate condition prevails in the demeanour of the birds, due
peradventure to domestic responsibilities. Fewer are about, and they
spend leisure moments on the top of or near the nests, while others pop
in and out. Are these signs of the beginning of egg-laying?

17. Egg-laying undoubtedly begins, though improvements to nests, which
seemed to be finished over a week ago, occupy odd moments.

20. Two past days have been dull and showery. Quietude reigns; a tendril
or twig is occasionally threaded or poked into the nests. The male muses
on the top of the nest, or closely adjacent thereto. The female pops in
and out of apparently cosy quarters. Circumstances point to the
conclusion that most of the nests contain eggs.

21. Good deal of rain, which bothers the birds. They play about excitedly
in one company. Towards evening very few are about. The nests are
deserted, though five or six birds in one mob are in a neighbouring tree.

22. Heavy rain and never-ceasing squalls. No sign of the birds, though a
few notes of passers-by were heard. Finer evening.

23. Fine and calm. Nests deserted all morning. Late afternoon many
returned, though not, I think, the full company. They seem to be
inspecting and repairing the nests.

24. Did not see any of the birds.

25. At 3 p.m. several appeared--some entering the nests two at a time,
though without customary fuss and excitement.

26. Full company in possession throughout the day. Several (which are
assumed to be males) are better plumaged, the breasts being streaked with
black, and the backs much more lustrous.

27. Serious business of incubation deprives the colony of customary
gaiety and impulsiveness. While the female sits close, the male perches
on top of the nest, occasionally beguiling the time by inconsequent
repairs and petty squabbles with next door neighbours. How brilliant are
their eyes, especially when they sparkle with spite--flame red and
flashing.

28. I am astonished at the sobering effect of pending domestic troubles.
Is it that the sitting hen is responsible for the great part of the
gaiety and impulsiveness, as well as for the quibbles and brawls that
often disturb the happy family? Whatever the cause, whoever responsible,
order and tranquillity reign, each expectant father spending hours
demurely on his respective nest, a model of staid deportment, though ever
ready to resent intrusion on the part of a friend. Portending cares sit
heavily on the young and inexperienced colonists.

29. All quiet and industrious. Fancy that the chicks are well
forward--rather to my surprise.

Jan. 2. Very rainy all morning. Did not see any of the birds until the
weather cleared. Though the nests looked sodden, the owners were cheerful
and noisy--a tone of pleasure because of the return of the sunshine
being, as I fancied, noticeable.

3. Busy all day. At 6.45 a.m. all gathered in a company on the topmost
branches, and after two or three preliminary flights to the accompaniment
of much commotion and chattering, dashed into the jungle with a unanimous
and most acidulous shriek. One of the nests is hanging in shreds.

4. This morning the birds were engaged for some little time pulling their
nests to pieces, strands of tendrils being jerked out and cast away with
a contemptuous fling. Most are still fairly rotund and compact, and
appear to be weather-proof, while others are already loopholed and
ragged. The duty was performed in a most haphazard, halfhearted way.
Beneath the tree are many varieties of seeds and nuts, and portions of
fruits, but no egg-shells. After the members of the colony had swooped
and swept about as if practising military manoeuvres, sometimes silently
but generally to the accompaniment of much shrieking in unison, the tree
was entirely deserted for the rest of the afternoon.

5. Before 7 a.m. dismantlement of nests was resumed with enthusiasm and
deliberate purpose, shreds being twitched out and cast down. A good deal
of chatter. There are a few completely feathered youngsters, the breasts
being almost pure white, but not more than one to each nest. Most of the
nests have no output, in which case the responsible birds have no
assistance in the work of destruction. Late in the afternoon all were
very busy again, repairs to nests engaging attention. The birds are so
unsettled that I am puzzled. Occasionally one would sit in a
semi-dismantled nest snoodling down cosily and peering out with shining
eyes, the glow and glitter of which from the darksome entrance have a
jewel-like effect. While the one sat close and still the mate would
repair the exterior, and in a flash of electric suddenness all would dart
out of the tree to swoop about as if to perfect themselves in an exercise
designed towards the evasion of the dash of a hawk.

6. Early again the wrecking of the nests began; but was soon abandoned,
the colony being deserted for the last part of the day.

7. Demolition very casual. The birds are averse from working in the rain,
and, to-day several showers have occurred.

8. Notwithstanding light rain the duty of demolition began at 6.30 a.m.
As much energy and purpose are expended withdrawing the strands by a
series of tugs as were displayed in the building. Occasionally the whole
branch from which the nest is pendant sways with the work of a single
bird, the eyes of which glitter the more fiercely as it pulls and jerks
at an obstinate strand. Twenty-five birds are counted, so it would seem
that the enterprise has failed in respect of increase. No doubt some are
absent. Both young and old birds take part in the work of destruction.
One, I notice, has a black blotch on his otherwise mottled breast, while
his back shines with the polished radiance of a soap-bubble.

9. Tree visited at odd intervals--not at all during early morning.
Dismantlement proceeds half-heartedly.

10. Very early, the morning being fine and clear, the birds resumed in a
playful, lackadaisical way the demolition of the nests; without apparent
cause, save the shriek of a passing cockatoo, they fled into the jungle.
Did not see them again until late in the afternoon.

11. Again the birds visited the reserve early. Shortly before sundown I
counted sixteen. They were resting silently on the sodden remains of the
nests, for there have been heavy showers; some were picking idly at
loosened strands as if merely to beguile time. Now and again they fly
briskly and noisily in close company--always "diagonalising." Failure to
add largely to the population of birds does not seem to have damped the
gaiety and impulsiveness of the erratic flights. They are as sprightly in
their confabulations and as spiteful in their squabbles. The founders of
the colony were, I am convinced, this season's birds. If so they could
not have been more than two months old when they began to build. The
young brood from old-established colonies hatched out just about two
months before these appeared.

12. Yesterday's occupations and recreations repeated. The inheritance of
parasitic intruders, to cut off which the nests are torn to pieces, now
depends on unsubstantialities.

13. This morning, the flock assembled at break of day, and began, some to
extricate tendrils from, others to repair woebegone nests. When the sun
shone on the tree the plumage of the birds gleamed with almost dazzling
iridescence, the shoulders green, the back of the neck purple and lake of
the richest hue.

14. One casual visit to the tree was observed.

15. No visit.

16. No appearance until late in the afternoon, when four, wildly flying,
settled for a few minutes and departed shrieking. The tree is not now a
home, merely a rendezvous.


And so the history ends. Next August, no doubt, the surviving members of
the colony will return, all fully feathered in glossy black, and with
eyes aflame, to complete the destruction of the nests--according to
habit--and build afresh.


Dec. 10 (1910). True to attributes, the bird's returned yesterday. To-day
the one nest which had withstood a year's buffeting was demolished
offhand, and twenty-two are now being built with frantic haste.

Dec. 12. To the solidification of the joy of the Isle no less than four
new colonies are being established close at hand, the very tree which was
raided years ago being again occupied by a jubilant and clamorous crowd.
One of the new colonies is over one hundred nests strong. Does this
regeneration signify the beginning of a favourable phase analogous to
that discovered by the commission previously referred to in respect of
grouse?




CHAPTER XXII



SHARKS AND RAYS


Among the commonest of fish in the shallow waters of the coast are the
rays, of which there are many species--eighteen, according to the list
prepared by Mr. J. Douglas Ogilby. Some attain enormous size, some
display remarkable variations from the accepted type, and at least two
are edible though not generally appreciated, for the hunger of the
littoral Australian is not as a rule sufficiently speculative to prompt
to gastronomic experiment, else food that other nations cherish would not
be deemed unclean. Between sharks and rays relationship exists, for a
certain ray has been sneered at as only a flattened-out shark. There are
five species of shark-like rays, which have all the outward form and
appearance and vagrant mode of life of their prototype, and four species
of sharks that might pass as rays. One of them, with a big head,
tadpole-like tail and generally frayed and sea-tattered appearance, is,
in fact, accepted in some quarters as a ray, while the shovel-like skate
is commonly regarded as a shark.

The most delicately flavoured of the rays is known as the "blue-spotted"
(DASYBATUS KUHLI). It does not appear to attain a large size, but it is
fairly common, and is one of the most comely of the creatures of the
coral reefs, the bright blue decorative blotches on a ground of old gold
being most effective. It is often found in a few inches of water
perfectly motionless, and on being disturbed flutters and glides away
swiftly and with little apparent effort. Roasted on an open fire, when a
large proportion of the pungent oil escapes, the flesh is pleasant,
though possessing the distinctive flavour of the order, which is,
however, acceptable at all times to the palate of the black.

One of the formidable sting rays--dark brown in colour (probably
DASYBATUS THETIDES, Ogilby), which revels on oysters--has the habit of
burying itself in the mud, leaving an angular depression, corresponding
to the size of the body, from which the pedestal eyes alone obtrude. In
such position it is difficult for the inexperienced to detect the fish
until by misadventure it is trodden on, in which circumstance one of two
manoeuvres is adopted. Either it flaps and flounders in the slush so that
the intruder is startled and jumps clear, or else it lashes out with its
whip-like tail in the endeavour to bring into play its serrated weapon,
charged with pain, and fearsome on account of the blood-poisoning effect
of the mucus with which it is coated.

Ox-rays (UROGYMNUS ASPERRIMUS) grow to a great size, their backs being so
armoured with thick-set stellate bucklers on a horn-like skin, that to
secure them a heavy-hefted weapon and a strong right arm are necessary.
But among the largest of the family is that known as the devil fish
(MOBULA sp.), which, upon being harpooned, sinks placidly to the bottom,
and adhering thereto by suction, defies all ordinary attempts to raise
it. This often basks in calm water or swims slowly close to the surface,
when the pliant tips of its "wings," appearing at regular intervals
above the surface, create the illusion of a couple of large sharks moving
along in rhythmic regularity as to speed and muscular movement. Rarely,
and apparently only by mischance, does a ray take bait; but when hooked
it affords good sport, for its impassive resistance is incomprehensibly
great in comparison with its size, and comparable to the pull of a green
turtle which in its wanderings has become foul-hooked.

An exciting coursing match entertained me not long since, not only as an
exhibition of wonderful speed and agility, but because of the wit with
which the weaker creature eluded pursuit. Three hundred yards from the
beach the dorsal fin of a huge hammer-head shark obtruded about two feet
as it leisurely quartered a favourite hunting-ground. A sudden swirl and
splash indicated that game had been sighted, and the next instant an
eagle or flying ray (STOASODON NARINARI) leaped out of the sea with
prodigious eagerness to reach the beach. In a series of abrupt curves the
shark endeavoured to head off the ray, which, as its pursuer gained on
it, shot out of the water over the shoulders of the shark, each leap
being at least ten feet high. In rising it seemed to switch the shark
with its thong-like tail, although apparently in almost despairing fright.
After at least a dozen agile and desperate efforts, each timed to just
elude the rush of the shark, both came into shallow water in which the
quick and regular contours of the shark stirred the mud in a wavy
pattern; it became baffled, and in a few seconds the ray slowly, and with
infinite caution, "flew" (and that is the correct term to apply to a fish
the movements of which in the water are analogous to the flight of a
bird) into such meagre depths that the shark would have been stranded had
it followed. No ripple indicated its discreet course within a few feet of
the water line. and it maintained its way for about two hundred yards
parallel with the beach, while the shark furiously quartered the sea off
shore.

On the occasion of a similar hunt a ray blundered fatally because of the
steeper incline of the beach. When about ten feet off the shore instead of
a lateral it took a directly forward "flight," landing six feet up on
the dry sand, where it fell an easy victim to a black boy, perhaps not as
hungry or as ferocious as the shark, but equally partial to rays as food
and incapable of any self-denying act.

Though the relationship is well defined, the shark makes no distinction
in favour of the ray when in pursuit of food. Indeed, certain members of
the predatory family seem to delight chiefly in a diet of rays, and
perhaps as a result of this persistent pursuit has the shape of the
latter been evolved, since it enables them to take refuge in water so
shallow that even a small shark would inevitably be stranded. Timorous by
nature, the smaller rays parade the beach-line, while the larger are
better able to hold their own in deep water. Although as a rule solitary
of habit, there seem to be occasions on which rays become gregarious,
when a considerable extent of sandy shallow has been observed to be
actually paved with motionless but vigilant individuals, the edge of the
"wing" of one overlapping that of the next with almost perfect
regularity.

The monstrous grey-striped tiger shark (GALEOCERDO TIGRINUS) in my
experience generally keeps to deep water and hunts singly; but a recent
event sets at naught other local observations and at the same time
provides graphic proof of the rapacity and hardihood of the species.
About a hundred yards out from the beach, as we started on a strictly
sordid beachcombing expedition to the scene of the squashed wreck of a
Chinese sampan, a shark betrayed itself by the dorsal fin quartering the
glassy surface of the sea. Equipment for sport consisted of an axe, a
crowbar, a trivial fish spear, and a high-velocity rifle. Pulling out
noiselessly, a trail of oily blood was intersected and the next moment a
huge shark appeared, carrying in its jaws a black ray, which it mouthed
unceasingly.

Intent upon its meal, the shark ranged parallel to the boat so that its
length could be accurately gauged. It was nearly sixteen feet long, while
the ray was almost as large in proportion. The relative sizes may be
estimated by the standard of a man bearing between his teeth a tea-tray,
Not the least anxiety or apprehension was manifested by the shark at the
presence of the boat. It rose frequently to the surface, and all its
movements being discernible as it swam close to the bottom in a
preoccupied manner, the boat was easily manoeuvred to be within almost
touching distance whensoever the head emerged. In quick succession three
out of the four bullets the magazine contained penetrated its body just
abaft the pectoral fins. A brief flurry followed each shot, and then the
shark, with passive fixity of purpose, resumed the mangling of the ray,
which with extended, backward strained eyes, seemed to implore rescue
from its fate. Were any other means of response to so tragic an appeal
available? The crowbar! Hastily made fast to the stern line, it was
hurled harpoon-like with energy sufficient to batter in the forehead of a
bullock. But the listless implement bounced off the head of the shark as
a stick from a drum, provoking merely a contemptuous wave of the tail
which seemed to signify a sneer. The axe was also employed with negative
results, for the difficulty of delivering an effective blow from the boat
could not be overcome.

All the sea about became ruddy, and the lust for still more of the
shark's blood being imperative, we returned to the beach, obtained a
fresh supply of ammunition, and a whale harpoon. In the meantime the
blood previously shed had spread far and wide, and instead of a solitary
gormandising shark a full half-dozen rollicked and revelled in the
stained area, all alike in size and alike, too, in absolute indifference
to the boat. Owing to the featherweight heft the harpoon failed in
penetrative force, and with the first tug invariably withdrew.

Frequently the sharks came within arm's length of the boat, and though
neither ammunition nor the bumps of the homely crowbar nor the pin-pricks
of the harpoon were spared, nor shouts of exultation when an individual
lashed out under the sting of a bullet, not a shark was in the least
perturbed. They romped about the boat, if not defiant at least heedless
of all the clamour and puny assaults, appearing to challenge to combat in
their natural element. The temper of the school was such that, no doubt,
all the occupants of the boat would have been accounted for had they by
some foolish miracle squandered themselves in the blood-stained sea. By
this time the shark which had first attracted attention had disappeared
with its prey, distressed and unseaworthy on account of several leaks;
and the others followed one by one, and not altogether in the best
condition imaginable, judging by the oily bubbles and tinges beyond the
limits of the bay.

On a quieter day I swam off to the anchored boat for some forgotten
purpose, which accomplished I prepared to slip off the stern when a
dark-coloured shark intervened, moving steadily along parallel to the
beach. Giving it precedence, I swam ashore without resting and watched
the big fish slide like a shadow up into the corner of the bay, where it
rested. Tom, the sport-loving black boy, being on the scene, his flattie
was soon afloat, and with a disdainful thrust of the harpoon he impaled
the creature, which did not exhibit the least sign of life. Hauled to the
surface, Tom declared it to be dead--that it had died from natural causes
ere the harpoon had touched it. Had ever shark taken quieter exit from
this hustling world! It was about six feet long and fairly robust, and
while being towed ashore wallowed helplessly, floating belly up and
submitting without a spasm of protest to nudges and slaps of the oars and
prods with the heft of the harpoon, but no sooner did it touch the
sand and its snout shoot into the foreign element than a furious fight
for life began. Did ever shark display such agility! Wriggling and
lashing with its tail, almost had it swept me off my feet and dragged me
into the sea; but Tom came to my aid, with a sudden and judiciously timed
tug as it swerved, the game was landed, to continue extraordinary
antics on the sand, though Tom was armed with a tomahawk.

When the struggles had ceased post-mortem examination was made. The
stomach was empty, but the liver promised so much oil that Tom
extirpated it and all other internal organs, and not until mutilation
was complete was any peculiarity about the jaws and teeth noticed. These
subsequently, proved that we had captured, not a shark but a
ray--Forskal's shovel-nosed ray (RHYNCHOBATUS DJIDDENSIS), which Tom, for
all his knowledge of sea things, had never before seen. Curiously
examining the jaws, he laid a rude forefinger on the tesselated plate
which stands in the species for teeth, and the disorganised remains, true
to the ruling passion, crunched, and Tom ruefully consoled the finger for
a fortnight. Hitherto his opinion, founded on contemporary experience and
the traditions of his race, had been that a shark would never fight a
live man. Was it not the refinement of irony that he should well nigh be
deprived of the best part of a finger by a dead ray masquerading as a
shark!

Many blacks refuse to eat shark because of totemic restrictions; but
where no tribal contrary law prevails, several of the species are cooked
and eaten without ceremony, but with most objectionable after effects to
those who are not partial to such fare. The specific odour of the shark
seems to be intensified and to be made almost as clinging as that of
musk, being far more expressive than the exhalation of a camp gorged with
green turtle. Discreet persons encounter such a scene as the do the jade
Care--by passing on the windy side.




CHAPTER XXIII



THE RECLUSE OF RATTLESNAKE


"Live forgotten and die forlorn."

                        TENNYSON.


Am I, living in or rather off the land of magnificent distances, entitled
to claim as a neighbour a friend one hundred miles away? Sentiments
obliterate space. With the lonesome individual who dwelt in an oven-like
hut of corrugated iron on rocky, sunburnt Rattlesnake Island, and who
lost the habit of living a few years ago, I was on social terms--terms of
vague but cosy intimacy. On occasions of our rare meetings we found ideas
in common. Peradventure similarities of environment focussed similar
thoughts. Perhaps abnormal temperaments gave rise to becoming tenderness
and sympathy. Whatsoever and howsoever the mutual sentiment, it is of the
past.

The history of the Recluse of that undesirable island, a mass of granite
and thin, unkindly soil is far removed from the prosaic. His was the
third life sacrificed because of the lust of man to own the unromantic
spot. He came to be known as "The Recluse of Rattlesnake," but the pain
of his life lies in the fact that his seclusion was not voluntary.

The earlier history of the "Recluse" embodies nothing very extraordinary.
Men have fallen in love as impetuously as he. The prologue of the little
drama in which he played the leading part was neither new nor strange.
The originality came after, and then only was it understood how
completely the divine passion had shattered his soul.

This, then, is the record of a part of his life--its dominating
theme--its dramatic and pathetic ending.

A fine young fellow they were wont to call him--blue-eyed, fair-haired,
sharp and shrewd and up to all the moves as becomes a man alert and
successful in business. Truly a universal favourite, for he was
good-humoured and amiable, full of wit and smart sayings. They say, too,
that she who had pledged her troth to him was just as fine a girl as he
was man. There came news to him of the death of a relative in Old England,
with a summons thither to take his share of a fortune. He tarried no long
time, for had he not left his heart behind him? But--and so the story
goes, whether true to the letter I do not vouch--when he landed in
Australia once again it was to learn that he had been slighted. His love
affair hopelessly damned, he at once began to drift. The drift ended
pitiably after half a lifetime--to him a lifetime and a half.


"God! we living ones--what of our tears
When a single day seems as a thousand years?"


For a decade or more he lived on the Island, his resources slender and
uncertain. Often he was on the verge of starvation. Once he told me that,
driven by the pangs of hunger, he had trapped quail, which he had trained
to come to his whistle to eat the crumbs which fell from his table during
those rare times when he fared sumptuously. Then his tender-heartedness
forbade him to kill them. But hunger is crueller than either jealousy or
the grave, and one by one his plump pets were sacrificed. He had two
faithful companions--mongrel dogs, "Billy" and "Clara"--and the
wistful, beseeching inquiry in the gaze of those two dogs when he talked
at them before strangers significantly showed how frequently and
earnestly he talked to them when there was none else to share his
confidences.

Now Rattlesnake Island, though close to a populous port, is one of the
more remote parts of the State of Queensland. News travels to and from it
at uncertain, fitful, and infrequent intervals. The Boer War had
progressed beyond the relief of Ladysmith stage ere the Recluse of
Rattlesnake knew that the Old England he loved so well and proudly was up
and asserting herself. At odd times a sailing boat would call, but the
Recluse was beginning to be what the polite folks benevolently term
"strange," and he would not always appear unless he knew his visitors.
Then he was among the most agreeable and entertaining of men, full of
anecdote and episode and quiet but true humour. A shrewd observer of
natural science, he availed himself of unique opportunities for
practical study. He conned first-hand the book of Nature, written large
and fair, and illuminated with living designs. My one memento of him is
the stiletto of a prodigious sting-ray. He had never seen a larger, nor
have I nor any one to whom I have shown it. The weapon measures 9˝
inches by an average width of half an inch. The birds that came to his
island, the reptiles, the frogs, and the fish of the sea--he knew them
all--and could tell quaint, fairy-like stories of his association with the
creatures that had become too familiar to be the least afraid of him.

One day a boat anchored off his bay, but the Recluse was not to be seen,
nor was the punt that he used found, nor were there any recent signs of
occupation about the exterior of the hut. In due course official search
was instituted. We may neglect or be indifferent to a man while he is
known to be in the land of the living; when he is not and until the
mystery of his fate is cleared up he becomes the object of earnest
solicitude.

In the comfortless dwelling was found a diary which told its own tale of
lonesomeness and starvation. Is there real pathos in the last writings of
this once vigorous and independent man?


May 19. Waded with spear all over flats for rays. Did not get a shot at
any. Very short commons.

May 23. I miss the tea and tobacco. Dug last row of sweet spuds. Very
patchy in size, but a perfect God-send just now.

May 26. Last kerosene. No reading at nights now.


He records catching a sting-ray and getting oysters.


June 2. Not a sign of a ray. Have to live off potatoes a bit. They, too,
will soon be done.

June 4. Added a P.S. to letters. A month gone and no chance to send them.
Hard cheese!

June 6. Another week will see me in extremis. Wish I had a fishing-line.

June 7. Got some oysters. Oh for a good beefsteak or a chop! No sign of
any boat. Lord help me!

June 9. Nearly skinned the oysters. What will I do when they are finished?

June 10. Dull; cold. Thank God for the sweet potatoes! They are my only
food now. No rays about; no fish in the trap, and the whole coast of the
island almost stripped of oysters. Only one candle left to cheer the
night.

June 11. Miserable and hungry.

June 17. Cold and clear. Did not sleep well. The hunger woke me often.
This is fearful work.


On the 19th he got some coco-nuts, which were first-rate. With coco-nuts
and an occasional ray, he ekes out an existence, hungry, cheerless,
without light, without tobacco. A copy of "Barnaby Rudge" and a few old
papers represent his reading matter. He is glad when daylight comes.


July 3. Craft lay-to off Lorne Reef. Signalled by flag and fire from
hill. They took no notice. Strange! Government cutter, I think.


So his life drags on. He tries to re-read by firelight "Barnaby Rudge,"
which he must almost know by heart, but it is of no use. In the
taming of a monitor lizard he finds much amusement, recording his
satisfaction--"Goanna quite friendly."


July 6. Caught a small rock-cod; roasted it for supper.


His satisfaction after a good meal is evident from the entry--

"Quite happy and contented."

His hopes rise and fall on a diet of oysters and coco-nuts.

On July 22nd he hails with delight "a tin box of pears and condensed
milk" which drift on to the reef. These have been in the water for weeks
"but some are good." He writes thankfully "the milk is grand."

The diary described his life during the next few months "in a sort of
way." He builds a punt which he christens the GREAT EASTERN, the
launching of which is briefly chronicled: "Launched the GREAT EASTERN.
Sank below Plimsoll mark--like a sieve." He returns disheartened from one
or two trial trips, having to "man the pump." 'He complains of having
to dig up and eat little miniature sweet potatoes and asks piteously:
"What am I to do? I'm hungry and have nothing else!" His feet become cut
and sore, and in every day's entry is a  plaintive wail at the pain.


Sept. 9. Treasure--a stranded coco-nut, quite good. A rare treat. My
teeth are sore through not being used.

Sept. 26. This continuous hunger begins to tell. My blood's poor and
sores won't heal. Can't help it! I can't better my lot in any way so
must just endure it.

Octr. 31. Surely to goodness something will happen to put an end to my
long drawn out misery. No sleep last night.


A "Goanna" that he killed and ate was a God-send.


Now. 6. Disappointed! Made sure of truffles after rain. None. No grub.
I get weaker and weaker. Can hardly crawl.

Now. 11. Done up! Lay down and went to sleep. No sign from shore. The
good Lord pity me in my weakness!

Novr. 12. Never thought I could get so weak and live. No sign anywhere.
Must try to catch some big green frogs--good food.

Novr. 13. So awfully weak.

Novr. 14. Too weak to look out for . . . (the writing becomes
unintelligible). Wrote my old friend . . . making over all property here
to him absolutely. Blowing too hard for punt. I dare not try to walk I'd
never get back.


The final entry is dated Nov. 15th:


"Caught three big frogs, cleaned and stewed them--delicious--like
chicken! What fools we are with our likes and dislikes!"


They searched the adjacent island and the coastline, and finally
concluded that the Recluse, having made a desperate attempt to reach the
mainland in his wretched punt, had become overcome with exhaustion, and
had drifted away to drown when the boat swamped in the breakers.

Six weeks or so after the date of the final entry in the diary a Chinese
fisherman found a punt near the mouth of a mangrove creek on the
mainland. In it was a skeleton, a fish spear, some empty oyster shells. A
few fair hairs adhered to patches of dried skin on the skull.

So the tale is told--a brief, passionate love idyll a strange, tedious,
and tragic epilogue.

Were ever the days and dreams of a strong man more completely dismantled
and dismembered by a passing flick of Cupid's wing!




CHAPTER XXIV



HAMED OF JEDDAH


"Caravans that from Bassora's gate
With Westward steps depart;
Or Mecca's pilgrims, confident of fate
And resolute of heart."

More of a Dutchman in build than Arab--broad-based, bandy-legged, stubby,
stolid, and slow; spare of his speech, but nimble with his fingers in all
that appertains to the rigging and working of small boats, as much at
ease in the water as a rollicking porpoise--such is Hamed of Jeddah.

His favourite garment is a light green woollen sweater. He wears other,
but less obvious things. His green sweater sets all else at naught. If it
be a fact that one of the pleasures to which the true Mohammedan looks
forward in the region of the blest is to recline in company with the
Houris on green sofas while contemplating the torments of the damned,
Hamed was merely foretasting that which is to come. The everlasting green
sweater became a torture--at least to me. Perhaps he was aware of the
fact, and because he knew that my damnation is inevitable his unsoothing
preliminary was merely human. For Hamed is amicable in all respects.

Though his sentiments may be truly Arabian, his figure, as I have
remarked, is a travesty on that of the typical Arabian--the Arab of the
boundless and comfortless desert. I have tried to picture him as a lean
and haughty mameluke in loose, white robes, mounted on a dust-distributing
camel, and, lance in hand, peering ferociously across the desert


"The desert with its shifting sand
And unimpeded sky."


But the tubby form in the green sweater and those bleached dungarees
shortened in defiance of all the prescriptions of fashion, positively
refuses to be glorified. Except for his swarthiness Hamed is
unreconcilable to the ideals of an Arab, and he has a most heretical
dislike to the desert. All his best qualities are under suppression on
dry land. He is the Arab of the dhow. His eyes are muddy. The pupils
begin to show opacity. He follows slowly and with stumbling steps through
the bush and often misses his way, for he cannot see far ahead. and you
cannot always be looking backward and hailing him. Still, he is never
lost. When he fails to recognise landmarks and his guide is out of sight,
his cup-shaped ears detect the faintest call of the sea. Then he works in
a direct course to the beach, where everything is writ large and plain to
his understanding. Of his own motive he never ventures inland without a
compass, and with that in his hand he is safe, even in a strange place
and out of sound of the sea.

Hamed tells a wonderful story of a ride that befell him in his early
youth. By the way, there is something to be said of his age which,
according to his own account, varies. Sometimes he is 72, then 48, and
again 64 and 35. Like the present-day almanacs of his race, his age is
shifty and uncertain. Hamed's ride occurred "a long time ago"--that
hazy, half-obliterated mark on life's calendar. Pious Mohammedan that he
is, he undertook a pilgrimage to Medina. To that holy orgy he rode on a
donkey. So miraculous was the chief event of the journey that it is due
to Hamed that his own uncoloured version should be given.

"So hot the sun of my country you carn ride about alonga a day. Every
time you trabel alonga night--sit down daytime. We start. We ride all
night. I ride alonga dunkee. Sit down one day, ride night time. Dunkee he
no go quick--very slow. I am tired. That dunkee tired. B'mbi that dunkee
he talk. He say--'Hamed, you good man, you kind man. Subpose you no
hammer me too much I take you up, alonga Medina one time quick.' I say,
'I no want hammer you.' My word, that dunkee change!--dunkee before,
horse now--Arab horse. Puff! We along Medina! Wind bin take 'em!"
With the wind in his favour Hamed does wonders even now--at sea. It was
not seemly to suggest to him that cynical memory dulled the polish of his
story; but if there really are chinks in the world above at which they
listen to words from below, did the Prophet smile to hear the parable by
which his devout and faithful follower brought his own ride on the flying
mare up to date?

Having the unwonted privilege of cross-examining a man who had ridden or
rather been wafted to Medina specially that he might do homage at the
Tomb of the Prophet, I asked a few questions respecting the famous
coffin. Was it a fact that the coffin hung in the air on a wire so fine
that no one could see it? Was it, in fact, without lawful visible means
of support?

Hamed would neither deny nor confirm the legend. "I dunno what people
you! I bin tell-straight my yarn go one time like wind to Medina. What
more you want? I dunno what kind people you!" One mystery at a time is
enough for Hamed.

Hamed now deals in oysters. In the trade he had a partner--a fair lad of
Scandinavian origin named Adolphus. All these orientals have
extraordinary faith in the medicinal properties of the gall of
out-of-the-way creatures. That of a wallaby is prized; of a "goanna"
absolutely precious; while in respect of a crocodile, only a man who has
leisure to be ill and is determined to doctor himself on the reckless
principle of "blow the expense," could afford any such luxurious physic.
It is reckoned next in virtue to a text from the Koran written on board:
"Wash off the ink, drink the decoction, and lo! the cure is complete."
So, too, if the Lama doctor has no herbal medicines he prescribes
something symbolic. He writes the names of the remedies on scraps of
paper, moistens the paper with saliva, and rolls them into pills, which
the patient tosses down with the same perfect confidence as though they
were genuine medicaments, his faith leading him to believe that
swallowing. a remedy or its name is equally efficacious.

A "goanna" scrambled for safety up a small tree. Adolphus undertook to
kill it. Hamed insisted on preemption of the gall, while yet the quaking
reptile certainly had the best title to it; but Hamed stood below and
some distance off, for he was nervous. Adolphus climbed the tree, killed
the "goanna" offhand, and threw it so that it fell close to Hamed, and
Hamed fell in a spasm of fright, upon recovering from which he chased
fair, fleet-footed, laughing Adolphus for half an hour--murder in his
pearly eyes, a mangrove waddy in his hand, frothy denunciations on his
lips, and nothing on his body but the green sweater. Peace was restored
on the presentation to him of the all-healing gall; and then Hamed
apologised, almost tearfully, explaining, "That goanna, when you chuck
heem, close broke heart of me!"

A dissolution of partnership was then and there decided on, and Hamed
thus detailed his sentiments to me:--

"That boy, I like heem too much. Good-for-working boy. Me and heem make
'em three-four beg oyster every day. He bin say: 'You carn be mate for
me!' He go along two Mulai boy. Dorphy [Adolphus] carn mek too much
now--one sheer belonga him, Mulai boy two sheers. Carn beat me--one sheer
one man." Hamed has clean-cut notions on the disadvantages of multiplicity
of partners.

Hamed has been to Europe, and there--he does not mention the country--he
was initiated into the mysteries of making Irish stew. In an outburst of
thankful confidence for some little entertainment at the table he let out
the secret in these terms: "Eerish sdoo you make 'em. Four potats, two
ungin, hav-dozen garleek, one hav-bucket water." At first it appeared
that he had obtained his knowledge from a passionate vegetarian, but upon
reflection we concluded that in his opinion meat was so essential an item
that it was to be taken for granted. Any one wishing to try the recipe
would be safe in adding "meat to taste."

Hamed revels in chillies, fiery, red, vitriolitic little things that
would bring tears to the eyes of a molten image. Even his recipe for
porridge (likewise obtained during his ever-memorable European travels)
is not complete without them: "Alonga one hand oot-meal, pannikan water,
one hav-handful chillies. My word, good fellow; eatem up quick; want 'em
more."

Possibly Hamed might be considered by some folks a "common" man. He is
far from that, and the very opposite from commonplace, for some of the
magic of the coral seas has tinctured his blood. His career as a
pearl-shell diver has been illuminated by the discovery of pearls--big
and precious. In his youth and buoyancy he gambled them away. Now that
his heart is subdued and slow he still looks for pearls, and tempts coy
Fortune with dramatic sincerity and most untempting things. He wants one
pearl more, that he may acquire the means of travelling to his native
land. Hamed of Jeddah would die there.

So strenuous is his desire for one smile on the part of Fortune that
Hamed's favourite topic is pearls, and of the good old days when, if a
man found a patch where the grass was not too thick, he might pick up as
many as a hundred shells in a day. Under conditions and circumstances all
in favour, the diver relies upon an inevitable infirmity on the part of
the oyster for the revelation of its whereabouts.

"When man he dibe," says Hamed, "that go'lip quick he shut 'em mout. Carn
see 'em. Subpose open mout, man quick he see 'em--shove-em alonga beg."

At the peril of its life the oyster gapes.

Hamed cherishes thoroughly Oriental theories, too, for the wooing of
Chance, who (for Chance is very real and personal to him), he declares,
presides over the fortune and the fate of divers.

"Last night I bin drim. My word--good drim. Subpose you gibe one fowl he
make lucky--we get good pearl. Must be white fowl. Black fow!"--(and here
he lowered  his voice to a mysteriously confidential whisper) "no good;
spoil 'em lucky!"

Months have elapsed since the sacrifice of the white fowl and the pouring
of its blood to the accompaniment of droning supplications on the face of
the contemptuous sea, and albeit the divination was cheerfully
suspicious, the sulky jade still look askance, and Hamed is still far
from Jeddah.


HAMED PREACHES


When Hamed of Jeddah left just before Christmas with four "begs" of
over-mature oysters, intended for the tickling of European palates, he was
not elated by the nearness of the hallowed time. Indeed, his state of
mind was quite contrary. He had none of that peace and goodwill towards
men with which those of us who are not Mohammedans adulate the approach
of the season.

His one-time partner, the fair and fleet-footed "Dorphy," had deserted him
for good and sufficient cause, and his hard old heart rebelled against
priggish Christians and their superior ways. Some of the tardiness of age
has come upon him. Though he had "worked" the oysters with all the
resourcefulness of the lone hand, the marketable results were less in
bulk than formerly. "Dorphy" had been wont to re-sort and classify
Hamed's gleanings, for Hamed's eyes are misty; also his desire to emulate
"Dorphy's" quickness was so ingenuous that in lieu of oysters he would
frequently stow away flat stones and pieces of coral. Such things may be
abomination in the eyes of the conscientious oyster-getter, but with
Hamed they helped to fill the "beg." Vain old Arab! He deceived no
one--in the end not even himself, for none of his fakes passed the final
inspection of clear-sighted "Dorphy," with whom the moralities of the
firm rested, but who in Hamed's eyes was a finicking precisian.

For weeks after his partner's withdrawal from the business Hamed was
perplexed. The swing of the seasons set the tides adversely. Hence his
complaint--"Water no much dry. Carn dry long. No good one man work
himself. Subpose have mate he give hand along nother man. One man messin'
abeaut. One small beg oyster one day. My word, 'Dorphy' smart
boy--good-for-working boy!"

As a lone hand--his honour thrown upon himself--Hamed was so precise and
methodic that by the time the second "beg," had been painfully
chipped off semi-submerged rocks, the first was past its prime. When the
third was full, the first was good merely in parts. On the completion of
the fourth "beg" one passed the neighbourhood of the first on the other
side with a precautionary sniff. It contained self-assertive relics.

But Hamed took all four "begs" with him in his little cutter, and "Billy,"
the toothless black boy, who lisped not in affectation but in
broad and conscious profusion, for a blow from a nulla-nulla years ago
deprived him for ever of the grace of distinct articulation, sailed with
him. No sensation of sorrow fretted me when on that lovely Monday morn I
saw the sail of the odoriferous cutter a mere fleck of saintly white on
the sky-line among the islands to the north. Can so lovely a thing be
burdened with so ponderous a smell? Will it not--if two more days of
windless weather prevail--ascend to the seventh heaven and tarnish the
glitter of the Pleiades? I mused as I strolled on the tide-smoothed
beach of my own scented isle.

Before his departure, Hamed had realised that his oysters had passed the
phase which Christians in their absurd queasiness prefer. Perhaps he
designed to trade them off on coloured folks with less sensitive organs
and no dainty prejudices. But his temper was consonant with, at least, my
perception of the condition of his oysters. It was bad; and he spoke
harsh things of white men, and of Christmas and of the doings of
Christians during the celebration of the birthday of the Founder of their
faith. Perhaps he was paying off in advance for the scorn with which his
fragrant oysters were sure to be received.

When a man who is with us, but not of us, deliberately expresses his
opinions about our faulty ways and contradictory customs, and when the
critic is disinterested, in matters of religion at any rate, however
humble he may, be, it is instructive to treat him as a philosopher. The
art of learning is to accept the teachings of everything, from a blade
of grass to an epic poem. Hamed moralised in angry mood. All the better.
Neither flattery nor fear was in his words.

The impatient oysters fuming in the tiny hold of his cutter merely gave
to his tongue a defiant stimulus. To me they were pathetically pleading
for a belated watery grave. A quaint sort of eloquence took command of
Hamed's tongue, and I suffered the oysters gladly as I listened.

"Ramadan! Ah! One month!" There were worlds of meaning and longing in
those few words. The pious Mohammedan, the exile, the patriot spoke,
uttering a prayer, a sigh, and a glorious hope in one breath. "Ramadan!
In my country one month holiday--quiet, clean, no row. First time burn old
clothes."


"Come fill the cup, and in the fire of spring,
The winter garment of repentance fling."


"Wash everything. Clean out house. Put clothes clean--white like anything.
Sit down. One day eat nothing. Then feast plenty. Good goat of my
country--more fatter." (It was a graceless cut, for the previous day I
had given him a well-grown kid). "No messin' abeaut. Plenty talk with
friend. Walk about bazaar. Full up people--clean, nice. No row--nothing.
Subpose I make lucky. I find one pearl, I go along my own country for
Ramadan!"

With half-shut eyes Hamed dwelt silently on the bliss of his faraway
home, and woke snappily to the crude realities of his Christian
environment.

"Chrissmiss!" he sneered--" nothing. Messin' abeaut! You want to see
drunk man--Chrissmiss, plenty! You want to see row, plenty--Chrissmiss!
You want lissen bad language, plenty Chrissmiss! Subpose I am at that
place Cairnsee, Chrissmiss, I take my flattie anchor out along
inlet--keep quiet. My heart broke altogether from that drink.
Chrissmiss--mix 'em up plenty with drink and messin abeaut! Good job you
keep out of the way when Chrissmiss he come!"




CHAPTER XXV



YOUNG BARBARIANS AT PLAY


"Behold the child by Nature's kindly law,
Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw."

                                        POPE.

Not all the energies of the blacks of North Queensland in their natural
state are absorbed in the search for and pursuit and capture of food; nor
are all their toys imitative of weapons of offence or the chase. They
have their idle and softer hours when the instincts of the young men
and maidens turn towards recreations and pastimes, in some of which
considerable ingenuity and skill are exhibited, whilst their elders amuse
themselves by the practise of more or less useful domestic arts. Children
in their play are just as enthusiastic, preoccupied, and noisy as white
children, and the popularity of a game is subject, likewise, to spasmodic
exclusiveness. While the particular inclination lasts no other game is
held to be worth a rap for rational black boys to play, but the relish
the more speedily degenerates. In the ordinary concerns of life a black
boy is incapable of self-denial. His intensity for the time is almost
pathetic; his revulsion comic. Hence the cycle of the games is brief.
There are wide and dreary intervals.

Dr. Walter E. Roth, ex-Chief Protector of Aboriginals, and now Government
Resident at Pomeroon River, British Guiana, devotes a pamphlet to
descriptions of the "Games, Sports, and Pastimes" of Queensland
blacks, but since the work has not yet been published unofficially, and
since my own limited observations are confirmed generally by him, there
seems justification for offering references to a few of the means by
which the primitive people wile away time in good-humoured, gleeful
pastime. One feature of the sports of the blacks is that they play their
game for the sake of the game, not to gain the plaudits of an idle crowd
or in expectation of reward. Rivalry there undoubtedly is among them, but
the rivalry is disinterested. No chaplet of olive-leaves or parsley
decorates the brow of him who so throws the boomerang that it
accomplishes the farthest and most complicated flight. As the archers of
old England practised their sport, so do the blacks exhibit their
strength and skill, not as the modern lover of football, who pays others
to play for his amusement, and who, possibly, knows not the game save as
a spectator.

Some of the pastimes of the blacks are, of course, derivative from the
most engrossing passion of the race, the pursuit of game--animals, birds,
and fish--for food. Dr. Roth describes a pantomime in which three young
girls take part, and which is imitative of the felling of a tree for the
purpose of securing honey stored by bees in a hollow limb. Every detail
of the process is illustrated by expressive gestures, even to the
indication of the respective locations in the limb of the good comb
(which is tabu to women), and the inferior stuff (old brood and
drippings) to which the inferior sex is welcome. The whole episode is
graphically mimicked, down to the mixing of the honey with water as a
beverage.

But such games have not come under my personal knowledge, and as I wish
to confine myself to those which I have witnessed, my catalogue must
needs be trivial, and far from exhaustive even in respect of the district
in which they are, alas! becoming obsolete. In these days of opium and
rum, leisure moments are not generally devoted to "becoming mirth."

The very first toy of the blacks in this neighbourhood is the most
cosmopolitan of all. No race of infant exercises over it a monopoly. It
belongs as well to the palace as the hovel, for it is none other than the
rattle. If proof were wanting that infants the world over have perceptive
qualities in common, and that the universal mother employs like means for
the development of them, the rattle would supply it. Here the toy which
each of us has gripped with gladness and slobbered over is found not
altogether in its most primitive form. It might, indeed, be classed as an
emblem of arrested development in art, for better things might reasonably
be expected of grown-up folks who in their infancy were wont to use such
a neat means of charming away fretfulness. The toy is a tiny spherical
basket of neatly interwoven thin strips of cane from one of the creeping
palms, in which is enclosed one of the smooth, hard, lead-coloured seeds
of the CAESALPINIA BONDUCELLA. The rattle, which is known by the name of
"Djawn," seems to be quite as effective as the more elaborate but less
neat varieties employed to amaze and pacify the infants of civilisation.
Similar seeds are used by Arabian children for necklaces, hence the
specific botanical name of the plant.

Measured ethnologically, perhaps the most primitive pastime is also one
of the most interesting, for it seems to indicate the evolution of the
spear. It may readily be believed that a black boy playing with a grass
dart exhibits one of the early stages which the spear passed ere it
reached its present form in the hands of his father with a wommera. As
the boy grows up, so does his spear grow with his growth, and lengthen
with his length. The grass dart is merely a stem of blady grass (IMPERATA
ARUNDINACEA), which the blacks know as "Jin-dagi," shortened to about
fifteen inches by the severance of the leaves, which is usually
accomplished by a quick nip with the teeth. The dart is taken between the
thumb and the second finger, the truncated ends of the leaves being
pressed against the tip of the first finger, by which and the
simultaneous impulse of the arm the dart is propelled. Accurate shots may
be made with the missile, which has a range up to about thirty yards,
with a penetrative force sufficient to pierce the skin. Occasionally the
boys of the camp in opposing sides indulge in mimic fights, when the air
rustles with the darts, and the yelling combatants exhibit expertness as
marksmen as well as extraordinary shrewdness in the special protection of
the face and other exposed and tender spots, and skill in dodging and
parrying.

The "Wee-bah," another toy weapon (also obtained from blady grass),
might be designated an arrow, the flight, though not the impulse, being
similar. A single stem of grass is shortened to about fifteen inches. By
being drawn between the nails of the thumb and the first finger, the web
is separated from the midrib for about three inches. The sportsman
pinches the web end loosely between the lips. The split ends, held in the
left hand, are bent over a thin stick in the right hand. Upon the stick
being moved smartly forward, the web peels from each side to the midrib,
which shoots ahead with an arrow-like flight in the direction the
marksman designs.

Velocity, accuracy, and range are remarkable. The arrow will penetrate
the skin (the stem having an awl-like point) at a distance of ten or
fifteen yards, and twenty yards is not an uncommon limit to its range.
This is used for killing small birds, as well as in idle sport. A few
handfuls of blady grass supply a sheaf of missiles, and with such cheap
ammunition the sportsman is justified in providing himself profusely when
intent upon the destruction of shy birds. Noiseless and rapid, if the
shot misses there is no disturbing effect on the nerves of the bird. A
dry twig falling or a leaf rustling has no more elemental shock than the
flight of the dart. The unconscious bird hops about its business
unconcerned until a dart does its work. Birds which fall to this most
inartificial weapon are very small, but a black boy does not despise the
most minute morsels of food. He wastes nothing, and in such respects is
superior to many a white sportsman, who often shoots that for which he
has no appetite, and glories in a big bag irrespective of the capacity of
his stomach. No doubt the black boy, too, experiences the same exultant
passion when his grass dart impales a pert wren, as does his prototype
when the thud of a turkey on the plains is as an echo to the report of
his gun. The black boy singes off the feathers, slightly scorches the
flesh of his game and munches it whole, secures another sheaf of darts,
and goes a-shooting again.

Darts are also improvised from blady grass by two other methods, each a
prototype of the spear and wommera. The midrib is severed and the web
peeled therefrom for a few inches as in the "Weebah." The loose ends of
the web being retained between the thumb and the second finger, the
midrib peels off completely when the hand is propelled, the impulse being
transmitted to the dart. This, perhaps, is the earliest and most
primitive application of the principle embodied in the wommera. In the
third method the midrib is similarly severed and the web peeled for about
two inches; but the stalk is held in the hand, and, being jerked
forward, the midrib being torn from the web flies off, though not under
accurate control as to direction.

Quite as early a toy as the grass dart is the boomerang made by a boy's
father, or a companion older than himself, and which the youngest soon
learns to throw with skill. He graduates in the use of weapons nicely
graded to suit his growing strength, spending hours day after day in
earnest, honest exercise, until some other game happens to become
irresistibly fashionable.

A weapon intermediate between the "Jin-dagi" and the full-length spear
of manhood is the scape of the grass-tree (XANTHORRHEA ARBOREA), with
which youths fight furious battles, gradually perfecting themselves in
elusive tactics and in the training of hand and eye. A favourite set
target is the bulbous formicary of the white ant which disfigures so many
of the trees of the forest. Along tracks where the spears are readily
available there are few white-ant nests untormented by two or three. A
strong reed which flourishes on the margins of watercourses is played
with similarly, and by the time the youth has put aside youthful things
and has learnt to fashion a spear of tough wood he is an expert.

In order to acquire dexterity, the fish spear in the first instance is a
mere toy, and is used in play with as much vivacity and preoccupation as
marbles and tops and kites are by boys of Australian birth. A coloured
boy, in all the joyous abandon of the unclad, sports with a spear
suitable to his height and strength for a month together, floating chips
and scraps of bark in the water as targets, until hands and eyes are
brought into such subjection that the art is, as it were, burnt into his
blood, and a miss becomes rare. In the meantime he has also practised on
small fish, and soon he is a regular contributor to the larder.

What is known as the "Piar-piar" accomplishes the flight of the
boomerang, and is therefore termed familiarly the "little fella
boomerang." Before attempting to describe the toy, it is interesting to
note that the word "boomerang" is alien to these parts (Dunk Island),
though in almost universal use among the blacks. "Wungle" is the local
title. The "Piar-piar" is made from a strip from the side of the leaf of
one of the pandanus palms (PANDANUS PEDUNCULATUS). The prickles having
been sliced off with a knife or the finger nails, two distinct
half-hitches are made in reverse order. Each end is shortened and roughly
trimmed, the knots creased and squeezed to flatness between the teeth and
lips, and the toy is complete, the making having occupied less than a
minute. Before throwing the ends are slightly deflexed.

The toy is held in the right hand lightly between the thumb and the first
and second fingers, concave surface down, and is thrown to the left with
a quick upward turn of the wrist. After a short, rapid flight almost on
the plane of the hand of the thrower, the toy soars abruptly upwards,
and taking a sinistral course, returns, twirling rapidly, to the thrower,
occasionally making two complete revolutions. The ends are deflexed prior
to each throw. Boys and youths are fond of the "Piar-piar," and men of
sober year's do not disdain it, being frankly pleased when they succeed
in causing it to execute a more prolonged and graceful flight than
ordinary.

Another toy which has the soaring flight of the boomerang is made out of
two portions of the leaf of the pandanus palm stitched together in the
form of a St. Andrew's Cross. It is thrown like a boomerang, the flight
being circular, and when it is made to complete two revolutions round the
thrower that individual is manifestly pleased with himself. This is known
as "Birra-birra-goo."

Another form of aeroplane, "Par-gir-ah," comes from the pandanus
palm--its parts being plaited together. This is thrown high and descends
spirally, twisting so rapidly throughout its course that it appears to be
a solid disc. This is also used as a windmill, being affixed to a
spindle. Children run with the toy against the wind and find similar
ecstasy to those of whites of their age and kidney.

The sea-beach supplies in plenty a missile which, from the hands of a
black boy, has a fantastic flight. This is the bone of the cuttle-fish
("Krooghar"), which, when thrown concave surface down against the wind and
after the style of the boomerang, whirls rapidly and makes a decided
effort to return. It is also thrown along the surface of the sea as white
boys do "skipping stones," often reaching astonishing distances in a
wonderful series of skips.

"Cat's cradle" is popular in some camps, the ingenious and complicated
designs into which the string is woven far outstripping the art of the
white man, and leaving his wondering comprehension far behind. Toy boats
and canoes are favourite means of passing away time by those who live on
the beach; and while little girls dandle dolls of wood and bark, their
brothers and cousins laboriously chip stones in the shape of axes, and
used formerly to make fish-hooks of pearl shell, in imitation of the
handiwork of their elders. Boys are also given to trundling a disc of
bark, centrally perforated for a short cord, the art of the game being to
give the disc, while it revolves, an outward inclination. In these
degenerate days the top of a meat-tin is substituted for the decent bark
disc, in the making of which nice art was exhibited.

Several of the games of the youngsters are bad imitations of the sports
of the white. Just as their fathers find joy in a greasy, blackened,
imperfect pack of cards, throwing them down with significant gestures,
but in absolutely perfect ignorance of the rules of any game or capacity
to appreciate any number greater than three--so do the children make
believe to play cricket with a ball worlds away from a sphere (for it is
none other than a pandanus drupe), and a bat of any waddy.

But it is due to the crude folks who owned Australia not so very long
ago, to say that they had invented the top before the usurpers came
along. Tops are made from the fruit of one of the gourds which ripens
about the size of a small orange, the spindle being a smooth and slender
piece of wood secured with gum. The spinning is accomplished by revolving
the spindle between the palms of the hands. some being so expert in
administering momentum that the top "goes to sleep," before the eyes of
the smiling and exultant player. Dr. Roth chronicles the fact that the
piercing of the gourd to produce the hum has been introduced during
recent years. The blacks of the past certainly had no ear for music, but
now no top which cannot "cry" is worth spinning.

A more primitive top is the seed-vessel of the "Gulgong" (EUCALYPTUS
ROBUSTA), the pedicel of which is twirled between the thumb and second
finger. Such tops, of course, are the common property of bush boys, white
and black, but the latter seem to be more casual in the spinning, though
deriving quite as much glee therefrom.

A similar top but of larger size is the unripe fruit of the "Kirra-kul"
(EUPOMATIA LAURINA), which resembles an obtuse peg-top, and is spun from
the peg.

The "Kirra-kul" tree provides also the means of obtaining that joy in
loud explosions which is instinctive in the boy, whatsoever his race or
colour. Young, lusty shoots several feet long, and full of sap, are
placed in the fire for a few minutes, and upon being "bashed" on a log
or other hard substance the heated gas contained in the pithy core bursts
out with a pistol-like report.


"As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods--
They kill us for their sport."


The cruelty of the average boy, his insensibility to, or carelessness of,
the pain of others and of inferior creatures is exemplified by the
treatment which the "Pun-nul" (March fly) receives. That an insect
which occasions so much exasperation and pain should receive small mercy
at the hands of a vexed and sportful boy is not extraordinary, and so he
provides himself with entertainment and takes vengeance simultaneously.
The hapless fly is impaled with an inch or two of the flowering spike of
blady grass to which a portion of the white inflorescence adheres, and is
released. Under such handicap flight is slow and eccentric, often,
indeed, concentric, and the boy watches with unfeigned delight while his
ears are soothed by the laboured hum.

"Blue-bottle" and "March" flies provide another sort of cheerful
sport in which no little malice is blended. Some boys make tiny spears
from the midrib of the frond of the creeping palm (CALAMUS OBSTRUENS),
which, balanced on the palm palm of the left hand, are flicked with
deadly effect, continual practice reducing misses to the minimum. Where
the grass-tree grows plentifully the long, slender leaves are snapped off
into about six-inch lengths and are used similarly to the creeping palm
darts and with like accuracy. Hours are spent killing the big, lumbering,
tormenting flies which infest the camp, and towards which no pity is
shown, for do they not bite and bloodsuck night and day?

These incomplete and casual references to a very interesting and
engrossing topic may be concluded by a reference to a particular spear.
Since it consoles and comforts the solitary walks of an aged man, steeped
to the lips in the superstitions of his race, and haply ignorant of, or
indifferent to, the polyglot pastimes of the younger generation soiled
by contact with the whites, the spear, though not a weapon of offence or
of sport, is serious and indeed vital to the peace of mind of its owner.
He is one of the few who were young men when the white folks intruded
upon the race, with their wretched practical ways and insolent disregard
of the powers of the unseen spirits, against whom "Old Billy," as his
ancestors were wont, still acts on the defensive. "Old Billy" never
ventures into the jungle without his spear, though throughout his long
and expectant life he has never had occasion to use it. He fears what he
knows as "Bidgero," a phantom not quite as truculent as the debil-debil,
but evil enough to strike terror into the soul of an unarmed black boy,
old or young.

The spear is slender and jointed, the grip being 4 feet 9 inches and the
shaft 8 feet. Its distinguishing merit consists of an array of barbs (the
serrated spurs of sting-rays) fifteen in number, and ranging in length
from 1˝ inches to 4˝ inches. In the first eight inches from the
point are five barbs, the second being double, and the rest are spaced
irregularly in accordance with the respective lengths of the barbs, which
are in line. "Old Billy" does not allow any one to handle the spear and
will not part with it, no matter how sumptuous the price, for would he
not, in default, be at the mercy of any prowling, "Bidgero?"

He describes its use with paucity of speech, effective passes, horrible
grimaces, and smiles of satisfaction and victory, which make mere words
tame. Suppose you ask, "When that fella Bidgero come up, you catch 'em?"
"Old Billy" throws himself into an hostile attitude, in which
alertness, determination, and fearsomeness are vividly displayed. "0-o-m!"
(The thrust of the spear.) "Ha-a-a-ha!" (The spear is given an
excruciating and entangling half-turn.) And "Old Billy" exclaims,
still holding the imaginary "Bidgero" at the spear's length: "That fella
Bidgero can clear out! Finish 'em!" The spear has penetrated the
unlucky and daring phantom, several of the barbs have become entangled in
its vitals, the enemy is at "Old Billy's" mercy, and since "Old
Billy" has no such element in his mental constitution, there would be
one "Bidgero" less in the land if there were any reality in the
business. "Old Billy's" manoeuvres and tactics are so grim, skilful,
and terrible that one may well hope that he may never be mistaken for a
ghost, while within thrusting distance of his twelve foot "Bidgero"
exterminator. Yet the young boys smile, when they do not openly scoff,
because of his faith in the existence of a personal "Bidgero," and in
the efficacy of his bristling spear, which many of them regard as an old
man's toy.




CHAPTER XXVI



TOM AND HIS CONCERNS


DOMESTIC AND OTHER BRAWLS

Tom, who holds himself well in reserve, stood once before an armed and
angry white man, defiant, unflinching, bold.

As I have had the privilege of listening in confidence to both sides of
the story, and as the main facts are minutely corroborative, I judge
Tom's recitation of them to be quite reliable.

He was "mate" at the time of a small cutter, the master of which could
teach him very little in practical seamanship. The captain was rather
hasty and excitable. Tom never hurries, fusses, or falters, be the
weather never so boisterous afloat or the domestic tribulations never so
wild ashore. When Nelly, his third wife, tore her hair out by the roots
in double handfuls and danced upon it, Tom calmly observed, "That fella
make fool belonga himself!" But when she rushed at him, clawing
blindly, he promptly and without the least consideration for her sex,
silenced her for the time being with a stone. The sudden peace after
Nelly's squeals and yells of temper was quite a shock; and when she woke
her loving-kindnesses to Tom were quite engaging. Tom will ever be
master in his own humpy.

To tell of that other incident that caused Tom to look wicked and so
bellicose. The captain of the cutter lost half a crown. His excitement
began to simmer at once. A hasty general search was made without result,
every nook and corner of the boat and all the captain's garments and the
belongings of Tom and the other blacks being ransacked. The money
declined to be found, and the captain, like David of old, refused to be
comforted, and further following the fashion of the psalmist, said in
his haste all blacks are thieves. Tom put on the stern, sulky, sullen
aspect that so becomes him, and when he was individually challenged with
the theft, disdainfully told his master, "Me no take your money! You
lost em yourself!"

This calm, plain statement of fact so angered the boss that, calling Tom
a cowardly thief, he yelled, "You take my money! I shoot you!"

It is placing rather a paltry valuation even on the life of a black
fellow to threaten to shoot him for the sake of half a crown; but the
death penalty has been exacted for far less, according to the boastful
statements of self-glorifying white men. The boss was raging. He groped
in the locker for his revolver, while Tom took a side glance at a
tomahawk lying on the thwart.

Presenting the revolver, the boss yelled, "You rogue, Tom! You steal my
money! I shoot you!" Tom changed his sulky demeanour for the pose and
look that a camera has preserved, saying, "My word! you shoot one time,
straight. Subpose you no shoot one time straight, look out."

The shot was never fired.

I asked Tom what he would have done suppose the revolver had been fired
and he not killed.

"My word! Subpose that fella he no kill me one time, I finish him one
time quick alonga tomahawk!"

In the course of the day the half-crown was found under the stern
sheets, where the boss had been sitting.

To coolly face death under such circumstances is surely evidence of rare
mental repose.

Once Tom had a jovial misunderstanding with his half-brother Willie, who
cut a neat wedge out of the rim of Tom's ear with a razor. He had
intended, of course, to gash Tom's throat, but Tom was on the alert. In
revenge and defence Tom merely sat upon Willie, who is a frail, thin
fellow, but the sitting down was literal and so deliberate and
long-continued that Willie was all crumpled up and out of shape for a
week after. Indeed, the "crick" in his back was chronic for a much
longer period. Tom was half ashamed of this encounter, and while
glorying in the scar with which Willie had decorated him, excused his own
conduct in these terms:

"Willie fight alonga razor. He bin make mark alonga my ear. My word! Me
savage then. B'mbi sit down alonga Willie. Willie close up finish. Me bin
forget about that fella altogether. When Willie wake up he walk about all
asame old man l-o-n-g time!"

With whatsoever missile or weapon is at hand Tom is marvellously expert.
As we rested in the dim jungle after a long and much entangled walk, a
shake--a poor, thin thing, about four feet long, wriggled up a bank ten
or twelve yards off, just ahead of a pursuing dog. On the instant Tom
picked up a flake of slate and threw it with such precision and force
that the snake became two--the tail end squirmed back, to be seized and
shaken by the dog, and the other disappeared with gory flourish under a
root.

Most of Tom's feats of marksmanship, though performed with what white men
would despise as arms of precision, end seriously. Yet on one occasion
the result was broadly farcical. He has a son, known to our little world
as Jimmy, who, like his father, is given to occasional sulks, a luxury
that even a black boy may become bloated on. Tom does not tolerate that
frame of mind in others. The attentions of "divinest melancholy" he
likes to monopolise for himself, and when Jimmy becomes pensive without
just cause, Tom's mood swerves to paternal and active indignation--which
is very painful to Jimmy.

Jimmy, in the very rapture of sulkiness, refused to express pleasure or
gratitude upon the presentation of a "hand" of ripe bananas. Tom's
wrath at his son's mute obstinacy reached the explosive climax just as he
had peeled a luscious banana. He sacrificed it, and Jimmy appeared the
next instant with a moustache and dripping beard of squashed fruit as an
adornment to his astonished face. Then he opened his mouth to pour forth
his soul in an agonising bleat. Tom got in a second shot with the banana
skin. With a report like unto that which one makes by bursting an
air-distended paper bag, the missile plastered Jimmy's cavernous mouth,
smothered his squeal, and sat him down so suddenly that Tom thought his
"wind" had stopped for ever. Kneeling beside the boy, he set about
kneading his stomach, while Jimmy gasped and glared, making horrible
grimaces, as he struggled for breath. Nelly, nervous Nelly, concluding
that Tom was determined to thump the life out of Jimmy, assailed him
with her bananas and vocal efforts of exquisite shrillness. Just as
matters were becoming seriously complicated, Jimmy rolled away, scrambled
to his feet, and fled, yelling, to the camp, firm in the belief that his
doting father had made an attempt on his young life.


THE LOGIC OF THE CAMP


Poor half-caste Jimmy Yaeki Muggie, a pleasant-voiced lad, who always wore
in his face the slur of conscious shame of birth, died apparently from
heart failure, an after-effect of rheumatic fever. Tom and Nelly mourned
deeply and wrathfully. Smarting under the rod of fate, they sought with
indignant mien counsel upon the cause of death.

Jimmy was a young fellow. Why should a young man, who had been lusty
until a couple of months ago, die? Somebody must have killed him by
covert means. In the first outburst of grief they blamed me. Tom
declared, with passion in his eyes, that I had killed Jimmy by making him
drunk. The charge was not absolutely groundless, for when the
yellow-faced fellow was chilly with a collapse, I had administered
reviving sips of whisky-and-water.

Yes, Tom declared in an angry mood, and with the air of one who washed
his hands of the whole sad business, the doses of whisky had killed
Jimmy. As Tom indulged to the fulness of his heart in the luxury of his
woe, he began to reflect further, and to change his opinion.

He mentioned incidentally that whisky was "good." "Before you gib em that
boy whisky, he close up dead-finish. B'mby he more better."

Then he began vehemently to protest against the malign influence of some
"no good" boy on the mainland, and Nelly, eager to satisfy her own
cravings for some definite cause for the ending of the life of a strong
boy, supported Tom's vague theories quite enthusiastically. To each
distinct natural phenomenon blacks assign a real presence. Even
toothache, to which he is subject, Tom ascribes to a malignant fiend, so
he asks for a pin which, without a wince, he forces into the decaying
bicuspid. His theory is that the little "debil-debil" molesting it will
abandon the tooth to attack furiously the obtrusive pin. The affliction
upon the camp had certainly been wrought by some boy who had been angry
with Jimmy. The how and the why and wherefore of such malignant influence
mattered not.

There was the dead boy rolled in his blanket, with a petrified smile on
his thin lips. Obviously death was due to some illicit control of the
laws of Nature. No one but a black boy could so grossly intercept the
course of ordinary events as to produce death. Such, at least, was
the logic of the camp.

Reflecting still deeper, and always with Nelly's unswerving
corroboration, Tom began to urge that Jimmy had been poisoned.

"Yes," said Nelly, quite cheerfully, "some boy bin poison em. What's the
matter that boy want poison Jimmy? Jimmy good fella!"

"Who poison that boy?" I asked.

"Some fella alonga mainland. .He no good that fella!"

"He bin sick long time. Poison kill em one time quick!"

Tom dissented. "Some boy make em poison slow. I know that kind."

Then he explained. "Some time 'nother fella tchausey belonga Jimmy. He
wan make Jimmy shout. Jimmy no wan shout for that boy. They have little
bit row."

"That boy wouldn't poison Jimmy because he no shout," I reasoned.
Everybody liked Jimmy."

"Yes," said Tom. "Sometime he might have row."

With an air of mystery, Tom continued: "When that boy have row, he get
bone belonga dead man, scrape that bone alonga old bottle. When get
little heap all asame sugar, put into tea. Jimmy drink tea. B'mby get
sick--die long time. Bad poison that."

Nelly's grief, which had been shrilly expressed at intervals, became
subdued as she listened to Tom's theories. To her mind the whole mystery
had been settled. There need be no further anxiety, and only formal
expressions of grief.

During the rest of the evening the wailing was purely official. Tom's wit
had so circumstantially accounted for the event, that it ceased to be
solemn.

The next day they dug a hole five feet deep in the clean sand at the back
of the humpy, and there Jimmy was laid to rest with the whole of his
personal property, the most substantial of which consisted of an enamel
billy, plate, and mug. The Chinese matting on which he had slept was used
to envelop the body, and the sand was compressed in the grave.

But Tom and his family had gone. He said--and the deep furrows of grief
were in his face: "Carn help it. Must go away one month. I bin think
about that boy too much."


TOM'S PHILOSOPHY


Tom had been so long intimately associated with cynical white people
that several of the more fantastic customs of his race are by him
contemned. Accordingly I was somewhat surprised to discover, after a few
weeks of rainless weather, during which the shady pool at the mouth of
the creek whence the supplies for his camp are drawn had decreased in
depth, that he had been slyly practising the arts of the rain-maker.

As a matter of fact Tom was not in need of water, but, calculating fellow
that he is, he foresaw the probability of having to carry it in buckets
from the creek for the house, and to obviate such drudgery he shrewdly
exercised his wit. A thoughtful, designing person is Tom--ever ready to
accept the inevitable, with unruffled aboriginal calm, and just as
willing--and as competent, too--to assist weary Nature by any of the
little arts which he, by close observation of her moods, has acquired, or
the knowledge which has been handed down from generation to generation. As
it was the season of thunderstorms, he craftily so timed his designs that
their consummation was not in direct opposition to meteorological
conditions, but rather in consistency with them. Captain Cook found the
ENDEAVOUR in a very tight corner on one occasion, out of which he
wriggled, and in recording the circumstance wrote: "We owed our safety to
the interposition of Providence, a good look-out, and the very brisk
manner in which the ship was manned." In a similar spirit Tom's art was
exemplified. He watched the weather, while he coaxed the rain.

Some rain-makers tie a few leaves of the "wee-ree" (CALOPHYLLUM
INOPHYLUM) into a loose bundle, which is gently lowered into the
diminishing pool, in which he then bathes; but all are presupposed to
observe the clouds, so that the chances of the non-professional being
able to blaspheme because of non-success are remote. Tom slightly varied
the customary process, though he accepted no risk of failure. Cutting out
a piece of fresh bark from a "wee-ree"-tree, he shaped it roughly to a
point at each end, and having anchored it by a short length of home-made
string to a root on the bank, allowed it to sink in the water.

A few yards away, towards the centre of the pool, he made a graceful arch
of one of the canes of the jungle (FLAGELLARIA INDICA) by forcing each
end firmly into the mud, and from the middle hung an empty bottle. The
paraphernalia was completed on the Saturday, when the weather was
obviously working up to a climax, but I was not made aware of Tom's
plans, and as one of the tanks was empty, on the following Monday, with
his assistance, I cleaned it out, remarking to him with cheerful irony:

"Now we get plenty rain. Every time we clean out this little fella tank
rain comes. You look out! Cloud come up now! We no want carry water
from creek."

That night a thunderstorm occurred, during which half an inch of rain
fell, to the overflowing of the tank.

In the morning Tom smilingly told of his skill as a rain-maker, while
admitting that the cleaning out of the little tank had also a certain
influence in the right direction. It was, a pleasant, gentle rain, too,
nothing of the violent and hasty character such as Tom had designed, but
again he had a plausible explanation.

"Subpose I bin put that mil-gar in water deep, too much rain altogether.
We no want too much rain now. After Christmas plenty." Tom asserts that
the deeper the pool in which the "mil-gar" is submerged the heavier and
more continuous the downpour; but as heavy rain is not liked, only
vindictive boys who have some spite to work off indulge in such wanton
interference with the ordinary course of the wet season.

The submerged bark which attracts the rain Tom calls "mil-gar," and the
suspended bottle (a saucer-shaped piece of bark is generally used) serves
to catch PAL-BI (hailstones), which, being, uncommon, are considered
weird and are eaten in a dare-devil sort of spirit. In this case PAL-BI
had but the remotest chance of getting into the bottle, and for that
reason (according: to Tom) none tried. "Subpose I bin put bark all asame
plate--look out plenty!"

Many natural phenomena are associated in the folklore of the blacks with
untoward events. The rainbow (AM-AN-EE) is not regarded by them as a
covenant that the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all
flesh, but as an evil omen, a cause of sorrow, for to whomsoever shall
bathe in the sea when the bow is seen in the cloud evil is certain to
befall.

Unprotesting Nelly is assured of this by her own sad experience. In tones
of deep conviction, which permit of no manner of doubt, she tells me
that AM-AN-EE caused the death of her infant--"brother belonga Jimmy."
She had bogied at Toorgey-Toorgey, when to her dismay the harbinger of
disaster appeared to spring out from the sea. In a week the child was
born-dead.

Both father and mother have the tenderest thoughts of that breathless
image in bronze. I saw it. Its features were refined, the nose sharp and
symmetrical, and the mouth a perfect Cupid's bow. Its expectant repose
thrilled me, for it was the realisation of that which Dickens said of
little Nell--"a creature waiting for the breath of life."

No marvel they mourned, that Nelly cut her arms with splinters of glass,
that she still regards the lovely rainbow with resentment tempered by
fear.

Tom does not respond to cross-examination. He thinks his own thoughts and
says but little. When he is communicative his veracity is the less to be
trusted. Many a time have I sought his opinions on the serious import of
life--to find that he has none. His thoughts are concentrated on things
which affect the immediate moment. Since he is mentally incapable of
denying himself the most trivial recreations upon which his wishes have
dwelt, restraint is succeeded by despairing, uncontrollable moroseness
pathetic in its genuineness. How could such a temperament reflect upon
the future? He is no doctrinaire; he does not credit existence after
death--"When you dead, you finish!"

"But," I suggested, "plenty of your country men think about another place
when you die--finish."

"Yes, some boy he say when you dead you go long another place. L-o-n-g
way. More better place, plenty tucker, no work, sit-down, play about all
day. When you come alonga that place father, mother, brother,
sit-down--no more can die!"

Then I put a customary question: "Yes, what all go alonga that place like
when you die? You father old man when he die. He old man now alonga that
good place? Little Jinny young when she die. That fella young along that
place? That piccaninny belonga Nelly--piccaninny alonga that place?"

"Yes, all asame when you die you along that place."

"Good boy and bad boy-rogue, all go one place?

"Yes. Rogue he got one heaby spear right through. Go in here (indicating
the middle of his chest), come out alonga back. Sore fella. That spear
fight em inside. My word! Carn pull em out. He no die. Too much sore
fella!"


DEAD--FINISH


Since the foregoing was penned Tom has realised the supreme fact of
existence. He is dead, and is buried in dry, hot ground away from the
moist green country which he knew so well, and was wont to love so
ardently.

Although he was "only a black fellow," yet was he an Australian by the
purest lineage and birth--one whose physique was example of the class that
tropical Queensland is capable of producing, a man of brains, a student
of Nature who had stored his mind with first-hand knowledge unprinted and
now unprintable, a hunter of renown, and in certain respects "a citizen
impossible to replace."

Given protection from the disastrous contact with the raw, unclean edge
of civilisation, he and others, his fellows, might have lived for a score
of years longer, and in the meantime possibly the public conscience of
Australia might have been aroused, and his and their last days made
wholesome, peaceable, and pleasant.

There is something more to be said about Tom in order that the attempt to
show what manner of man he was may be as complete as the inexorable
regulation of death permits.

Strong and substantially built, so framed that he looked taller than the
limit of his inches, broad-chested, big-limbed, coarse-handed, Tom's
figure differed essentially from that of the ordinary type, and as his
figure so his style and mental capacity. Serene in the face of perils of
the sea, with all of which he is familiar, he was afraid of no man in
daylight, though a child might scare him after dark.

Tom was not as other blacks, for he loved sport. It was not all a
question of pot-hunting with him. Apart from the all-compelling force of
hunger, he was influenced by the passion of the chase. Therefore was he
patient, resourceful, determined, shrewd, observant, and alert. His
knowledge of the ways of fish and of the most successful methods of
alluring them to his hook often astonished me. He saw turtle in the sea
when quite beyond visual range of the white man. Many a time and oft has
he hurled his harpoon at what to me was nothingness, and the rush of
the line has indicated that the aim was true. He would say when fifty
yards of line were out the particular part of the body in which the
barbed point was sticking. If it had pierced the shell, then he must play
with the game cautiously until it was exhausted and he could get in
another point in better holding locality. If the point had entered the
shoulder, or below the carapace to the rear, or one of the flippers, he
would haul away, knowing that the barb would hold until cut out. When
restrained from the sea for a few days he became petulant and as sulky as
a spoilt child, for, in common with others of the race, he was morally
incapable of self-denial. Big and strong and manly as he was, he became
as an infant when circumstances compelled him to forego an anticipated
excursion by water, and rather than stay in comfort and safety on dry
land would--if he had so set his mind--venture over six miles of stormy
sea in a flattie little more commodious than a coffin. He was, on such an
occasion, wont to say, "No matter. Subpose boat drowned, I swim along
shore, tie em Nelly along a string," meaning that in case of a capsize
he would swim to dry land, towing his dutiful, trustful spouse.

Although by nature a true lover of the sea, his knowledge of the plant
life of the coast was remarkable. Among his mental accomplishments was a
specific title for each plant and tree. His almanac was floral. By the
flowering of trees and shrubs so he noted the time of the year, and he
knew many stars by name and could tell when such and such a one would be
visible. Yet, though I tried to teach him the alphabet, he never got
beyond "F," which he always pronounced "if." Perhaps his collapse in
literature may have been due to persistent efforts to teach him the
difference between "F" and "if" vocalised. He may have reasoned that
so finicking an accomplishment was not worth acquiring. In his own tongue
he counted thus:--


Yungl     One
Bli       Two
Yacka     Any number in excess of two--a great many.


But in English he did not lose himself until he had passed sixty--at
least, he was wont to boast of being able to comprehend that number.

Tom was a bit of a dandy in his way, fond of loud colours and proud of
his manly figure. When the flour-bag began to sprinkle his moustache he
plucked out one by one the tell-tale hairs until his upper lip became
almost  barren, but remorseless Time was never made to pause. Though many
a white hair was extirpated, Tom was as much at fault as most of us who
seek for the secret of perpetual youth, or to evade the buffets of old
Father Time.

Opium and rum lured Tom away during the last four years of his life. He
was sadly degenerated when I saw him for the last time, and several
months after, in a mainland camp, he quarrelled with his half-brother
Willie--the same Willie who many years ago in honourable encounter cut a
liberal nick out of one of Tom's ears with a razor. Willie probed Tom
between the ribs with a spear. While he lay helpless and suffering
representatives of the police force visited the spot and the sick man was
taken by steamer to a hospital, where he passed away--peradventure, in
antagonism to his own personal belief, to that "good place" fancied by
some of his countrymen, where tucker is plentiful and opium and rum
unprocurable. And unless in that "good place" there are fish to be
caught and turtle and dugong, and sting-rays to be harpooned, and other
sport of the salt sea available, and dim jungles through which a man may
wander at will, and all unclad, to chop squirming grubs out of decayed
wood and rob the rubbish mounds of scrub fowls of huge white eggs, and
forest country where he may rifle "bees' nests," Tom will not be quite
happy there. He was ever a free man, given to the habit of roaming. If
there are bounds to that "good place," he will discover them, and will
peer over the barricades longingly and very often.




CHAPTER XXVII



"DEBILS-DEBILS"


"As, however, there is no necessity whatever why we should posit the
existence of devils, why, then, should they be posited?"

Some of the blacks of my acquaintance are ardent believers in ghosts and
do posit the existence of personal "debils-debils." Seldom is a good
word to be said of the phantoms, which depend almost entirely for "local
habitation and a name" upon the chronicles of old men steeped to the
lips in the accumulated lore of the camps. Many an old man who talks
shudderingly of the "debil-debil" has lived in daily expectation of
meeting some hostile and vindictive personage endowed with fearsome
malice, and a body which may be killed and destroyed. Therefore, when the
old man ventures into the dim spaces of the jungle he is invariably
specially armed and his perceptive faculties strained to concert pitch,
while the unseen glides always at his elbow providing unutterable
thrills, lacking which life would be far less real and earnest.

Only one record has come to my knowledge of the presence of a benign
"debil-debil." All the other stories have been saturated with
awesomeness and fear. A very intelligent but excessively superstitious
boy now living on the Palm Islands was wont to entertain me with graphic
descriptions of the one species of "debil-debil" which he feared, and
of the most effective plan for its capture. He was under the belief that
a live "debil-debil" would be worth more as a curio than "two fella
white cockatoo." He imagined that if a "young fella debil-debil" could
be caught--caught in the harmless stage of existence--I would give him a
superabundance of tobacco as a reward, and that I would keep it chained
up "all asame dog" and give it nothing but water. I was frequently
warned "Subpose me catch em young fella 'debil-debil' when he come from
mother belonga him, no good you give him much tucker. Gib him plenty
water. He got fire inside. Smoke come out alonga nose." Given the
possibility of its capture, there was no reason why I should not indulge
the frugal joy of having a small and comparatively innocent "debil-debil"
on the chain. Did not the legendary Maori chiefs keep such pets for the
torment of their enemies? Mine would have to console itself with the
astonishment and admiration of friends, for, alas! I have not, to my
knowledge, an enemy worthy the least of the infernal pangs. Moreover, out
of our abundance of rain we could well spare an occasional meat-tinful of
water for the cooling of its internal fires.

Now, the method of capture of a piccaninny "debil-debil" was this:
Certain manifestations, not explainable and not visible to white men,
had revealed to the blacks that a favourite resort of the species was the
sand spit of the Island. Two boys who were wont to discuss their plans,
and even to practise them, decided that they must first observe the
habits of the "debil-debil," and so arrange to catch the young one when
the backs of the parents were turned, for, of course, designs against a
full-grown specimen were not only futile, but attended with infinitely
greater risks of personal injury than George would accept for love or
money. They procured about fifteen yards of cane from one of the creeping
palms, from which they removed all the old leaf sheafs and adventitious
rootlets, making it perfectly smooth. Crouching low, each holding an end
of the cane, which was strained almost to rigidity, the boys, in their
demonstration of the feat, were wont to sweep continuously over a
considerable area with the idea of getting the cane on the nape of the
neck of the assumed "debil-debil," and then to suddenly change places,
so that it became ensnared in a simple loop by which the baneful beast
was to be choked to submission.

Upon my suggestion a thin line used in the harpooning of turtles was
substituted for the cane, with which, however, some most realistic and
serious preliminary work towards perfection in the stratagem of
"debil-debil" capture had been accomplished in valorous daylight. But
though the boys gave many exhibitions of their skill and of the proper
attitude and degree of caution, the correct gestures and facial
expression for so momentous a manoeuvre, they could never be persuaded to
put their skill to the test at the spot where "debils-debils" most do
congregate after dark, the consequences inevitable on failure being too
diabolical to contemplate.

The conditions never seemed to be absolutely favourable for the deed, for
the boys anxiously persuaded me of the craft and alertness of the evil
one. Either the night was too bright or too gloomy, or it was so calm
that the "debil-debil" would be sure to hear their approach, or so
windy that they themselves might possibly be taken unawares. They
insisted that "debils-debils" suffered from certain physical
limitations; they could not cross the sea--hence the variety native to
the Island might be different from the mainland species, and would
therefore demand local study before being approached with hostile
intentions. I was wont to point out that since the sea presented an
impassable barrier, the sand spit, drawn out to a fine point, was just
the spot where a piccaninny might be easily rounded up, if it were
detected in a preoccupied mood. I suggested that I might be at hand to
encounter any untoward results in case of a bungle, but was met with the
positive assertion that no "debil-debil," however young and
unsophisticated, would "come out" if it smelt a white man.

One of the boys went so far as to select the chain with which the captive
was to be secured, and the empty meat-tin whence it was to be schooled to
take the only form of nourishment judicious to offer. That he did most
truly and sincerely believe the existence of "debils-debils" we had
proof every evening, for he would sit at the door of his grass hut,
maintain a big, dancing fire, and sing lustily under the supposition that
a good discordant corroboree was the most effective scare. Though alleged
to be obnoxiously plentiful, the boys could never screw up their courage
to the point of a real attempt to apprehend the dreaded enemy to their
peace of mind.

Two blacks in the employ of a neighbour went to sleep under an
orange-tree early one afternoon, and slumbered industriously while the
others worked. The quiet of the drowsy time was, however, suddenly
shocked by a great outcry, when the two lazy ones raced towards the
workers with every manifestation of fear in their countenances. They
declared that while they had slept a piccaninny "debil-debil" had "sat
down" on the orange-tree which had afforded them shade, and that when
they woke up it was there--"all a same flying fox." All moved cautiously
up, and sure enough, hanging head down, was what my friend took to be a
veritable flying fox; but he was in a hopeless minority. All scornfully
out-voted him, and to this day the blacks assert that "a piccaninny
debil-debil" so closely resembles a flying-fox that none but a black boy
can tell the difference.

Again, a black boy and his gin slept in an outhouse across the
door-space of which they, as usual, made a fire. In the morning', Billy
found himself, not in the corner where he had gone to sleep, but close to
the fire, and moreover his left arm was "sore fella." With a dreadfully
serious face he related his experiences. In the middle of the night a
"debil-debil" had entered the hut and, seizing him by the arm, had
dragged him towards the door, but being unable to cross the fire, had
been compelled to abandon otherwise easy prey. The aching arm proved that
he had been dragged by a superior force, and the absence of tracks was
assurance that none other than a "debil-debil" could have clutched him.
The episode was accepted as one more proof of the horror of
"debils-debils" of fire, and of the necessity of such a precautionary
measure.

The scene of the only occasion on which a visitant from the land of
spirits assumed benign shape is not far from this spot. It is historic,
too, from the standpoint of the white man, for it occurred during a
"dispersal" by black troopers under the command of mounted police. An old
black boy tells the story. Before sunrise the whole camp was
panic-struck, for it was surrounded by men with rifles. As the
defenceless men and helpless women and children woke up, dismayed, to
seek safety in flight, they were shot. One man tumbled down here,
another there. The awful noise of the firing, and the bleeding results
thereof, the screams of fear and shrieks of pain, caused paralysing
confusion. When it seemed impossible for any one to escape, a big man
jumped up, and, standing still, called out to the bloodthirsty troopers,
"Kill me fella! Kill me fella!" indicating, with his hand his naked
chest. Such audacity had its effect. All the troopers began firing at
the noble, self-sacrificing hero; but marvellous to say, he did not
tumble down, for though the bullets went through him, no blood gushed
out. While he was the only target, the other blacks, including the
veracious chronicler, ran away, leaving many dead. He afterwards declared
that the "big, good fella boy," who had drawn the fire of the troopers,
and whom the troopers could not kill, was a stranger to the camp. No one
had ever seen him before or since; but that he appeared at a terrible
crisis specially to save the whole camp from butchery was, and is, the
emphatic belief of the survivors. This incident was related, or rather
dramatically acted, in the presence of an aged native of the Malay
Peninsula, whose knowledge of the mysterious was (in his own estimation)
far more exact than that of the unenlightened blacks. With eyes sparkling
and all his senses quivering under the stress of impatience, he listened
to the end, and then burst out, "You fool! That good, big fellow boy, he
no boy. That fellow, white man call em ghost! Plenty in my country!"




CHAPTER XXVIII



TO PARADISE AND BACK


"He on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise."

                      COLERIDGE.

A gaunt old man with grizzled head, shrunk shanks, and a crooked arm was
the most timid of the strange mob of blacks who, under the guidance of
some semi-civilised friends, visited the clearing of a settler on one of
the rivers flowing into Rockingham, Bay. Shy and suspicious, his
friends had difficulty in reassuring him of the peace-loving character
of the settler, whose hut stood in the midst of an orange-grove. In a few
days, for no disturbing element existed, the nervousness of the old
man in the presence of his host ceased, and it was then noticed that
those who had accompanied him from the jungle-covered mountains, as well
as the friends he had picked up near the home of the white man, paid him
the rare compliment of deference. Well they might, for he was a man of
importance, though he lacked clothing, and the elements of decency. The
old man's friends--perhaps because of his semi-helplessness, due to the
twisted limb--performed various friendly offices for him, and never
thought of the spice of any dread avowal, for he was far superior to
them all, and righteously was he honoured. The lean Old Man had visited
that "undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns."
There was no doubt of his actual presence in this. There were his young
wife and several companions, male and female, ready to corroborate his
story; and was not his crippled arm painful but unimpeachable testimony
to the reality of his experiences?

In the telling of the history of a too brief sojourn in the paradise of
the blacks the old man took but little part, for his English was NIL.
The members of the party knew it by rote, and some of them could make
themselves understood. Pieced together--for the story came out bit by
bit--it ran thus:

A very long time ago, when the Old Man was young and lusty and the
"King" of the tribe, an evil-minded "boy" made great rains. All the
rivers overflowed their banks, the palm and tea tree swamps became
impassable, the hollows between the hills were filled with water. Week
after week it rained continuously, the floods gradually hemming in the
camp and restricting the wanderings of the men to one long ridge of
forest country. Soon all the food obtainable within such narrow limits
was eaten. Every one became hungry, for the camp was large and its daily
necessities considerable. Patiently they waited for the subsidence of the
waters, but more rain came and the camp grew hungrier than ever. Many sat
in their shelters and drank water copiously, thereby creating a temporary
sensation of satisfaction.

In the midst of the adversity the Old Man remembered having seen a "bees'
nest" up a gigantic tree some distance away. He had not climbed the tree
offhand because the feat seemed to be impossible. What might have been
just possible on a well-filled stomach was worth hazarding now that he
was famishing. So, wading and swimming, he gained the little dry knoll
in the centre of which stood an enormous bean-tree, and there, a long way
up, was the "bees' nest." With a piece of cane from a creeping palm and
a stone tomahawk he slowly ascended the tree, for he was weak and his
nerves unstrung. But he joyed when he reached the "bees' nest," for it
was large and full of honey and brood comb--a feast in prospect for the
whole camp. Then, as he set to work to chop out the comb, he heard, to
his astonishment, voices below, and peering down, saw not only a wife who
had departed to the land of spirits a year or so before, but his own
mother, who had died when he was a youth. Greeting him in glad tones,
they told him to come down, and that they would show him a big camp in
good dry country where there was abundance of food.

Descending the tree with the cane loop, he saw that his previous wife was
well favoured and fat, that his mother, too, was portly, that they had
dilly-bags crammed with tokens of material wealth. They were overjoyed
to see him, but expressed wonder that he was so weak when so much good
food was available. Saying but little, they struck out for the big
camp. The Old Man noticed, as they walked, that a track through the
thickest part of the jungle opened up--a beaten, straight track, which
he, for all his wanderings, had never before seen. The country was dry,
too. Scrub hens and scrub turkeys, cassowaries, wallabies, huge carpet
snakes, pigeons, fruits and nuts, bees' nests, and decayed trees full of
great white grubs were there in plenty.

Silently and swiftly the three passed along the track through a country
which, at every step, became more desirable, and at last emerged on an
immense pocket where there was a concourse of gunyahs from which the
smoke curled up, and in every gunyah was abundance. Some of the young men
were throwing sportful boomerangs and spears; large parties were so
absorbed in the pleasure of corroboreeing that no notice was taken of the
new-comer. The advent of strangers was too common an occurrence to
distract them from unconfined joys. Such a scene, so different from
the forlorn, starving, water-beleaguered camp over which the sullen
despair brooded, mystified and gladdened.

The cup of happiness overflowed when, conducted through merry throngs to
a particular spot, the Old Man was greeted by relations and friends for
whom he had once duly mourned, plastering his face with ceremonious
charcoal and clay, and denying himself needed food. Yet were they not
here, alive, and in the enjoyment of every good thing? It was almost
beyond comprehension. Was he not to credit the evidences of his own
senses? Was not the food they pressed on him most pleasant to the taste?
All the privations due to the flood were talked of familiarly. The scene
of plenty was so close to the famine-stricken camp that the Old Man found
himself wondering why it had not been found before. Now he knew the
spot, and would in due time guide his starving friends hither and make
one great camp, where all would live in undreamt-of ease, unrealisable
superfluity of food.

For three days he dwelt in the good land with content, lionised by his
relatives, taking part in the hunts, the feasts, the corroborees, and
being urged never to return to the camp of floods and hunger. Here was
bliss. Every wish amply gratified, who would willingly depart from so
entrancing a place? And with fervent promises on his lips never to go
away he was conscious of a sharp pain in his wrist and found himself
crumpled up, stiff, sore, hungry, and helpless, at the foot of the big
tree.

Reluctantly back in the land of stress and distress, so woefully weak
that he could not stand without swaying, while his right hand dangled
helplessly, confused sounds of Paradise still rang in his ears,
verifying all that had recently befallen.

He gazed around, dismayed to see no trace of his wife or mother; no
clean-cut, straight path leading to the land of pure delight. Far up the
tree hung the cane loop; beside him lay the stone tomahawk. All present
realities were of pain and hunger. Bewildered, slowly and with much
difficulty, he made his way to the flooded camp, noticing as he went that
water-courses he had been compelled to swim were now fordable--proof of
the lapse of time.

Eyes starved to impassiveness stared at the gaunt, crippled creature,
complaining mutely, for no food had been brought. Some muttered that he
had eaten it all during his unaccounted absence.

Silently the old man bound up his wrist excruciatingly tight with strips
of bark, and then in detail told of his glad sojourn in Paradise.

Then the faces of the famishing lit up with joyous expectancy
and--impatient, reckless, heedless of floods, forgetful of weakness born
of hunger--one and all hastened to the scene whence began the straight
path to the enchanting land. But keen as the best trackers might be, not
the least sign in proof of the Old Man's experiences could be found.

The impassive wall of jungle which had opened so agreeably to the Old Man
offered no obstacles to the enthusiastic searchers for Paradise. Far and
wide, among slim palms standing waist deep in sullen brown water; across
flooded creeks and rivers; over hills and mountains; up gloomy gorges
into which none had ever before dared to venture, elated, they hastened
day after day, glorious enterprise investing them with hardihood and
courage. Ardently, hopefully, each vying with the other--for had not the
Old Man proved beyond inglorious doubt the nearness and perfection of
Paradise?--they pushed the quest far and beyond the limits of their own
small province, and in vain, for they were not of the elect, however
loyal and eager.

Years have elapsed, but the Old Man and his friends have not lost faith
in the existence locally of the Happy Land. Had he not been hither, led
by wife and mother, and did he not remain there three days--the only days
of unimpeded joy in his long life? No such rich privilege had ever
befallen any one else; but without questioning or envy all verify his
words and delight to do him honour.




CHAPTER XXIX



THE DEATH BONE


(FACT CEMENTED WITH FICTION)

"In accordance with Nature's designs as he was a good artist
he was also good. He possessed nothing but his individuality."

                                                         ANON.

Wylo was an artist, and, like all true artists, an artist by grace of
God.

His family was not in any sense artistic. Of his lineage all had been
forgotten, save a few of the many failings of his grandsire. So none
could tell whence the talent that burst into blossom with him had sprung.
It had not been transmitted. It was spontaneous; it was a gift; and all
such gifts--are they not supernatural?

Gaunt old father and withered old mother would tell that Wylo from
earliest boyhood could always "make em good fella along tree"; and
now that he was a man and there were the emblems of manhood on his broad
chest--deep, cut lines and swelling ridges--and he oft wore his hair long
and fuzzy, his hand was very free.

Every morning he traced upon the convenient sand studies vigorous though
entirely free from the canons of the schools. No authority existed that
could tongue-tie his art. Each steamer, each boat which passed was
sketched off-hand, and by some little trick, due to his inspiration,
character faithful to the original was imparted. Banana-plants in full
fruit and slim palms in cluster were ofttimes his models; but
portraiture was not Wylo's forte. On the bark of trees, on flat rocks as
well as on the shifting sand he expressed himself plentifully and
graphically. He could no more exercise restraint when he found a
convenient surface and a piece of charcoal or a lump of soft red stone
than he could have recited the Book of Job.

His genius was imperative, almost overbearing. He had been commissioned
by an imperious authority to sketch--a fever almost amounting to insanity
fired his soul. His work was everywhere, for he had miles of forest and
jungle country for his studio, and no hampering, sordid cares to
distract him. The light of genius in such an obscure world was
unrecognised. Being beyond comprehension, it existed as the coldest
commonplace. Not one of his fellows was equipped mentally to register
the deviation from the frowsy norm of the camp exemplified in him; and
if the camp never produced another artist the default would occasion
exactly similar unconcern.

Wylo's masterpiece in portraiture--the one revelation of the human form
divine which he permitted himself to accomplish in other than transient
sand, was a fancy picture of one of his many sweethearts--a lady in a
very old hat and nothing more, with a few boomerangs thrown in to fill
otherwise waste space on the inner surface of his shield. Wylo, though
strenuous in his love of art is ever economic of the materials by which
that love finds such apt expression. His scenes are crowded.

As a warrior, and as a strategist, not altogether as an artist--though
sympathy must ever be with him in that o'ermastering talent of his--Wylo
also displayed those gifts which proclaim the gifted, though he was true
to his race in many of its phases of simplicity. His skill, or rather his
supreme striving to appease aesthetic thrills, made Wylo superb in the
fight. He developed a meek, affected voice, somewhat mincing ways, and a
faraway look in his eyes. These distinctive traits, worn with careless
hair, were so original, so intensely entertaining and notoriety-provoking
in a camp which had never possessed the copyright of more than
one shabby corroboree, that Wylo made many conquests. For each conquest
of the heart he had fought, and the more frequent his fights the more
expert and daring he became. Thus did love indirectly raise him
eventually to the dignified position of king.

Never before had any man of the camp so many fights on his hands. The
artistic instinct caused him to fashion weapons true and perfectly
balanced, made his hand the steadier and his aim very sure, while his
intense earnestness in love imparted terrific speed to his blows when he
beat down his rival's shield with his great short-handled wooden sword.
He was enthusiastic as a duellist as he was absorbed in art. It came to
pass that when Wylo was not tracing his favourite seascape he was either
flirting or engaged in the squally pastime of fighting an aggrieved
husband or scandalised lover.

Wylo had so many of the fair sex to do his bidding, that he was relieved
of the necessity of troubling himself about food. Frequently, as all
manly men do (civilised as well as savage), he longed for the passion of
the chase; and then he fished or harpooned turtle or hunted wallabies
with spear and nulla-nulla, or cut "bees' nests" from hollow trees,
when his face would become distorted by stings and his "bingey"
distended with choice honey, and he would without patronage bestow upon
gratified female friends, old or brood comb.

Wylo was a man and a king among his fellows, tall, white-toothed,
generally decorated with a section of slender yellow reed through the
septum of his broad-base nose, and with a broad necklace of yellow grass
beads round his neck. He wore clothes sometimes, as a concession to the
indecent perceptions of the whites (whom for the most part he despised);
though he preferred to be otherwise, for he was a fine figure--not a
plaster saint by any means, but a hero in his way and well set up, and an
artist by Divine Right.

Handsome, then, of build and limb, if not of feature, the ideal of every
female of the camp, a successful warrior, a true sportsman, was it any
marvel that Wylo suffered gladly that pardonable transgression of
genius--vanity? He oft wore nothing but a couple of white cockatoo
feathers stuck in his hair. Thus arrayed he was audaciously irresistible,
and provoked the enmity of the crowd. As an artist Wylo was an all-round
favourite; but as a dandy all but the women--and he was disdainful of the
goodwill of the men--despised while they panted with envy and made
grossly impolite references to him.

Now, the sarcastic jibes of a black fellow are not translatable, or
rather not to be printed beyond the margin of strictly scientific works.
Courageously free and personal, they would be beyond comprehension in
these chaste pages. Why, therefore, attempt to repeat them? A genius has
been described as a deviation from the average of humanity. This
definition exactly suited Wylo, for it was discovered when jibes were
flashing about that he was positively inspired. They were as sharp as his
spears, as stunning as his sword'.

Yan-coo, the wit of the tribe, a stubby, grim old man, who spent most of
his time making dilly-bags and modelling grotesque debils-debils in a
pliant blending of bees' wax and loam, to the horror of every
piccaninny, soon found that Wylo could talk back with such withering
effect, such shatteringly gross personalities that he, who with the
spiteful ironies of his venomous tongue had kept the camp in awe, was
dazed to gloomy silence by Wylo's vivid flashes of wit. His weird models
showed a mind corroding with vicious intent. He dared not open his lips
while Wylo was about. The quaking piccaninnies cringed with fear as they
watched him working up his malignant feelings into the most awful
imps--imps which threatened violence to their souls.

Wylo was supreme. He gloried in his dandyism and in his skill as a
fighter. His genius basked in the sunshine as he made high reliefs in the
sand or charcoaled pictures on the cool, grey rocks hidden in the
sound-sopping jungle. The one weak spot in his character was his faith in
a sort of wizardry. Contemptuous alike of the open violence or stratagems
of his fellows, he had the utmost horror of an implement which Yan-coo,
who was medicine-man as well as chartered wit, reserved for use against
mortal enemies.

This terrible tool he had never seen. Very few had, or even wanted to,
for its effects were as incomprehensible as they were tragic. Never
employed in the exercise of private or individual malice, the death
bone was an unfathomable and awful mystery. So dire was its influence
that if a woman touched it or even looked at it she sickened.

What was this instrument of death?

A human bone scraped and rubbed to a gradually tapering point, to the
thick, knobby end of which a string of human hair, plaited, was
cemented, the other end of a length of several yards being similarly
cemented to the interior of a hollow bone, also human. When the
stiletto-shaped bone is directed towards an individual who has incurred
the enmity of the medicine-man, his best heart's blood is attracted.
Drawn from the throbbing organ, it travels along the string and into the
hollow receptacle. The pointer is then sheathed and sealed with gum
blended with human blood, the string being wound about it. Simultaneously
with the extraction of the victim's most precious blood by this subtle
and secret process, a pebble or chip of shell is lodged in his body with
the result of ensuing agony.

Unaware of these very dreadful happenings, the individual so operated
upon may not suffer immediately any ill effect. The wizard watches, and
if no untoward symptoms are exhibited he takes into his confidence a
friend, and this candid friend tells the inflicted one that he must be
ill and dying, for the death-bone has been pointed at him and has done
its worst. Fear begets immediate sickness, and if the blood of the
patient be not restored and the foreign substance extracted from his
spasmodic side with elaborate ritual, death is inevitable.

Ridicule is but a slight shaft to employ against any one who may
retaliate with so potent a weapon as the death-bone. In the fulness of
his vanity and wit, Wylo began to make gratuitous fun of Yan-coo, who
fretted and fumed and terrified the piccaninnies with still more hideous
debils-debils. I saw one of them. It resembled a span-long plesiosaurus,
afflicted with elephantiasis, and  a forked, lolling, tongue extruded
from a head that swayed ominously right and left. A tipsy, disorderly,
vindictive debil-debil it was, that made the boldest piccaninny shriek
with dismay. Wylo with a tiny spear of grass knocked the head of the
atrocious debil-debil off, and the piccaninnies changed shrieks for
smiles.

That charitable feat sealed his fate. It was the beginning of a duel
between wizardry and art.

At night Yan-coo, mute with vengeance, left the camp for the secret
hollow, in a mass of granite which held the implements and elements of
his craft. While Wylo slumbered and slept the malicious sorcerer directed
with every atom of fervour he possessed the grisly death-bone towards him
from the distance of half a mile. The influence of the death-bone is so
completely under the control of the operator that it usually goes
straight to the person against whom he in the dead waste of the night
breathes his moody and angry soul away. Should the medicine-man, however,
be conscious that the potency is inclined to swerve, if he but put his
hand to the right or left it must fly in accordance with his will.

Perfectly unconscious of the dastard trick played upon him, Wylo
continued for several days to flirt and fight. He had a glorious time,
and so, too, had the piccaninnies, for Yan-coo, for reputation's sake,
dared not model debils-debils merely to have their horrible heads knocked
off with irreverent grass darts. Rather have no debil-debil than one
subject to Wylo's profane but splendid marksmanship. So the naked black
kiddies danced about Wylo, while Yan-coo fortified himself with the grim
knowledge that he had Wylo's heart's blood securely sealed up, and that
Wylo had a pebble in his body which would make him squirm sooner or
later.

But, strange though it was, nothing happened to the arrogant Wylo. His
physical condition was perfect, his spirits boisterous. The skill of the
medicine-man, the whole dread influence of the death-bone were at issue,
and to give effect to both Yan-coo whispered that he had employed the
death bone against Wylo, because Wylo had become too "flash."

The recital of the deed struck horror and dismay into Yan-coo's
confidant. He was shocked at the sacrilege, astounded that Wylo had not
yet "tumbled down." It was his duty to tell poor Wylo of his awful fate.

Individuals of other nationalities in all ages have been proof, as Wylo
was, against unimagined evils.

        "There may be in the cup
    A spider steep'd, and one may drink, depart,
    And yet partake no venom; for his knowledge
    Is not infected; but if one present
    The abhor'd ingredient, make known
    How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides
    With violent hefts."

"His knowledge infected," Wylo collapsed forthwith in a spasm of fright.
All the prognostics of the medicine-man were verified. Wylo's hair became
lank, his eyes dull, his teeth yellow, his face pinched, his limbs weak.
He spat frequently and groaned. He pined daily, for he slept little and
his appetite was gone. Knowing that the fatal death-bone had been pointed
at him, what was the use of attempting to resist inevitable fate? Rather
would he resistlessly meet it. How was it possible to live without his
precious blood, now sealed up in the death-bone? And he had a horrible
pain in his side where the stone was--just as Yan-coo had said.

All the camp knew what had happened. Yancoo's reputation had been grimly
asserted. Every one now dreaded him anew. Again he was king. Though it
was contrary to all precedent to point the death-bone at a member of the
tribe, yet had Yan-coo made a law unto himself and his own justification,
and the proudest testimonial to his skill was Wylo's deplorable
condition.

Wylo became thinner and weaker every day, for Yan-coo, seething, with
malignity, stood aloof, declining to interfere. To him Wylo's gibes had
been more cruel than the grave, for they had had the grace of
originality, and once and for ever he purposed to shake his authority and
dreaded power over the heads of the affrighted camp.

The death-bone was slowly but implacably doing its office.

Among Wylo's many sweethearts was one who, in early youth, had been
kidnapped from a distant camp. She it was who took the news of Wylo's
direful sickness there, and implored the aid of a rival medicine-man.
Glad of the chance of exhibiting his knowledge and skill in a case which
was notorious and to outsiders absolutely hopeless, he followed the
girl.

After making no doubt whatever that Wylo's blood had been abstracted,
that an angry stone was lodged in his side, and that death was imminent
unless prompt measures were taken, the strange medicine-man chanted long
and weirdly. He squeezed and Pommelled Wylo, and made tragic passes with
his hands over his body and limbs. Then suddenly he applied his lips to
Wylo's sore side, and, after loudly sucking, exhibited between them an
angular piece of quartz which he triumphantly declared he had drawn from
his patient's body. Everybody, including Wylo, believed him.

Wylo brightened up at once. The two medical men, whose interests were
common--for the profession is very close and regardful of its rights and
privileges--consulted, communicating by signs and gibberish not
understanded of the people. Accompanied by a few of the elders of the
camp, they went to Yan-coo's surgery, took out the death-bone, and with
much ceremony unsealed it.

Blood stained the interior! All could see that it was Wylo's blood. It
could be none other, for none but Wylo had been deprived of any.
Ostentatiously the medicine-men washed the death-bone clean, restored it
to its unholy nook, and returned solemnly to the camp.

After deliberate and impressive silence it was announced by moody Yan-coo
that Wylo's heart's blood had been restored, whereupon that hero rose to
his feet sound and well though lean.

No word of anger or complaint passed Wylo's lips the while he regained
normal strength and gaiety. With frank ardour he resumed his sketchings
and flirting with old-time success. He actually modelled the grossest of
debils-debils for the piccaninnies and impaled all the vital parts with
grass darts, while the piccaninnies broke into open jeers at Yan-coo, for
the spell of the debil-debil had been destroyed.

Such outrages upon the craft of the sorcerer could not be tolerated. But
Wylo watched Yan-coo, and one night as he strolled out of the camp Wylo
followed with that light-footed caution and alertness significant of his
artistic perceptions. Wylo carried a great black-palm spear fitted into
a wommera with milk-white ovals of shell at the grip.

Yan-coo went straight to his surgery. Once more he prepared the
death-bone. Every detail of the unholy rite was performed with
determination, for he had abandoned all remorse.

As he pointed the death-bone towards the camp where, as he supposed, Wylo
rested, that hero cast his spear. He was strong. He had the sure eye of
the artist, the vigorous hate of a black.

When they found Yan-coo next morning he was still kneeling on one knee,
for the polished spear had impaled him, and, sticking six inches into the
ground before him, kept him from falling. With his chin on his left
shoulder and his right hand still retaining the string of the death-bone,
he had died as unconscious of the hand of the artist as the artist had
been primarily of his wizardry.

White folks heard of the, "murder." Wylo was apprehended and put on
trial. The solemn and upright judge could not learn the true facts of
the case, since the witnesses were incapable of intelligently stating
them. Wylo, who had promptly confessed to the crime in the terms, "Me
bin kill 'em that fella one time--finish," but who was denied the right
of explaining that Yan-coo had been prosecuting designs against his life
quite as effectual as a spear, and that Yan-coo had been "justifiably
killed," was sent to gaol for several years.

Constraint was dreadful to him, and the sorest trial which he endured was
the suppression of artistic longings; but he made pictures, he tells me,
everywhere--" alonga wind, alonga cloud altogether, alonga water, alonga
dirt, alonga stone." They were mostly imaginative, but to his mind, in
fine frenzy rolling, they were soothing and real. He made pictures out
of airy nothing, and gloated over them with his mind's eye. No power
other than that which had bestowed the breath of life could subdue the
beneficient mania that exalted his soul.

Wylo, is at the camp, sketching, flirting, and modelling fearsome
debils-debils for a new generation of hilarious piccaninnies.



THE END





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