The Confessions of a Beachcomber, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter V

The Tyranny of Clothes

“Give the tinkers and cobblers their presents again and learn to live of yourself.”

Few enjoy a less sensational and more tranquil life than ours. Weeks pass, and but for the visits of the kindly steamer, and the passing of others at intervals, there is naught of the great world seen or experienced. A strange sail brings out the whole population, staring and curious. Rare is the luxury of living when life is unconstrained, unfettered by conventionalities and the comic parade of the fashions. The real significance of freedom here is realised. What matters it that London decrees a crease down the trouser legs if those garments are but of well-bleached blue dungaree? The spotless shirt, how paltry a detail when a light singlet is the only wear? Of what trifling worth dapper boots to feet made leathery by contact with the clean, crisp, oatmeal-coloured sand. Here is no fetish about clothes; little concern for what we shall eat or what we shall drink. The man who has to observe the least of the ordinances of style knows not liberty. He is a slave; his dress betrayeth him and proclaims him base. There may be degrees of baseness. I am abject myself; but whensoever I revisit the haunts of men clad in the few light incommoding clothes that rationalism ordains, I rejoice and gloat over the slavery of those who have failed to catch even glimpses of the loveliness of liberty, who are yet afeared of opinion —“that sour-breathed hag.” How can a man with hoop-like collar, starched to board-like texture, cutting his jowl and sawing each side of his neck, be free? He may rejoice because he is a very lord among creation, and has trousers shortened by turning up the ninth part of a hair after London vogue, and may be proud of his laws and legislature, and even of his legislators, but to the tyrannous edge of his collar he is a slave. He can neither look this way nor that, nor up nor down, without being reminded that he has imposed upon himself an extra to the universal penalties of Adam. One who lives in London tells me of the load of clothes he is compelled to wear in winter to preserve animal heat. He fights for life thus arrayed — thick woollens next the skin, the decent shirt (badge of respectability), the waistcoat of heavy cloth, the cardigan jacket (which hides the respectable shirt), the coat of cloth, strong and heavy; the overcoat long and incommoding, the woollen comforter, the wool-lined gloves, the double-woollen socks, the half-inch soled boots, the leggings, the hat. To carry this burden of clothes all day, pursuing ordinary vocations, were surely the grossest of bondage. While my three-garment costume — is it not convenient and fashionable enough?

A smart cutter appeared in Brammo Bay. A man, apparently in a pale red shirt, let down the sails and anchor, and by-and-by one in a black coat buttoned to the throat paddled himself ashore in a dinghy. Like a great many worn on state occasions in country parts here, the coat had seen better days. It was black with greenish lights; the stitches round the button-holes and along the seams brown and grey; it smelt fusty; the buttons were — well, various and assorted. An inch or two of tarry spun yarn, clove-hitched to a miniature toggel, neatly carved, was the hopeful beginning, a hasty splinter inserted pin-wise, the heedless ending of the row. Between these ranged a bleached cowrie shell, loosely looped with string; a fantastic ornament (green with verdigris) from some bygone millinery, and a cherished relic of a pair of trousers of the past in all the boldness of polished brass. But it was easy to detect that there was no shirt beneath the dingy coat; and that the coat itself was merely a concession to the evidence of civilisation which had been apparent from the boat. On board the man wore neither coat nor shirt. The cheerful note of colour, so conspicuous as he sailed to the anchorage, was his sunburnt skin. Some men burn brown, some red. He was of the red variety, and his bare skin looked a deal more respectable than his cockroach-nibbled coat. To him. clothing save for decency’s sake had become superfluous. He felt that “to be naked is to be so much nearer the being man than to go in livery.” He wore no hat, no boots. Pyjama trousers of cotton composed his entire workaday costume; dungaree trousers and a musty coat his Court dress. Yet he was clean and glowing with health and cheerfulness; self-reliant, splendidly independent. Had he allowed his mind to dwell on clothing his independence would have been less. He might have required the aid of a black boy to navigate his boat, and the continual presence of a black boy in a small boat does not make for sweetness and light.

Single-Handedness

Another grandly free man sailed his cutter into the bay one fine morning. He knew the water and ran her on the sand, brought his anchor ashore and shoved her off, to swing lazily the while. When I paid him a ceremonious visit, I found that he had but one arm. The empty right sleeve was the more pathetic when I saw him mixing his flour for a damper, and in the cunning twists and wriggling by which the fingers freed each other of the sticky dough and other dextrous manipulations, I soon came to recognise that with his left hand he was as deft as many men with their right and left. He had sailed the boat ladened with wire netting and heavy goods from Bowen, 200 miles south, and was on his way to his selection, 100 miles further north. A wiry, slight man though a real “shellback,” one who had been steeped in and saturated with every sea, was “giving the sea best,” nerve-shaken, so he said — and yet sailing a cutter with but 3 or 4 inches of free board “single-handed.” And he told the why and wherefore of his fear of the sea.

With a mate he had been for many months, beche-de-mer fishing, their station or headquarters a lonely islet in Whitsunday Passage, which winds about that picturesque group of islands through which Captain Cook passed in the year 1770. The twain had been out on one of the spurs of the Great Barrier Reef, and had been caught in the toils of adverse weather. After beating about for days they managed to make their station — hungry, thirsty, their souls fainting within them. Shelter and comfort were theirs, and it was no surprise to my visitor when his mate slept the next morning beyond the accustomed time. “Let him rest,” he said. “He is dog-tired;” and went about the work of the day. He had himself known what it was to sleep eighteen and twenty hours at a stretch, for he had many times been worn by toil and watching and nerve-tension to the limit of endurance. And so the day passed, and the man in the bunk slept on. Peace and rest were his, and the busy man envied the calm indifference to the day’s doings that he could not find in his heart to disturb.

“Won’t he feel fresh when he does wake,” he reflected. “He’ll be a bit narked at having wasted a whole bloomin’ day. I shouldn’t be surprised if he was savage, because I didn’t call him.”

When the evening meal was prepared and everything in the tiny hut made orderly, it would be a pleasure for him to wake up and discover that he had been allowed to have his sleep out.

Ah! but his sleep was very sound and very silent — almost too stillful to be natural.

A touch on his shoulders, saying —“Andrew. Wake up, old fellow!”

No movement, or response. His feet — cold! cold! and his chest, too, cold!

The mate had found his port after stormy seas. His heart — worn out with stress and strain — had failed within him, and all day long his companion thought tenderly of him, making but little noise, thinking that his sleep was the sleep of a day, not the sleep of eternity that no earthly din may disturb.

The weather was still boisterous, but it was essential to take the body to Bowen, to render unto the authorities there conclusive evidence that death had been the result of natural causes. My visitor’s nerves were then virile. But the time of stress and strain was at hand. He found himself alone on a remote Island. A grim responsibility forced upon him. Awful as the duty was, it had to be courageously faced, and performed as tenderly as might be. Instead of the enjoyment of comfort and rest, and days of busy companionship and revivifying hopes, there was the shock that sudden death inflicts, dramatic loneliness, dry-eyed grief, forced exertion, and the abandonment of brightening prospects.

With pain and infinite labour he succeeded in dragging and rolling the corpse to the beach. Thence he pushed it up a plank on to the deck of the cutter, and leaving his possessions to chance and fate, he, the wearied and bereaved one-armed man, set sail in violent weather across the open sea to the nearest port. At midnight the “great cry” of a hurricane arose. Lightning flashed over the stricken yeasty sea. A lonesome and grim quest this — full of peril. Did not Nature in the trumpet tones of a furious and vengeful spirit decree the destruction of the little boat as she bounced and floundered among the crests of those awful waves? Here was booty belonging to the ocean — prey escaping from the talons of the fiercest and most remorseless of harpies. So they shrieked and swarmed about the boat, howling for what was theirs. The strife was great, but not too great for the lonely man’s seamanship. All the fiends of the sea might do their worst, but until the actual finale came, he would sail the boat — lifting her on the swell, eluding the white hissing bulk of the following sea.

When at last the boat ran into port, the sea had gained a moral victory, but the man gave to the authorities the mortal remains of his mate to be buried decently on land.

He told me that he felt cowed — he could never face the sea again. Once before he had given up “sailorising,” not then on account of his nerves, but because ambition to possess a sweet-potato patch, pumpkins and a few bananas, melons, mangoes, had got hold of him. He had taken up a piece of land, but having no money his flimsy fencing was no barrier to the wallabies, and he abandoned the enterprise to them. Now he had abandoned his beche-de-mer project, had bought wire netting to keep out the wallabies, and would make a second effort to settle down. A little net fishing would help to keep him going. “As for the sea,” said he, “I have had enough — too much. It is all right while your pluck lasts, but once get a shake, and you had better give it up. And the little boat! — I broke that rail as I was getting poor Andrew’s body on board. She is all right, but for that — and she’s for sale!”

In an hour, having concocted some stew and baked his damper, the single-handed nerve-shaken, old sailor set sail, and I knew him no more.

Another of poor old “Yorky’s” adventures is worth telling. While out on the Barrier Reef, the black crew of his beche-de-mer boat mutinied, and knocking him and his mate on the head, threw them overboard. The sudden souse into the water restored “Yorky” to consciousness, and he swam back to the cutter whence the blacks had hastily fled in the dingy. It was a desperate struggle for a one-armed man to cling to and clamber up the side of the boat, but “Yorky” has never yet failed when his life was at stake. He won the deck at last, but at the expense of a broken rib and the flesh on the best part of his side tom bare to the bones. Still dazed, he chanced to look over the side, where he saw his mate’s head bobbing up and down in the water. Hard as it had been for him to save himself, it was more difficult still to rescue the body from the sharks. Frantically using rough-and-ready methods, he hauled it on board, and disposed it as decently as circumstances permitted. “Yorky,” great of heart, is quite unused to the melting mood. He admits that he felt pretty bad mentally. But whatever his feelings towards his sodden mate lying there with watery blood oozing from wounds on his head, exhibiting the marks of the necessarily rough-and-ready means that had been taken for his rescue, they had to be suppressed. Wet, dizzy, and sadly battered, with little more apparent reason for the possession of the breath of life than his companion, he set sail, slipped the anchor, and steered for the nearest port. Some distance on the way, to use “Yorky’s” own and sufficient words —“The dead man came to life!” Both had to submit to the restraint of hospital treatment for many weeks ere physical repairs were complete.

How is it that a one-armed man, slight in physique, whose brains have been addled by blows with billets of firewood, whose side is raw and bleeding, and who has a broken rib hampering his movements, is able to achieve feats that would be surprising if performed by a whole and stalwart individual? “Yorky” has always been a wonder, and his life a series of adventures and arduous tasks, which seem to prove that the loss of a limb has been compensated for by hardihood and resourcefulness worth a great deal more.

A Butterfly Reverie

“And laugh At gilded butterflies, and bear poor rogues Talk of Court news.”

There were but three men and a dog in the boat, but the boat was overburdened. Not that the dog was big, or the men either. It was all on account of the day.

It was a day in which you wanted the whole realm of Nature for yourself — so full of sunshine and flitting butterflies was it — so beaming with the advent of summer, and her fervent greetings, so wondrously calm and clear. You felt selfish at the pleasure of it all. It filled you well-nigh to surfeit, yet you would have more of it. It was too delicious to squander upon others, yet how could one mind comprehend the grandeur of it all?

The white boat drifted on a blue and lustrous sea. The reef points tapped a monotonous scale as the white sails swang to the swaying of the gaff. Listlessly the boat drifted to the barely perceptible swell, regular as the breathings of a sleeping child. Sound and motion invited to slumber. The shining sea, the islands, green and purple, the soft sweet atmosphere, the full glory of a rare day, kept all the senses in tune.

There, 4 miles away, lay the island, and close at hand the turtle were ever and anon rising, balloon-like, from coral gardens to gulp greedy draughts of air, which not even the salty essences of the ocean could rob of its perfume.

Sometimes the boat did seem conscious of inconstancy, and anon with feminine frivolity she would coyly swing round to flirt with the islets close at hand. She would have her own way until the free breezes came, and somehow the wind still blows whereso’er it listeth, and will not be untimely wooed, though the sailor whistles with all the “lascivious pleasing of the lute.”

Some atmospheric phenomenon, altogether beyond idle concern, lifted the islands afar off out of the water, suspending them in the sky. The languorous breadths of the sea gradually changed to silver, and under the purple islands the silver band extended, bright and gleaming, until it seemed to merge again into the blue of the sky. That was so, for was it not all visible — the purple islands, with the silver bands separating them from the sea. Yet under ordinary conditions those very islands are blue studs set in the rim of the ocean. What magic is it that uplifts them to-day between the ocean and the sky?

This was a day of gushing sunshine and myriads of butterflies. They flew from the mainland, not as spies but in battalions — a never-ending procession miles broad. You could fancy you heard in the throbbing stillness the movement of the fairy-like wings — a faint, unending hum. From the odorous jungle they came, flitting in gay inconsequence, steering a course of “slanting indeterminates,” yet full of the power and the passion of the moment. They flitted between the idle boom and the deck, and up the gleaming sky in all the sizes that distance grades between nearness and infinity.

There were Islands near at hand and some afar off. What instinct guided them — for butterflies are short-sighted creatures — I know not. If wind had come, as we who lolled lazily in the boat longed, the myriad host of resplendent creatures would have been scattered and millions beaten down into the sea, above which they flew with such airy levity.

What instinct guided the frail, unreflective creatures across miles of ocean to the Islands of the Blest among butterflies.

In their variety, too, they were entertaining. In great number was the pretty frailty, whose wings are compact of transparencies and purple blotches. In this full, fierce light the purple is black and the transparencies all steel-like glitter. They came across in shoals. There was neither beginning nor end. All the sky glittered with winged mosaics. Then came the great green and gold and black creature, accompanied sometimes by his less gaily decorated mate, ponderous of flight; and, anon, that insect of regal blue, that can flit as idly as any of the order, and yet dart in and out of the jungle and over the tree-tops, with swallow-like swiftness. Rarely in the throng came that scarlet and black, which makes the gaudy, flaunting hibiscus envious of its colour; but the little yellow “wanderers,” ever busy and active, came low over the water, weary with the long journey, and sometimes ready to rest — shifty flecks of gold — on the white sail.

There was no end to the flight. The air was too full. One wearied of the ceaseless panorama of the gay bejewelled insects. They were the possessors of the prime of that glorious morning. Beautiful and frail, and inconsequent as they were, you envied them. They flitted on without guide or leader, venturing the dangers of water and air, flying up in the full blaze of the sun — eager, joyous, unconcerned. In the boat we were compelled to loll about between heaven and the cool coral groves, and compare enforced inactivity with the blithesome freedom of the weakest butterfly.

Occasionally a turtle would bob up from its pastures below, and catching sight of the sail, with a bubbling gulp, disappear, the white splash creating concentric rings of ripples. But the breeze came not, and the disorderly procession of butterflies, miles broad, passed on.

“Some flew light as a laugh of glee;
Some flew soft as a low, long sigh,
All to the haven where each would be.”

I listened to the wooings of the black boys to the breeze. They liked not the prospect of sweeping the boat home. They implored for wind with cooings, with petulant whistlings, and with gentle but novel objurgations. But it came not, and so the afternoon passed and evening fell, and the butterflies, a faint, thin stratum, drifted on.

Then as a final challenge to the breeze that we longed for, and which had resisted all appeals, “Come on big wind and kill little boat!” exclaimed an irresponsible boy, whose ears had long ached with the days dull silence, and who saw no prospect of hot turtle steak for supper.

As if to take up the gauntlet, a faint zephyr flicked the listless cheek of the ocean, and slapped the sails. The boom swayed and swung over, the boat, without guidance, idly headed off, and we flopped home to the placid bay before the unenergetic breeze, which was all that Nature in her idle hour could spare.

The Serpent Beguiled

Eve Avenged

“You do yet taste Some subtleties o’ the isle that will let not you Believe things certain.”

Once upon a time — not so very long ago either — an unpretentious poultry farm was started. The idea of making, if not a rapid and bulky fortune, at least “a comfortable living” (and that phrase embodies much) out of poultry farming has been conceived, possibly, many times and oft. There was nothing novel, therefore, in the hatching out of this particular scheme. But for a paltry detail it would never have attained notoriety. We never blazon our failures — why should we? The one spark of original thought that enlightened the prosaic plans of the undertaking was this: The promoters wanted quality in the eggs of their hens as well as quantity. Quantity rests with the hen, but quality — like the “sluttishness” of Touchstone’s sweetheart — may come hereafter. In order that there might be no excuse for and no degeneracy on the part of the hens, shops were ransacked for nest eggs of proper proportions. These were placed in spots conspicuous to the hens, who, of course, understood that they were expected to lay up to them. In other words, these were patterns for the hens to lay by. No self-respecting, conscientious fowl likes to be beaten by a nest egg. She goes one, or, it may be, a dozen or two better; but the stony-hearted egg is never to be bluffed. It is there as a standard of size, and in accordance with its dimensions so will the credit of the fowl yard be.

In this particular yard all went well for many months. Why, the hens beat the nest eggs with scarcely an effort, and then started making records. It was a fierce and clamorous competition, and the enterprise flourished. A good beginning had been made, and the high-minded hens chuckled with pride and satisfaction. In the course of two or three months, however, a gradual deterioration in the size of the eggs took place. There was just the same amount of fuss and feathers, showing the artfulness of the hens, but the eggs soon dwindled down below plans and specifications, and then an investigation took place. Not a single nest egg was to be found. Vainly was search made. The hens sniggered. They had fulfilled their duty, and finding it tiresome and wearing to produce abnormal eggs, had secreted those set apart for them to measure by, and had thereupon levelled their enterprise and skill down. Such sinfulness and such burglarious conduct on the part of respectable hens that had the most discreet upbringing, that had never been allowed to play in anybody else’s yard, and that had never been permitted to wander from the paths of virtue, was a sore affliction.

But one day a nest egg was found far away in the bush, and then another a quarter of mile from the yard in the creek. Again another was discovered underneath a hollow log. Being restored to accustomed places with due ceremony, and in sight of all the hens in convention assembled, a gratifying change in the size of eggs produced resulted in a few days, but again a slump set in. The nest eggs had disappeared, and the hens were fulfilling their contract anyhow.

Other nest eggs of prescribed dimensions were taken out of stock; and a yet more wonderful thing happened!

One morning about fowl-feeding time a great cry arose.

“Sen-ake!” “Sen-ake!”

Yes, there was a snake. About half — the latter half — its length was visible outside the back of a nesting place (a box open at the front), and a blow from a shovel disabled it. Further examination showed that the snake had squeezed through a knot hole in the box. A lusty man hauled on the snake violently. The box was heavy, and from the front the snake could be seen. It looked troubled and uncomfortable, but not inclined to back out, although the inducement in that direction was considerable. Eventually the snake parted; and in the latter half there was a bulge. Dissection revealed — What — marvellous! a nest egg. But why did the snake show such reluctance to leave the box? The first or forward half was hooked out from among the straw, and there was another oval distention — another nest egg! The snake had discovered elsewhere a china egg, had swallowed it, and then crawled in at the knot hole, and got outside another. Escape was impossible. until the problem was solved by halving.

There are no more accusations of dishonourable motives on the part of the hens in doing away with the porcelain patterns to escape the arduous duty of laying. It was all the fault of the serpent. Now the serpent is not wise, for any nest egg beguiles him. It takes a long while to digest such hardware. Traps are now laid for him. An egg of china is put in a box, the open part of which is covered with small mesh-wire netting. The snake submits to the temptation of the egg coyly resting on a bunch of grass, and having made it its own, cannot let go. Then comes abhorred fate in the shape of a gleeful man with a long-handled shovel, and the end of the snake is piece — s.

Adventure with a Crocodile

“Cooling of the air with sighs, In an odd angle of the Isle.”

Now to proceed with the deliberate intention of dragging by the ears into these pages a crocodile yarn. We have not a single “alligator” in Australia, our crocodiles being wrongly so called, but this perversity of nomenclature does not affect the anecdote.

To tell of the coast of Queensland, and to omit reference to an adventure with one of those wary beasts would be to court criticism likely to cast a shadow upon the veracity of more than one of the incidents and occurrences herein to be chronicled.

I approach the duty to the readers as well as to myself with diffidence, for has it not been stated that these pages were fated to be unsensational and unromantic, and can any one imagine an unsensational adventure with a crocodile? Therein lie the virtue of and the apology for this story.

If the reader will take the trouble to scan the revised chart of the Island, he will notice on the eastern coast an indentation entitled “Panjoo,” which, in the language of the blacks, seems to indicate “nice place.” A steep grassy slope comes down to the sea, separated therefrom by a line of pandanus palms. To the north is a jungle-covered spur, along the foot of which is a palm-tree gully; to the south a ridge with low-growing, wind-bent acacias. The gully enters the boulder-strewn inlet under the shade of much leafage. The great Pacific gurgles at the base of giant rocks, among which a ragged palm (CARYOTA) bears immense bunches of yellow insipid fruit, each containing two coffee-like berries. Panjoo is a favourite objective, for it may be approached from various directions, each pleasant, but as a resort for a crocodile it is about as unpromising a locality as could be imagined.

Thither one bright November morning we (“Paddy,” the most silent and alert of black boys, and myself) went. The tide was out, and we found a comparatively easy track close to the margin of the sea, having occasionally to wade through shallow pools and to clamber over rocks thickly studded with limpets.

Years gone by a huge log of pencil cedar had been cast among the boulders at Panjoo, and as I looked at the log “Paddy” with a start indicated the presence of a novelty — a crocodile apparently in repose, with its head in the shadow of a boulder. I was carrying a pea rifle more for company than for anything else; for “Paddy,” though of a most cheerful disposition, never made remarks. His conversation for the most part was compounded of eloquent looks and expressive gestures. A monosyllable to him was a laborious sentence; four or five words a speech. Once upon a time, it is said, a youthful German inadvertently blundered into a railway carriage reserved for Moltke. The glare of the great man brought three words of respectful apology for the intrusion. The great man exclaimed with an air of exasperated boredom —“Insufferable talker!”— of course, all in German. “Paddy,” like Moltke, was, averse from speech, unless when speech was absolutely vital. The presence of a 10-foot crocodile of unknowledgeable ferocity was a vital occasion. We hastily discussed in staccato whispers our plan of campaign. It was arranged that we should assail the enemy at close quarters. The calibre of the rifle was 22; its velocity most humble, the bullet of soft lead. Unless it entered the eye of the crocodile, and thence by luck its small brain, there was no hope of fatal effects. Yet to take home such a rare trophy as a crocodile’s skull, never before known or heard of on the island, was a hope sufficient to evoke and steady the instincts to be called upon as a necessary preliminary.

“Paddy” armed himself with weighty stones, and so manoeuvring to cut off the creature’s retreat to the sea, we silently and with the utmost caution advanced.

Here let me advise readers to call to memory Nathaniel Parker Willis’s poem, “The Declaration” beginning —

’Twas late, and the gay company was gone, And light lay soft on the deserted room,

and ending:

She had been asleep.

The crocodile moved not as we, thirsting for its blood, stealthily approached. Then as I raised the rifle “Paddy” tilted up his much-flattened nose, sniffed, and in tragic whisper said —“Dead!”

At all times a crocodile has a characteristic odour, a combination of fish and very sour and stale musk, but Paddy smelt more than the familiar scent — the scent of carrion.

Most unworthy of mortals, we had found the rarest of unprecious things — a crocodile that had died a natural death. Apparently a day, or at the most a day and a half, had elapsed since the creature had laid its head under the shadow of the boulder and died, far from accustomed haunts and kin. There was no sign of wound, bruise or putrefying sore. All the teeth were perfect. It seemed like a crocodile taking its rest, with its awful stench around it.

With poles we levered the body out of the way of the tide. Months after, when Nature had done her part in the removal of all fleshy taint, we returned for the bones. The teeth are now scattered far and wide as trophies of the one and only crocodile ever acknowledged to have been discovered dead.

To account for such a phenomenal occurrence a theory should be forthcoming. This ill-fated crocodile is assumed to have wandered from its proper quarters — the Tully or the Hull River, or one of the unnamed mangrove creeks of the mainland. Having lost its way, it emerged from the sea at pretty Panjoo. So different was the locality from that to which the poor forlorn creature had been accustomed, it was at once seized with a fatal attack of home-sickness. Shedding a few tears natural — to it (”’Tis so, and the tears of it are wet”), it died (“and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates”). Such is the theory, annotated by Mark Antony’s immortal after-dinner gossip, on the emotions and natural history of the species.

The Arabs Precept

“A Pearl of Great Price”

“Mister, I tell you, neber say anything. I hab bin reech once. I lorse my reechness for that I talk a little bit; but I talk too much. I poor man now. I lorse my chants. Suppose I no lorse my chants I am reech man of my country.”

So said Hassan, the Arab with the pearly teeth, as he sat on the edge of the verandah one steaming January evening.

“Yes, Hassan. How did you lose your money?”

“I hab no money, Mister. But I hab a pearl. My word, Mister, I tell you my yarn about that pearl. My beauty beeg pearl. White pearl — more white than snow-white! my pearl!”

The thin-framed swarthy Arab, with the flashing eyes and glistening teeth, quivered with the intensity of his recollection.

“My beauty pearl. My beeg white pearl. My pearl of snow-white,” he murmured as in a dreamy reverie he subdued the light of his great black eyes.

“But you never saw snow. How can you talk about a snow-white pearl?”

“Mister, I bin steward boy on beeg steamer. I been eberywhere. I bin in London, I bin in Antwerp. I bin see snow all over. That how I talk about my snow pearl. I tell you my yarn.”

Hassan smoothed down his white jacket, lit a lean cigarette, rolled the incense — thrifty smoker that he was — as a sweet morsel under the tongue, permitted it to drift lazily from his lips, and gave his story.

“I bin deck hand on pearling lugger. To be spell about with wind pump. Sometimes I work on dinghy. Two or three times I dibe — not much dibe. I carn stand that work. Not strong for that so heavy work. One morning Boss he set me on to clean out dinghy. Too much rotten fish. You see, when diber bring shell up, Boss he open ebery one — chuck meat along dinghy. That dinghy, I tell you my yarn proper — close up half full stinking meat. I chuck that stinking meat ober-board along my hand. Close up I bin finish I catchem stinking meat like this. Hello! I feel ’em something! My heart he stand — he carn go. He stop altogether. I carn look! feel ’em beeg. I look! Ha! Beeg, beeg pearl! Round like anything. White like snow. Pretty — lobley. My heart inside go ponch, quick like that, I hear ’em jump along my shirt. No one look out. My pearl! I whistle for nothing; put my pearl easy like I find nothing in my pucket. Go on my work, steady. Heart jump about all the time. Chuck em out those stinking meat. Ha! First time I feel something — one pearl! Beeg, but no all the same like nother one. One more time chuck stinking meat. Ha! one more pearl! White, long like small finger here. My heart easy now. I think my good luck come. I say my prayer to Allah! I work hard. I finish that boat. Chuck gem out stinking meat, wash her down. My three pearls inside my pucket.

“For one week I neber say nothing. My good friend, my countryman from Aden, Ali. I tell ’em I find one pearl. Now, Mister, I tell you straight — neber tell nothing. You hab one good friend, one countryman. You lobe that man, your good friend. But you no tell ’em nothing. I made fool myself when I tell ’em. I big hoombug of myself. Two days, I am pulling dinghy up to lugger. Big Boss he on board schooner. I see him look me. Quick I think, ‘Hassan, you make of yourself a fool. You lorse you white pearl!’ He sing out ‘Hassan!’ I gammon I neber hear ’em. Sing out loud ‘Hassan! You, boy! Come here!’ I pull up to lugger. He sing out. ‘Come here quick! I want talk you!’ ‘All right, Boss, I come, I go longa lugger first time!’ He savage. Call out smart —‘Come here, I tell you! Come quick!’

“I am little fright he might shoot with revolver. I pull up to schooner; make fast line. Go on board. Boss he say quiet, nice, like gentlemen, ‘Hello, Hassan! Good-day. Why you no come when I sing out first time.’ I say ‘I hab that water for lugger.’ He say, ‘Well, my boy, you come quick when I call out. No good hang back. How you getting on? You come down my cabin. I no see you long time. Come down below.’ ‘All up,’ I say myself. Hello! Nother man. Bottle rum on table. Plenty biskeet on plate, glasses — eberything. Boss he say, ‘Come, my boy; come, Hassan, make yourself happy. Gib yourself glass rum. Take good nip.’ That very good rum, strong too. I gib myself one good rum. I eat biskeet. Boss he say, ‘Come, my boy, gib yourself nother rum.’ I gib myself nother good rum; eat plenty of that sweet biskeet. We three fellow very good friend. I feel happy. Boss shake hand, he say —‘Hassan, very good boy.’ I gib myself nother good rum. We talk. Just now Boss he look straight. He say quiet —‘Hassan, my boy, you hab something belonga me.’ He look sharp like a knife. ‘No, Boss, I hab nothing of you.’ He talk loud —‘Hassan, you hab something belonga me. Gib it up quick!’ That other white man he stand longside gangway. I look straight. I feel cold. I say, ‘No, Boss, I hab nothing.’ He talk more loud — GIB UP THAT PEARL!’ I fright. I put my hand to my pucket. I pull out pearl. I am all fire now. I shove ’em longa table. I shout —‘There you blurry pearl!’ Boss catch ’em quick. He say ‘Get out my cabin, you dirty Arab! You dam thief. Subpose you gib my pearl first time I gib you something. Now I gib you kick!’ I go.

“You see, Mister my good friend, my countryman, he tell Boss about my white pearl. I lorse him now.”

“But you got two more in your pocket”

“Yes, very good pearl; but not good like my snow pearl. I am sick now. Boss he sack me. I land Thursday Island. I gamble fantan. I no care. Soon I hab no pearl at all. I hab no work. I am hard up.

“Now, Mister, subpose I no say nothing to my good friend I am reech man of my country. I drink Mocha coffee. I am too poor. Suppose I go to my country, back from Aden, I carn drink coffee I am too poor, I drink coffee from outside. Inside coffee, we sell for reech people — you Inglesh, and Frinch, and Turkey men.”

“What do you mean by outside coffee?”

“When you pick coffee, you Inglesh chuck away outside. We poor Arab dry that outside, smash ’em up like flour, boil ’em for coffee. All inside coffee we hab to sell, so poor that country. Mister, I bin tell true my yarn — neber tell you good friend nothing.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32