Last Leaves from Dunk Island, by E. J. Banfield

Peter: A Fisher of Men

Weakly, sedately, yet not lacking mincing precision, Peter slowly followed the margin of the rippleless sea.

The boys, at the moment busy cleaning and painting the boat resting on her cradle, knew him and smiled at his pensive progress. Further, they made jerky remarks about him in their own tongue, one word of which —“Ba-bah”— gave clue to his character.

Approaching the busy scene he slowed down, hesitated, and, glancing ahead, saw that it was not possible to pass along to the corner of the Bay, into which the babbling creek flows, without incurring the derogatory asides of his contemptuous countrymen. His glance back towards the sand-spit, where the water is deep, was momentary; with an assumption of friskiness — too energetic a term for so mild and transient a mood — he ventured nearer and politely greeted me, holding his battered hat abaft his shoulder. There was such humiliation in his attitude and tones, such obsequious deference, that a cheery response was necessary to set him at ease.

Hunger and illness were plainly written in his face; but he smiled wanly as I intercepted him and gave him the formal freedom of the Isle,

“Ba-bah” described him.

In his left hand he carried an aggressively sacerdotal book, and from his arm, in the approved style, hung the crooked handle of an umbrella of the past, its ferrule shining with the polish of the sand. His right hand balanced with unstudied ease a long and slender fish-spear. In the meekest of tones he said that he had fever — too many of his fellow exiles were at the moment making like complaint, but in different terms. His was the voice of the patient martyr intent upon the edification of the unelect.

“I have had nothing to eat this morning, Mister. I was just going out to spear some fish. Will you let me go round to the other little bay? I won’t do any harm. I am a very releegious boy, Mister. I like going by meeself, away from the other boys. I can read a little of this good book; but not much, Mister. It is the Bible.”

He spoke slowly and with novel inflection, as if understudying some mouthing pulpiteer, and turning over the leaves of the book, glanced at the print. It was the BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER— held upside down.

“I am very seeek this morning, Mister; but I must not grumble, for I am a Christian. I am a very releegious boy, Mister. I am Church of England boy, Mister. This book tells me true. I must be a good boy.”

Tremulously weak and quite beyond the spearing of fish, he brisked up when told to go to the house for physic and food, returning in about an hour quite translated, to announce to the ribald boys that the mistress of the house was also a Christian. Fish spearing no longer an urgency, he sat in the sun, ignored the other boys and told of his conversion, of his hatred of bad language, of playing cards, and prayerless companions. He tried to do good.

Like others with a mission. he earned jeers. The boys said he was cranky. Was a man cranky when he tried to stop boys from using bad language and playing cards? The good book told him he ought to make Christians.

The paint-besmeared boys giggled.

Peter had his dinner apart at the house, and disappeared. Referring to him afterwards, the boys said, “Ba-bah!”— and giggled.

The natives’ camp was on the sand-spit under the shade of the ever-sighing beach oaks. Most of its occupants were would-be escapees from the settlement over the water. Some were not quite virtuous. Indeed, they were rowdy as well, deceitful, and as lazy as overfed pups. The camp boasted of cards — a grubby, frowsy, and incomplete pack; and the boys spent most of the nights playing, or rather imitating the playing of, euchre, with language of the strongest type as the chief part of the game.

At daylight next morning one of the truly respectable members of the camp was at the house, wild-eyed and fear-stricken. He told of certain nocturnal happenings, and on the strength of his story I went to the beach. The boat-shed was half full of scared gins and big-eyed piccaninnies, and thence towards the sand-spit sleepers were distributed at odd intervals, just above the limit of high tide. The only occupants of the camp were Peter, his wife and little boy. They were peacefully asleep.

Dick — truthful, gentlemanly Dick — told of the happenings of the night. The card-players had indulged in imaginary gambling and real language to the tormenting of the soul of the righteous Peter, who had exhorted them to give up their bad habits and become Christians, until, driven to desperation by the jeers and the taunts of “Ba-bah!” he had let loose all his zeal and endeavoured to convert the heathen with the fish-spear unused yesterday, and with the might of a much-refreshed arm.

In the blackness of the night the camp had vanished. Better the whole scene to his Christian self and family than the presence of gamblers given to unwholesome phrases. In his exalted mood he had not discriminated, for unoffending Dick and his family and all the other quiet folks had been driven into darkness with the triple-pronged spear, and not one of the crowd, orderly or disorderly, dared to whisper “Ba-bah!” lest Peter., in his repose, might hearken and be saucy.

When the Christian family awoke, Peter, without the slightest taint of exultation, corroborated all that Dick had told, merely adding that, being a very “releegious” boy, he could not stand the bad language and bad habits of the gamblers, and had taken the course of stopping both by hostile demonstrations with his spear and the repetition of some texts from the Bible.

As he glorified his actions, his wife, Maude, sauntered up and was presented. She, too, was civil, not to say choice, of speech, and quickly made proclamation of her Christianity and abhorrence of evil-speaking and cards.

If there exist social and other grades of society among the descendants of the original occupants of this favoured land, and if the hint of such an idea may be carried to finality, then does Peter stand apart as the representative and exponent of the Oxford style and air towards his degenerate fellows. In his attitude to them the grace of humility is abandoned. In demeanour and utterance he is a class by himself — superior, convinced of his superiority, rather disdainful of those who are not such as he.

The last of the family to crawl out of a scanty blue blanket was a neatly-dressed boy of about eight, who came forward with assurance. Maude indicated him as “My little boy.” Peter referred to him not as Bill or Billy, or even Will or Willy, but as “Will-yam,” with lofty and dogmatic stress on the “yam.” Neither approved of the society at the settlement. It was rude. Besides, there was no school, and it was the purpose of his parents that Will-yam should have the advantages of a superior education. Maude emphasized the point. Willyam must be sent to a good school. Peter declared that Will-yam must learn to read the good book and be a Christian like himself, a very “releegious” boy, and a Church of England boy. He must never gamble or use bad language. To these terms Will-yam meekly assented. And there stood on the beach an elated, happy, self-satisfied family, though it possessed naught but two thin blankets, a fish-spear, the handle of a discarded umbrella. and a prayer book, soiled with grease and smoke!

Peter was no longer humble. He had been victorious; he was proud. Had he not rebuked the scornful, piously burnt the broken pack, and with a frail weapon scattered a hostile and hideous crowd?

Exhorted to refrain from violence, however earnest in the spread of Christian knowledge, and in the suppression of gambling, in concern for the purity of speech, Peter’s eyes flashed with the inflammable fervour of the fanatic. The coarse-tongued boys were right. He was in fact “Ba-bah;” but until he was under proper supervision the derisive word lapsed; the boys kept at a safe distance and there was not a giggle left in them!

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