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

Billy, the Guide

An old, lanky blackfellow who, in his short face and habit of reticence, tallied with Addison’s unflattering description of himself, is old Billy —“Lazy Billy,” as the hustling white folks call him.

Billy and two gins, two unnamed piccaninnies, and an alien from the Malay Peninsula occupied three modest dwellings formed of bushes and palm fronds, on the verge of the sea. Many dogs were of the family, grotesque caricatures of dogs, lean to emaciation, hairless, and sorrowful-eyed with mange, and absorbed in the never-ending pasttime of scratching. They had no more than just sufficient courage and concern for the sanctity of the camp to make a whimpering bark at the sudden appearance of a stranger, hours after dark; and the barking kept time to the scratching. They scratched till they squealed, and then moaned and whimpered again.

It was getting late. The occasion was urgent, and the track through the jungle, scarcely noticeable in broad daylight, was absolutely undiscernible in the dark. As the dogs whimpered, and the piccaninnies — wearing one hat between them, and nothing more — blinked at my lantern, I made a bargain with Billy (a shilling and a stick of tobacco) for his services as guide.

Dolly tells me the news of the camp. She proposes to name one of her piccaninnies “Tapus” (Topsy), and while Billy dresses and equips himself, suggests that I “put ’em name belonga little fella.” Uncanonical though the hour, the rite is performed, and the blinking, shrinking, naked piccaninny will henceforth answer to Dolly’s rendering of “Tawny.”

“You no tchul-eep (sleep) first time?” Lazy Billy asks, with a yawn. “More better first time tchul-eep.”

“No, Billy. We go.”

“All right. We go. Tchul-eep bime-by plenty.”

For a quarter of a mile the track is as wide as the flat beach at low water, and as compact and smooth and noiseless as only fine sand packed by the thuds of the sea can be.

Billy indicates the turn-off with a flourish of his flashing tomahawk. Many an old bushman refrains from taking precedence in a narrow track, believing that a black boy is subject to an irresistible impulse for slaughter when occasions so favour. Billy is docile, and while I am in the lead he is far too seriously engrossed in keeping me in the right direction to think of bloodshed. So we blunder along.

“Where track?”

“Hello! Where track sit down? He go ‘nother way. He loss.”

The lantern confuses Billy; but directly the light is obscured he calls out, “Ooo! Track sit down. Me bin catch ’em.” And off he goes in advance, and at a pace that I find not easy to maintain.

As we enter the jungle, the moist air is heavy with the breathings of a night-flowering plant, almost too sweet and rich to be pleasant. Outside, the subdued roll of the sea fills the ears. Here the myriad leaves strain and filter the sound of the sea to a mere sediment — a soft, indeterminate minimum, with which the nocturnal voices of the jungle blend. A tree-frog squeaks and grunts; some alert insect chirps, loud and clear; another calls furtively, in a dismal tone, half whisper, half whistle; a wallaby thuds ahead; a lizard makes a scatter among the leaves; a bird in fright flutters, blundering, among the leaves high overhead; the flying-foxes squeak and gibber among the fig-trees, as they say the ghosts did in the streets of Rome when great Caesar died.

Billy, no longer bewildered by the light, is well in advance now. A sense of locality and direction, more acute than is given to white folks, enables him to walk quickly, even where the track is obscured with weeds shoulder-high, and where scrub trees and shrubs mingle unceremoniously with neglected mangoes and oranges. I keep pace, faithfully following Billy’s noiseless footsteps.

Suddenly he stops. “Ooo! Look out!” He cautiously turns up his frayed trousers beyond his knees, “Look out! Se-n-ake sit down!”

“Se-n-ake, he sit down!” Billy points among an entanglement of fig-tree roots, which the quivering flashes of the lantern convert into dozens of writhing serpents.

“Se-n-ake! He bin sit down. Dolly bin kill ’em alonga waddy. Two fella ki-ki that fella; no more!”

By the precautionary baring of his shrunk shanks, Billy had prepared for the happy chance of any of the relatives of the particular “se-n-ake” which Dolly and Rosy had eaten for supper, being about. He would have attacked the beast to better advantage bare-legged; but there was nothing worth eating among the roots as far as we could see, and Billy, grunting with disappointment, strode on.

Though old and lean, Billy is a high-stepper and quick of foot; he never trips nor stumbles. This is his country. He knows every fallen branch, every root athwart the track, the sky-line of every tree in the open. His small eyes, set in a short, screwed-up, wrinkled face, are telescopically keen, and seem equally effective by day or night. Many coastal blacks refuse to wander about after sundown. Darkness and light are both alike to Billy. There is nothing to terrify him in the jungle; he sneers at the hint of a “debil-debil.” His ears catch the faintest sound. On the edge of the mangroves a big water-rat, dazzled by the lantern, skips a few yards, and halts, dismayed. Billy had heard its first faint footfalls, and points where it crouches, paralysed momentarily by fear.

All these acres of garden through which we have passed, once flourishing and fruitful, are fast relapsing into primitive jungle. SIDA RETUSA, Bathurst burr, cobbler’s peg, and the infamous “billy-goat” plant, have their unmolested stronghold whence to invade the whole district. A bamboo — a dwarf, ornamental plant in its distant native land — runs wild in this congenial region, forming an almost impenetrable brake, a solid base whence it is striding over the land.

Billy never pauses.

The narrow track runs up among the rocks, fifty feet above the sea. Only once is there a spasm of excitement during the long, silent walk. Billy jumps upon a rock, yelling:

“Look out! Look out! Poi-jon! Poi-jon belonga dingo — belonga Jack!”

Right in the cleft of the rocks, roughly widened to form a footway, lies a poison bait. “Jack,” who lives in the little house that he built on the terrace by the sea, paid tribute in the shape of sixty fowls this season to the cunning of the yellow dingo whose remains soil the sand below. The brute would not take bait, and after long waiting Jack shot him. Billy is terrified of the little piece of meat spiced with strychnine; but a venomous and alert snake he gladly encounters, for snake is good to eat! Billy is ever hungry.

A faint movement in the tree-tops, a fainter sensation of coolness indicate the rising of the land breeze. The tepid silence of the night is past, though at the bases of these steep spurs jutting out into the sea little of the refreshment of the night air is perceptible. The salty odour of the ocean is supreme.

A quarter of an hour more, and the house on the red cliff is reached. Do you pampered denizens of the town, with such resources of civilization as medical men, ambulances, telegraphs, telephones and cabs at command, realize the stress involved in the conveyance of a few hapless words of urgent news across five miles of sea and through three miles of lonely bush? My experience, in itself, was at least instructive, for all went well, the sea, the night, fate and some benignant star all favouring. Under other conditions and without Billy, the duty might have been difficult and dangerous, if not impossible.

Billy thought only of his “schillin’,” and having fulfilled his contract, demanded summary payment. A new set of wrinkles score his face at the sight of the shilling and tobacco, and, to my astonishment — for the night is far spent — he elects to get back to his camp. To the suggestion that he should sleep till the morning, where he sits, he dissents emphatically.

“Too tired! Me go alonga camp tchul-eep plenty;” and off he starts in the dark on the three-mile return journey.

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