Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

“The Lowing Herd”

“Your cattle, too — Allah made them; serviceable, dumb creatures; they change the grass into milk; they come ranking home at evening time.”— CARLYLE.

Remote from the manners and the sights of the street, here are we secure against most of the pains which come of the contemplation, casual or intimate, of other folk’s sufferings. No hooded ambulance moves joltlessly, tended by enwrapt bearers, on pathless way; no formal procession paces from the house of death to the long last home. Immune from the associations which oft subdue the crowd, as well as from its too exciting pleasures, and participating only indirectly in its inevitable sorrows, yet we are occasionally forced to remember that troubles do come to all that is flesh, and that keen is the grief attendant upon enforced separations even among animals which cannot call reason to their solace. Man cannot claim to be the sole proprietor of the luxury of woe, and may he not draw edifying lessons from contemplating the transient sorrows of his pets and domestic animals? Is he to confine his schooling on the wholesome theme of the frailty of flesh solely to his own species? It is not to be denied that animals lower in the scale than mankind have acute sense of bereavement, though it is equally certain that in their case the healing influences of time are more prompt and potent.

An illustration may be cited. Two favourite Irish terriers, in violation of an all-precautionary training, molested a death adder, the emulation of each inciting the other to recklessness. When the fray was over and the wicked little serpent lay squirming in death, both dogs took joyful credit on account of the feat. An hour after one began to froth at the lips, and in another hour he lay dead. His son and companion, as well as rival in all rat and lizard hunts, softly approached the body, lifting each foot with almost solemn deliberation. He sniffed, and catching a whiff of the scent of death, sat on his haunches, threw back his head, and in loud and piercing tones lamented the tragedy until from very hoarseness he could howl no longer. He stood the solitary spectator of the burial, and as the soil was patted down tenderly, sniffed the spot, whimpered plaintively, and followed with downcast mien. Unable to fathom the mystery of death, yet fearful, if not resentful, he wandered about for days rebuking the moon, or its dire influence, and hailing passing steamers with weak whines. Time soon soothed the mental hurt.

Since I became a milker and tender of pet cows many instances have been revealed of the patience and amiability of these inestimable beasts. The man who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, who employs stockmen by the dozen, who sends off hundreds of fat, contented, happy, liberty-loving oxen in droves to end their days in an unknown locality amid the clatter and swish of machinery and with the fearful scents of blood and decaying offal defiling the air, has few opportunities of studying the nicer qualities of his possessions. He may be full of bullock lore and able to recite sensational and entertaining stories illustrative of the ways of the big mobs which tramp from native hills and downs to the city of the thousand deaths. He knows, perhaps, something of the individualities of his herds, and will tell how fat beasts form friendships, and how they pine when separated. Then will he register his personal regrets, counting in the measure for fat, for, refusing food, the animals fall away in condition, so that the sorrows of two fat bullocks due to parting, enforced by determined men on horseback, cracking whips and using violent and threatening language, come home to the owner in terms of pounds, shillings, and pence.

Here are few sordid considerations, for does not the full-fed and contented herd supply generously milk and cream with no apprehensions of the butcher? Perhaps on that account the sentiments of the sleek cows are more tender. At least it has been noticed that when the time comes for the flash young bulls to be banished, and they are transported, the mother’s grief is loud-voiced and prolonged. Under stress of departure and all the novel excitement of a first experience of the motion of the sea, the fat calf, which has rollicked in all that makes for good temper and ease and comfort, becomes mute. Tears trickle from big, affrighted eyes, and the head is turned wistfully when terms of comfort are uttered. He is of the make of man and will not whimper. But the mother, on the discovery of her bereavement, arouses the echoes of the hills with her calls.

Accustomed to the voices of the individuals of your herd, your ears are also attuned to the significant tones of each — the low warning hum of the mother to her safely hidden new-born, the imperative command to obedience, the note of inquiry when the wandering offspring is out of sight, the anxious call when it is absent from her side unaccountably, the angry bellow when she thinks injury is being done.

The other day a lusty young bull which had been wont to treat me as a chum, and perhaps as a slightly inferior animal, was reluctantly parted from. His face displayed his emotions-astonishment, grief, resignation — and once, and only once, did he permit himself to protest vocally. But for a week his mother’s sorrow has been insistent. Early on the morning following, the banishment, she led off the rest of the herd in Indian file, to search accustomed scenes. At times she hastened — perhaps she heard in fancy the loved one’s voice — but more often and with rare persistency she shrewdly scrutinised every possible hiding-place, lowing plaintively and with a coaxing, wistful tone. Frequently, attended by silent, sympathising companions, she made frantic appeals to me, and then there seemed to be a note as of upbraiding, if not accusation, in her voice. Knowing her feelings, it was easy to interpret them, and her doleful mood and loud yet melodious protests against the arbitrary usage of man affected the wonted serenity of the Isle.

How many lusty, fat, sleek, good-humoured, straight-backed, frolicsome calves had she reared, and when they had come to the age when a mother’s pride must be in the full, each in its turn had mysteriously disappeared. Was this not a subject of moan? Why should she not tell her grief to the responsive hills, and send it as far as her voice might carry over the irresponsive sea?

Time soothes all such pangs. She calls now when she spies me in the forest, still suspecting where responsibility rests, and mumbles as she crops the succulent herbage. A few more days and her sturdy offspring will be forgotten; but the recollection of her material woes excites the thought that human beings, in guiding the destinies of domestic animals, may not always be conscious of certain moral aspects of such incidents. Are we justified in lacerating the feelings of those creatures, which have become accustomed to our ways, which submit to our arbitrary authority with wondrous patience, which depend on us in many ways, and which trust us with unquestioning fidelity?

Against all precedent, the dairy herd was started with a bull. Though such a beginning is not to be recommended as a general precept, it must be confessed that in this particular instance developments proved its wisdom. Unjust fears were overcome while yet he was undistracted by society of his kind. Having no other company, he sought ours in frank and friendly manner. Occasionally he would accompany me on indefinite excursions in the bush, and would oft tempt me to play. With the fable of the frogs and the boys in mind, I had to decline participation in his sportful moods, for what would have proved pure frolic to him might have been fraught with disaster to me. At this period of the dairy herd, he spent most of his leisure moments in the paddock where poultry congregates, and where many of the domestic rites are performed. He was at home, and he was a gentleman, and did no one premeditated ill. Longing for something to play with, he would make hostile demonstration against the wheelbarrow, but that dull-hearted vehicle never responded except by ignominious collapse at tenderest touch of horn. One evening, when all the good little chicks had been put to bed for the night, the bull, impatient for play, overturned two coops so suddenly that two of the inmates were crushed flat. There was no sheltering mother to protest against such violation, and so the adjoining coop was visited. But for once he went wrong in strategy. The coop contained an exceptionally numerous family, the mother of which richly deserved the name of “Scotty.” The coop was overturned none too politely; the squeaking chicks vanished in the grass and remained discreetly silent; the irate hen, with the valour of ignorance and all feathers on end, flew in the face of the startled bull. Though a white leghorn, she has fighting blood in her veins, and as she hurled herself — stuttering with frantic exclamations — at the violator of her home, he backed with a mirth-provoking look of surprise and dismay. He seemed to wish to say that he regretted the intrusion, and would apologise and ask permission to retire. The hen was not in the mood to accept apologies, however seemly the cringing attitude of the bull. Making herself ever so much bigger than Nature intended, she followed up her advantages, slapping her enemy’s face with widespread wings until he winced again, and clawing with truly feminine extravagance and uncertainty of aim. The first round was all to the credit of the hen, and the startled poultry cackled derisively as the bull retreated. Sure of victory, the hen followed him up, skipping, flapping, clawing, and scolding as only an irate hen in transports of rage can. Still the bull backed. He was a gentleman, and genuinely afraid of female tantrums. With half-shut eyes, he submitted to the buffets of the wings, while encouraging remarks from friends and companions further excited the delirious pugnacity of “Scotty.” Then it seemed to dawn on him that honour was at stake. Gallantry forbade him to do violence to a lady; honour forbade him to run away. What other recourse was open? He must treat the whole episode as a joke. So, rubbing his muzzle on the ground, he invited the hen to come on. She did so. There was a splash of outspread feathers against his front and more clatter than ever. He pawed the ground, jerking little clods over his shoulders, and, lowering his head, menaced the hen with horns that could have tossed her over the highest of the mango-trees. But there was a smile on his face the while, and the spectators knew, though “Scotty” did not, that it was all a joke. Again and again she flew in his face. Just as often he refused to take her seriously, though all the pantomime of battle was displayed. She cackled in impotent anger. He bellowed with gratification. Not a fowl in the yard saw the joke, and all the little chicks in adjacent coops strained their necks to watch the battle and their voices in shrill comments. Having made not the slightest impression on the jovial little bull, “Scotty” retired, feinting and scolding, while he, still blue mouldy for a game, coaxed her by unmistakable gesticulation to one round more. Twice during the night “Scotty” dispelled the silences with loud exclamations of wrath and defiance. She was fighting her battle again in her dreams, and though I was not there to see, I am very sure that the gentle bull beguiled his wakeful moments with smiles. There are several white hens in the yard, and whensoever one crosses his path the bull, who does not pretend to discriminate, tosses his head with an interrogative gesture. “Do you want to fight?” he says, and the hens flee — all except “Scotty.”

The herd comprises a dainty little cow of most placid disposition. Nothing disturbs her placidity, incites her to hurry, or bewilders her. Cure the dove of its timidity and shrinking and you will have a good prototype of Parilla, who, taking life easily and affably, is fat and amiable. When she brought home her firstborn, mooing plaintively, he, big and fat for his age, walked into the byre as a matter of course. Here was the first evidence of heredity. It was patent that Fillo Billaroo was born with a mind like that of his sweet-tempered mother. He earned his name because of acute dissimilarity to the swiftlet which swoops about the cleared spaces, never resting save in a dark and dirty cave.

Though, apparently, entirely unselfconscious, Fillo Billaroo at once established himself as a superior sort of creature. He did not exact any rights. They were conceded with all possible grace. He enjoys privileges none other dares to imagine. When he has exhausted for the time being the maternal source of refreshment, he visits other mothers, and with such a pompous, patronising, good-humoured, thoroughly appreciative and yet gentle way, that the absurd creatures are flattered. They realise he is something quite out of the common, and give agreeably of their best. Thus he has become a favourite, and he drinks so much and has become so fat that he could not for a couple of weeks accompany his lazy-pacing mother on her daily rounds, but would be planted in shade and coolness with cautions against straying until called for late in the afternoon. Often would Parilla forget the hiding-place, or rather pretend to, and beseech in wistful tones for help in the search, and when it was successful the greetings she bestowed displayed the bigness of her heart.

Once the little mother left Fillo Billaroo in charge of Lady Clare, a much more experienced matron, who cannot bear to permit her frisky heifer out of her sight for a moment unless safely planted, and then the treasure must not be wandered from more than a hundred yards. Parilla went off for the day. Late in the afternoon, Lady Clare with her heifer and Fillo Billaroo were found far away from the mob and driven home. It had been hot, and the big calf has an enormous appetite and apparently Lady Clare had been coy. When he saw his mother and his mother saw him, he stooped with uplifting nose, sniffing; she stopped feeding and begin to sniff. He seemed to say to himself, “I do believe I know that little creature. Yes; I am certain I must have met her before. She rather resembles my own mother; but I have so many fond, kind, and obliging aunts that it is not so very easy to make sure. She has a special look. Can I be mistaken? I really hope not, for I am painfully hungry.”

In the meantime Parilla was saying to herself — you could see it all plainly written in her big, round, bulging eyes, so full of inquiry, hope and longing —!” The sight of that really fine fellow reminds me that I, too, am a mother. He is a pretty fellow; I fancy that Fillo Billaroo is not unlike him. I now recollect with dismay that I have not seen him since morning, when Lady Clare condescended to look after him. And there’s Lady Clare! Oh! if she’s mislaid Fillo Billaroo! But can that fine, beautiful fellow be mine? I must inquire. Come!” And she moo’d, and Fillo Billaroo murmured “Mum,” and they rushed to one another, and the look in Parilla’s face was that of perfect happiness.

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