Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

Two Ladies

“To one, resolution; to another, a disposition to dance.”

Nelly, the Shrew.

As the steamer from the South enters the bay, the traveller sees ahead the fringe of houses on the low lands fronting the inlet where shipping finds safe and convenient harbourage. To the left he may be introduced to a strip of open beach between two low points of grey granite, back from which are scattered groups of modest buildings and huts which form the aboriginal settlement. The choice of the site for the settlement was influenced by the character of the country. Although but a short distance by sea from the port, it is isolated by its background of hard and inhospitable hills patched with almost impenetrable jungle. Few consigned there ever leave of their own motive, however earnest the longing may be. The home-sick realise that escape is difficult and, if successful, futile, for are not the police everywhere, and strong and compelling? Why undertake the unknown perils of unknown hills — spiritual perils more to be dreaded than physical — when capture and again banishment are certain?

Nellie Oongle-bi, among whose matrimonial experiences was Tom, of this Isle, and who since his death has gone from bad to worse, had been found under the protection of a coloured alien, sadly degenerated and saturated with opium. For her own salvation she was transported to the settlement afar off, with its frontier of sea and background of repulsive hills. She went, being in the clutches of a superior force, tractably enough, but with none of her unconquerable love of country subdued. Nelly has nothing of an attractive nature. She has a vixenish temper at times; is always on the alert for fancied slights; is by no means cleanly, unless under duress; and does not hesitate to foment subjects of quarrel. Few among her relations and friends would mourn her exile. Even her own son, Jim, was scoffingly indifferent. She was far from being so, but played her part well, being obedient, quite tame, and ever observant.

She “sat down” at the settlement, and made friends with two or three of the women there with whom she had previously been acquainted; but while she talked with apparent resignation, she scanned the hills, especially fixing in her mind a particular gully which leads up to a ridge promising an outlook to the south, upon which her hopes were fixed. Soon after dark on the second night she took to the bush, carrying a dilly-bag and a blanket. She is now one of the population of a far-distant settlement, the site of which happens to be within her own country. How she overcame the distance without food, friends, or resources, has to be told, though not altogether in her own language, for such would be unintelligible to the ordinary reader.

She was determined to run away as soon as the steamer landed her, for that part of the North was not her country, and she could not live anywhere else. Besides, she was “sorry belonga that boy Jim.” During the first night of her homeward pilgrimage she never ceased walking among rocks and through the scrub, for she was fearful of being recaptured. Without pause she clambered on until well into the next day, when she slept for a little while. Then on again until dark. One big “mung-um” (mountain) stood in the hopeful direction. Thitherwards she hastened, losing count of the days and nights. Nelly has no conception of figures beyond one, two, and a great many. The climbing of the mountain occupied many days. She was bewildered, for she could not “catch’m that sal’water” which would lead her home. At last from a spur of the mountain she saw the sea —“L-o-n-g way. Too far. Me close up sing out.” Though she might cry, the sight of big salt water beside which all her life had been spent was a joy and a stimulant. Pushing and worming her way through the jungle, she encountered nothing but birds, wallabies, and snakes.

Once she was startled by what seemed to be a worn narrow track. Advancing cautiously along it, she came across a huge carpet snake coiled “all a same rope alonga boat.” It was asleep where an opening in the roof of vegetation made a patch of sunlight on the jungle floor, and she passed by, treading noiselessly. For food she had the fruits of the jungle, crude, harsh, and bitter. Food, indeed, was almost repugnant, for her thoughts were concentrated on her country, so she hastened down towards the now hidden sea. Far inland she heard its welcome noise — a greeting and a call from home which made her forgetful of all weariness and fret.

In course of time — a weak woman carrying a blanket and living on innutritious foods does not struggle through jungle at any remarkable speed — the foothills and then the low-lying country at the junction of two rivers were reached. Here she took off her few and bedraggled garments, and, making them into a bundle with her blanket and bag, waded through swamps, eventually emerging on a sandy beach, which she intended to follow until she regained her country, many a weary mile to the south. Providence provided an easy means of crossing the estuary of the rivers — a kindly white man, owner of a “little fella boat, little fella ingin.” To him she told the story of her escape and her longing for her own country and her own people, and was ferried across. Then she picked up a camp of her race, the members of which, sympathising with her, accompanied her on her way for a couple of days. One day she woke from her sleep on the edge of the mangroves with her blanket sopping with blood which had flowed from her mouth and nose during sleep. “Me bin sorry belonga that boy Jim. Me bin sorry belonga country. That ‘nother country no good belonga me. Me think me die. Me walk alonga sandy beach. Some time alonga b-i-g fella rock. Me close up tumble down altogether. Me tired. B’mbi catch’m Liberfool Crik (Liverpool Creek). Plenty fella sit down. He bin sing out, ‘Hello! You come back from that place?’ Me bin say ‘Yes; that country no good belonga me.’”

A month or so after Nelly was again found in the service of a coloured alien, tugging away with another weak gin at what she calls a “two-fella saw.” For her task of sleeper-cutting her reward would probably be a handful of rice and a dose of opium per day.

Nelly is now at her leisure within a mile or so from the place of her birth, hardly conscious of the feat represented by her solitary pilgrimage. Occasionally she has the company of her tall and indifferent boy. She enjoys the society of her relations, and indulges as oft as may be in exhilarating misunderstandings with them. Without a vehement squabble now and again life would be intolerably insipid. Anger, accompanied by fluent abuse, is to her a kind of spiritual blood-letting for the casement of her suddenly plethoric temperament. But such is of her frailty. Proof of her strength of purpose, has it not been given?

Maria Dances.

In her youth Maria gave promise of a rare condition among coastal blacks — tendency to width and breadth. As she grew in bulk she seemed, if not to decrease in stature, at least to remain stationary. Thus it was that her figure became perfect.

If there be one feature of animal physiology more adorable than aught else in the eyes of the lords of the soil, it is fat — fat under any and every circumstance. They admire it in animals of the chase, and the paltry, greasy relics of a feast may be smeared over the body with something of the pride and gratification derivable in other and cleaner walks of life from perfumed powder, pink and white.

Being fat and shiny as a girl, Maria had keen and ardent lovers. She was an adorable novelty.

Blacks do not gaze into the faces of their sweethearts. They have never found chaste delight in the writing of woeful ballads to their mistress’s eyebrows, or to the glorification of their snubby and expansive noses. If any of Maria’s admirers had been lyrical, her buxom condition would have been the theme of their idealisations. In time she became the mother of children, still retaining that charming superiority of bulk which excited the rage of sisters whose skins did not shine, whose flesh did not quiver whensoever they walked, talked, or even smiled.

No marvel that her matrimonial experiences were the comment of the camp and gave rise to many differences, but, since placidity and fat have been known among so-called civilised peoples to blend in the individual, Maria’s demeanour called for no comment. It was not her fault, but the flightiness and whimsicality of Nature which had contrived to make her the belle of the camp. And why not enjoy the obvious admiration of the stalwart youths as well as the discomfort of the sisters who had not an ounce of irresistible fascination of which to boast.

For some years the form of Maria had not waddled across accustomed scenes. Quite unexpectedly it loomed up as large and buoyant as ever. The light-hearted denizens of the camp had arranged an evening’s entertainment. The fires burned low, the sea babbled, making white-skirted frolic on the hard level sand, and the piping voices of the honey-seeking flying foxes among the tea-trees seemed to chide the parrots of the day for having left so little refreshment in the blossoms. Behind a screen of faded blankets the warriors of the camp were adorning themselves with white clay and feathers and long, shaggy beards of bark, while the leader of the orchestra began to tune his boomerang and fire-hardened sticks, and his attendants to squat ready to drum on thighs and lap with hollowed hand in time with his refrain and clicking music. The fires flared up, and the band emerged with thumping step and emphatic grunts to illustrate the ceremonious visit of strangers to a camp at which the nature of the reception was in doubt. One individual, in chalk for the most part, advanced, half nervously, half anxiously, to the musician, and modestly retired, and advanced again and retired, until reassured, and then the crowd came forward whirling and grunting, and, with high-waving arms in unison and swaying bodies, gave token of happiness.

ACT II. — The master of ceremonies carried to the front a big and rough sapling. The fires glowed again, the orchestra clicked and thumped, and a single boy in an ancient red handkerchief and chalks danced into the light, and, keeping time with the music, began in pantomime to fashion the sapling into a sword, using a fictitious shell, with which he scraped off imaginary bark. While absorbed in his work, his companions came from the screen in haste, skipping round him and mimicking all his actions and grunting in unison with him, while making the sand-ridge to quiver with intensity of tread. Presently all flopped down on haunches in close formation round the sword-maker, still maintaining rhythmical sway of body and limb, and while some held the sapling, others toiled strenuously towards the completion of a good and true weapon, the master of ceremonies encouraging and exhorting the workers until nature could hold out no longer, and they bounded to their feet and, with grunts and signs and with bodies reeking with perspiration, whirled away into darkness.

ACT III. — Each of the noisy players came suddenly into the glare carrying a rotund, compact bundle, and, squatting down, began with grunts and sighs the great “coco-nut” act, obviously one of the masterpieces of the corroboree. In perfect time the sham coco-nuts were beaten with hands in lieu of sticks or tomahawks, while the accompaniment became faster and faster. Ever and anon each, still rocking, would peer closely at his prize to satisfy himself as to its quality, and forthwith continue the resonant belabouring of the shell, until the meat therein was available with joyous shout.

ACT IV. — Most of the accumulated bark and leaves having by this time passed into flame and smoke, the attendants raided the nearest gunyah for fresh supplies of material for illumination. The big fires lit up the arena anew, and, marshalled by the conductor, the band rushed out of the darkness uttering grunts which rang a change on the monotony of previous vocal efforts. A masterpiece of composition, it conjured up the dimness of the jungle and the smell of damp vegetation. All squatted in a double ring, back to back. This formation was not strictly maintained, for each individual made half turns to right and left alternately, simultaneously scratching the sand with distended fingers and kicking vigorously until the sand ascended in the smoke-tinged glow, heads bowing and ducking with mechanical regularity, as the entertainers sought — and with conspicuous success — to portray a community of scrub turkeys building an incubating mound.

Then it was that the favourite and belle of the camp, the fascinating creature whose magnificent condition bestowed privileges undreamt of by other ladies, became conspicuous. Her costume had evidently been designed for a lady not divinely tall, but considerably less of flesh than the wearer. Maria did not actually overflow, though perilously near that point. Surely buttons were never designed to resist such strain. Coloured ladies generally sit meekly among the audience and chatter and maintain the drum-beats, lacking which no corroboree could be successful. During the intervals they may emboss pictures in the impressionable sand with cunning forefinger and giggle, for the subjects are often quaint. Maria, sure of her privileges, waddled out from the flame-obscuring dusk, turned an ample back upon the double ring of boys, and played her part as one of the giddy and industrious wild-fowls. Her fingers scratched the air and her feet the dust with a realism not to be excelled by the most gifted of the boys, while her half grunt, half chuckle, exactly imitative of the social garrulity of the turkey, gave artistic finish to a scene which would have been absolutely delusive if feathers had been in fashion. Maria, a fleer at mere ponderosity, skipped and whisked from left to right with fay-like airiness of foot until a thrill of delight went through the camp. The frolicsome turkeys scratched and scattered leaves that were not, and gobbled and clucked, until, panting and perspiring, all rose, and with a simultaneous shout scampered for the screen, while the master of ceremonies shouted “Finis!” The music ceased, the flames faded, and substantial Maria dissolved in the gloom.

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