Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

Soosie

“No legend! Well, let us invent one.”— SCOTT.

A crinkled fist, fumbling and twisting, protruded from a rent in a dilapidated dilly-bag. It had done so with infinite feebleness for many an hour in unavailing protest against the woes and weight of life, for faint scratch smeared with blood denoted the friction of tender skin against the broken edges of the cane-made bag.

A scarcely audible, inhuman wail — pathetically staccato — told of unceasing pain. Whomsoever the bag contained was enduring martyrdom.

“That fella, him no good. Close up finis. B’mbi me plant’m along scrub.”

Thus spoke the pleasant-faced gin who passed with the dilly-bag along a narrow aisle of the jungle, intent upon ridding herself of a vexatious encumbrance, and at the same time performing the rite of unrighteous burial.

Squirming in dirt was a naked infant-black, foul, and but a few days old.

“Mother belonga that fella him dead — finis. That fella, him no good. Him sing out all a time. More better tchuck’m away.”

Frail outcast — the very scum of a blacks’ camp, its repulsiveness was tragic. Dirt and odour sickened, yet its appeal was irresistible. That universal language, a human cry, which everywhere and always quickened the pulse, stirred pity to its depths. I seized the stained bag (it was a desperate deed) and, breaking down its worn sides, displayed its contents — a girl in all the infamy of neglect, starvation, and dirt — a panting mummy reeking with offence.

Spreading out a handkerchief, I put the awful atom on it gingerly, while the foster-mother reiterated her counsel to “tchuck’m alonga scrub.”

In the guise of a frail bundle at arm’s-length was Soosie conducted to a civilised home.

Dismay tempered with pity greeted her.

“How horrible! How dirty!”

“Is it really a little girl? It looks like a wild animal.”

“Do let me nurse it.”

Thus was crinkled-faced Soosie welcomed.

Many successive baths did she endure, faintly wailing, until dirt soaked off and the wails ceased for the time being as Soosie sucked ravenously at a tiny sugar-bag.

What a frail little life it was — feeble beyond expression, and ugly with the ugliness of savagery. She wriggled and screwed up her skinny features with inane ferocity. A motherless wallaby would have submitted to human solace and ministrations with daintier mien; but the whole household thrilled with excitement. Could the spluttering spark of life be made to glow? That was the all-absorbing topic for days. Gradually some sort of a human rotundity became manifest, and on the occasion of the bath it was more and more apparent that instead of being impenetrably black the skin-tint was a mingling of pale brown and pink; and as regular nourishment began to be effective the features changed, losing their gross animalism.

Just because of the waif’s helplessness was repugnance to her conquered. She had no other redeeming quality. In a certain sense she was fearsome; she required unremitting attention and care; her whimpering fits, in beast-like monotone, shook the nerve of the most patient of her attendants. She was a charge to keep and foster, and the duty was performed with devotion, which took little concern for self-sacrifice. Before many months had passed Soosie had been transformed into a fat roly-poly with a perpetual smile and gurgles of satisfaction, which even vocalised sleep.

All this happened years ago. In infancy Soosie had been informally adopted. She was now a bright, sensible, slender girl, whose full, melting eyes pleaded for inevitable facial defects, and whose complexion was very greatly at fault. She grew up more averse from the manners and moods of her mother than those of us who better understand the differences of race. To her a black was more abhorrent than a snake. She loathed the sight of those who came about the place, and would not defile herself by touching the cleanest — kind-hearted “Wethera,” who had so nearly interred her, and to whom she was as a princess; “Wethera,” who was wont to say, “That fella Tchoosie, too flash. Close up me bin tchuck’m away. Boss he bin catch’m.”

Soosie evaded all possible reference to her kin, and when others spoke in sympathetic terms would say: “How can you bear to think of those horrible people who live in dirt and only half dressed in the bush? I love the scrub, and but for them would like to wander in it all day. I dare not while they are about, for some day one of them might touch me, and I would never feel clean again.”

We often wondered at the irreconcilable attitude which Soosie (she was always “Miss Soosie” to all but members of the household) adopted to her own race, for she well understood where she had been born and the manner of her salvation from imminent death.

Though no special training had been hers, none of the domestic arts were unknown to her. She acquired them with ease and practised them with the air of a dignified princess and neat-handed facility. While the other children of the house stewed over lessons and rebelled against essential tasks, to Soosie everything seemed to make for holiday. She read voraciously, so that her application of English became so keen that she was the first to detect verbal dissonances. She, the youngest of two girls and a boy, would often correct their speech, not as a budding pedant, but because her ears were delicately attuned to the music of the tongue and could not, without offence, hearken to discords. She was an affected prude. Her self-chosen style of dress, her pose, her disdainful airs, her repugnance to coarse work, her inclination towards occupations and pastimes which involved isolation, showed that self-consciousness ruled her life. She lived within herself, and her life was gentle, contrasting with the boisterous playfulness of her foster sisters and brother, upon whose romps she smiled indulgently, but in which she never took part. In her own estimation she was a girl quite out of the ordinary, and one to whom the most honoured of guests must be polite, if not deferential. She exacted little niceties of demeanour from all, her equals and inferiors, for was she not treated as a daughter of the house? Often, however, in her preoccupied moods would she assume an air of detachment and jealousy towards the other children, for she could not but contrast herself with them. They were white; she was pronouncedly of the despised race. How wistfully would she scan the face of strangers! How teeming with resentment against fate her inevitable conclusions! In all save features she was white. Over her inheritance, the cruellest which fortune could bestow, she was shudderingly horrified. Not all the longings of an untainted mind could make her skin less tawny. Its stain was too deep to be blanched by the most fervent of prayers. Her outlook on life, her intensest wishes, were those of a white girl of more than decent perceptions — of actual refinement, for they tended to the avoidance of everything unpleasant and unsightly. In other respects, too, she was an absolute variant from the type, for her sensitiveness to the pain of others and of the lower animals amounted almost to a mania; for though she had a girlish horror of blood, her eagerness to solace sufferings made her so courageous that she became most apt and prompt in the administration of first aid. Her big, startled eyes showed the sincerity of her feelings, while her firm, slender fingers deftly applied bandages as she spoke in soothing tones.

The soul of a white damsel was in habitation of the body of one whose parents had been black and utterly degraded. In the days of old evil spirits were believed to be capable of taking spiteful possession of the bodies of the weak to work, in unseemlinesses and indecencies, for the mischief of the soul. Here was a good and gentle spirit which strove undemonstratively for the salvation of a being the circumstances of whose birth bordered on the infernal. It was as if the baths of infancy had purified the soul, while the permanence and perversity of blood triumphed in feature and complexion.

While the other children of the house deserved and obtained love and affection in full measure, towards Soosie were exhibited similar sentiments, with, perhaps, more consideration, for was it not plain that her life was a continual conflict — a conflict between body and soul — a body self-abhorred, a soul which needed no purification?

A creek which had its source in a ravine of the huge mountain which intercepted the rising sun and caused accustomed shadow an hour after the illumination of the western hills, ran past the lonely little house, which stood in a clearing the upright walls of which were on the sky-line scalloped with fan-palms. For many years Soosie never ventured into the jungle unaccompanied, yet she seemed to possess a sense of happenings beyond the almost solid screen of vegetation. Primal instinct contended against her affections and her love for a sheltered, clean life. Though she had always avoided association with the children of the camp, and her knowledge by imitation or precept was negative, yet was the bush an open book to her. She knew when and where to look for birds’-nests. She knew at a glance a venomous from a non-venomous snake, an edible from an inedible nut. As a child her favourite head-dress was a squat, fat mantis, the bright orange and yellow of which contrasted boldly with her fuzzy, coarse hair; and when the insect palled as an ornament it would be frizzled and slyly eaten.

Once as we strolled on the bank of the creek gazing at the lazy, red-finned fish among the swaying weeds, her wandering eyes detected a neat circular bore in the trunk of a huge silky oak. Having shrewdly scrutinised the bark, she judged the tenant to be at home. With a portion of one of the “feelers” of creeping palm stripped of all the prickles save two, she probed the tunnel and, screwing the instrument triumphantly, withdrew a huge white grub, which she ate forthwith; and then, with a grimace, assumed an air of shame and contrition, for she had astonished herself as well as others by an exhibition of untaught bush-craft and ancestral appetite.

She more than once confessed in shamefaced terms to an almost uncontrollable impulse to rush away to the mountain, that she might solace herself with the solitude and food in plenty there; but that when she conjured up the chance of meeting some “dreadful native” she thanked God for home and loving companions. How frequent and how intense was this unconfessed lust for the bush we knew not.

When Soosie was fourteen there came to the neighbourhood a hardy young fellow who began to clear a small area of jungle land; for civilisation, which had been marking time for nigh upon two decades, now marched slowly, and to no throb of drum, in our direction. Times were changing, and in some details less desirable conditions arose. The infinite privacy of the bush suffered. The little clearing was no longer our own. Soosie’s demeanour became more reposeful. She had seemed to think that it might be her fate, in common with others, to become a ward of the State at some mission-station; but as settlement advanced, though still miles away, for we were the furthest out, and no interfering guardian of the peace came to enforce officialdom and insist upon obedience to the letter of the law, it was comforting to reflect that this unofficial daughter might be permitted to live out her life unhampered even by the goodwill expressed, in the first stages, by the visit of a policeman.

Her presence was necessary, not only on account of her amiable disposition and self-sacrificing ways, but for the actual load she bore of the duties of a quiet home. We had failed, however, to take into calculation the chances of another means of separation. There was now no disguising the fact that our new neighbour, Dan, was casting sheep’s eyes in Soosie’s direction, and to her evident dismay. It was of little avail to upbraid him as to the unseemliness of attachment to a girl who, however civilised, was of inferior race and despised colour. He frankly confessed that he wanted a wife as a companion and helpmeet; that he could not hope, in consideration of his own lowly birth and slender means and uphill task, to induce a white girl to halve his loneliness. He had studied Soosie, and was sure that she was his superior except in matter of colour. She was far better schooled and had been used to softer life.

“What,” he asked, “don’t you and the Missis and Miss Clare and Fan, and Bob, here, love her? You couldn’t help it; and you are not ashamed. You treat her as your own child. It would be no sin for me to take her as my own wife. If she’ll have me I’ll marry her before the best parson in the North. What of her complexion? It’s only a little more sunburnt than mine.”

But Soosie was shy — more than shy. Her sensitiveness amounted to physical repulsion. She declared that, though she liked Dan, she would never marry.

“I do feel in my heart that I am nothing more than a black girl, and almost a savage. What if some day the horrible part of me got stronger, and I did go to the mountain by myself? I have heard you say that blood will tell. Often I am frightened of myself, especially when the nights are very still and I listen to the scrub hens chuckling and the flying foxes squealing, and smell the scents of the scrub. It must be very nice to live away from everybody in the very loneliest part of the big mountain, and to feel at home with actually wild things.”

There was no affectation between us, so I said in comfort: “But my dear girl, you are whiter at heart than many a girl born white. It is only your skin that is dark. Perhaps if in a year or so you did marry Dan it would be the best, for a good woman, no matter what her complexion, will always earn respect. Society may not want you, but you would not want society; and it will be very many years before society hampers life in this part of the bush.”

Soosie thought for a few minutes, and then replied with delicate discretion. “I can never marry Dan. Sooner or later he would despise me. It might be all right while I was young, but — we — we — blacks get old very soon. Fancy Dan having an old gin in his house; for he won’t be living in a one-roomed hut all his life!”

“You are spiteful against yourself, and that’s not like you, Soosie.”

“I have my feelings. How else may I restrain them?” she petulantly exclaimed. “He must never think of me. It might drive me to the mountain — just to save him from me.”

Dan, good fellow, was discreet. He decided to play the laggard in love, realising that any show of impetuosity might frighten Soosie. It came to be understood that in time she might see the wisdom of accepting him, and I, knowing both, and to whom mixed marriages are abhorrent, was convinced that no girl could have been better qualified to fill the position of a bushman’s wife. Modest, clever, sympathetic, healthful, none of the stains of the town had ever tarnished her mind. Her voice was that of a well-schooled white girl, and all her perceptions coincided. If the wander lust was to be suppressed for ever, it seemed to me that Soosie must marry, and marry young.

While Soosie’s demeanour was still the cause of earnest solicitude, a perplexing complication arose. An old man of the camp whence she had been discarded began to do his best to attract her attention.

Gifts of birds’-nests, eggs, ferns, orchids in flower, a cassowary chick, neat dilly-bags, gay with crude Pigments, were brought to the house with messages such as this:

“That fella ‘Pad-oo-byer’ he bin gib’em alonga ‘Ky-ee-rah.’”

“Ky-ee-rah” (the evening star) had been proclaimed to be Soosie’s totemic name, and “Pad-oo-byer” we knew as “Duckbill,” because of a fancied resemblance to a platypus.

The gifts were tearfully repudiated. They seemed to announce that Soosie, was regarded by her mother’s kin as one of themselves, notwithstanding her civilised environment.

Though for the girl’s sake, not on account of any personal repugnance or despiteful attitude, the blacks had been kept at arm’s length, I was on good terms with all in the district, and took interest in their doings and folk-lore. One of their primary beliefs was that children, black and white, were actually the produce of the locality, belonging, not to chance parents, but to the very land on which they were born. The germs of life, they assumed, came from the soil; the soil assimilated all flesh after death. Infants were but phases of the life with which the soil teemed. All the neighbourhood belonged to the camp — the land and everything which sprang from it, for they were the original possessors. It was their country. They argued that such things as sweet potatoes, pumpkins and mangoes, the very roses which adorned a sprawling bush, the richly tinted crotons, the flaunting alamanda over the gateway, were, strictly speaking, common property. So, too, over those children born on the place certain proprietary rights were claimed. They were akin to them, alien to their parents. Whites and blacks born in the same district must, according to their ideas, be more closely related than folks whose birthplaces were separated by distances beyond comprehension.

Such being the general opinion, fortified by undeviating oral tradition, in Soosie’s case the theory was ever so much the more arguable. She was claimed, not alone on the grounds that she was a native of their own land, but because, having been born in their own camp, she must be subject to it.

Duckbill intercepted me on the edge of the clearing one morning especially to propound the law of the land.

Soosie, he told in his pidgin English, had been given to him by her uncle. She was to be his gin now that she was grown up. “More better you hunt that fella. Him want sit down alonga camp.”

The bald proposition shook me, for I could not but see the logic of it from Duckbill’s standpoint. He was the “big man,” a wizard — ugly, old, and villainously dirty. Here was the camp’s husband for the coloured girl with the white heart. The idea was revolting, and then and there I resolved at whatever cost to save the girl from such degradation.

“Clear out!” I shouted, assuming frantic anger. “You fella chuck’m Soosie away when she little fella piccaninny. That one belonga me now. Suppose you fella kick’m up row big fella government come clear you fella out. No more let you sit down longa this country.”

“Country belonga me. You no humbug. You bin catch’m that fella Tchoosie l-o-n-g time. You bin make’m good fella. Belonga me now.”

The disgusting old fellow went on to explain that he intended to come up to the house that evening. “You hunt’m that fella Tchoosie, me catch’m. No good belonga you.”

I was to drive the gently nurtured girl out of the house so that this foul creature might seize her as he would a struggling wallaby, and take her to live a degraded life in the camp! Explanations and threats were of no avail. Duckbill, who was unable to comprehend that he and others of the camp had by abandonment forfeited all rights to Soosie and that she was now a “white Mary,” made it plain that he would forcibly abduct her if I would but give him the slight assistance of expulsion. Otherwise he would catch her himself.

Threatening the camp with the presence of the “big fella government” if he or any of them dared to interfere, I went off, while he shouted his orders to “hunt that fella close up karrie badgin!” (sunset).

Forthwith the house was put in a state of semi-siege. Soosie, with tearful eyes and tremulous hands, hysterically implored us to protect her from a fate worse than death. A message brought Dan, who first disdained to take Duckbill seriously. Told how Soosie had been wooed with gifts, and that her maternal uncle had officiously bestowed her upon the gaunt, ill-favoured king of the camp in accordance with tribal law, which regarded her as a mere chattel at the disposal of the whim and fancy of the nearest relative or at the demand of the most authoritative man, he became concerned and installed himself as Soosie’s special guardian.

A few minutes after sundown Duckbill appeared, quite unconscious of offence against civilised customs, carrying a waddy with which to administer an anodyne should his capture prove the least refractory. Threats and scoldings were lost. He was incapable of comprehending why there should be a moment’s hesitation about the fulfilment of his legitimate rights and demands.

Though protests were vain, the fact that Soosie did not show herself imparted some glimmering of sense of the situation to him, and he wandered off in the gloom grumbling “That fella too flash,” and frankly announcing “B’mbi me catch’m.”

For weeks Soosie kept within doors, or if she ventured out was accompanied by one or other well able and determined to protect her. Her nerves were at acute tension; her life that of a hunted creature; for though she thought her fate inevitable, she concentrated her mind on what seemed to others pitiably weak and inconsequent schemes for the bafflement of Duckbill.

Was it that some ineffaceable trait told her that the tribal law as expounded by Duckbill was so wise that resistance to it was vain, and that the trivial plans over which she worried were merely invented as a sort of temporary palliative? She scorned the possibility of existence in the camp, yet strove to contest it by the use of fantastical devices. She urged that Dan and I should get some fearsome masks and rush the camp in the gloom, at the same time setting off fireworks, and so create such terrifying effects that none would venture near the spot again. With bated breath, she even suggested that I should make a “death-bone” to be employed for the secret ill of Duckbill; she thus exposed the dross of hereditary superstition which rose to the surface during mental ebullition.

It was quite in the nature of things that under stress such a nature should break down. She nestled close to Dan, promising to be his sweetheart on the condition that, rather than that Duckbill should take her away, he would shoot her. If it came about that the dreadful black man was himself driven off or disposed of by some other means and the country made safe for her, then she would marry the man who had saved her, and she hoped that she might never disgrace him.

Dan accepted the guardianship. His hut was two miles away and on the far side of the river. He saw little of it for the next few weeks.

Duckbill and his friends, as we were well aware, knew of our plans for the defeat of his proposed outrage. If Soosie could be ceremoniously married to the faithful Dan, no black in the neighbourhood would endeavour to molest her. Indeed, all, even to Duckbill, would be flattered and demonstrative of pride in the alliance.

A fortnight later Duckbill again intercepted me. Since the previous verbal encounter I had gone armed. He carried, somewhat ostentatiously, a tomahawk and a couple of nulla-nullas.

“No good you keep’m that fella Tchoosie. Me bin look out plenty. That fella belonga me. Suppose you no lat’m come, more worse b’mbi. Me want mak’m that fella all asame black fella. You gib it Clare belonga Dan.”

My fingers twitched on the butt of the revolver. It was an ultimatum. That which from other lips would have been resented as complacent insolence had to be endured with apparent calmness. Threatening him with all the consequences of a visit from the “big fella government,” I hurriedly left, for I was not too sure of self-control.

A stricter watch than ever was maintained, for the least relaxation of precautions might have involved results for which a lifetime of regrets would not have atoned. Though of such a low type of the human race, the North Queensland aboriginal possesses certain admirable characteristics. His mind seldom swerves from a set purpose within view of attainment. He may be rebuffed and disappointed, and may assume indifference to or forgetfulness of his purpose; but in his heart he does not accept defeat until an absolutely decisive blow is received. Invisible to us, the old man persistently waited, and watched. The dogs frequently detected his presence, if their eloquent alarms and their excursions were to be credited. Though she continued to pit her wits against the secret cunningness of the dreaded old man, Soosie was often preoccupied, seeming to regard herself as one not primarily concerned. Her calmness was preternatural, contrasting strangely with her previous petulant agitation and tragic despair. She avoided Dan, while clinging with profuse demonstrations of affection to her foster-sisters.

The reason for her change of policy and manner was revealed with distressing suddenness. At daylight one morning the door of the room in which she slept under lock and key was wide open, and on her quaintly embellished table a primly written note:

“Dear Mum,

“That horrible man who wants to take me away is right, and the Bible is right. I belong to this country, and must go. I would rather die than go to the camp; but I must know the big mountain. The dreadful people don’t go there. They are frightened of it; I love it. I shall live there by myself till I die, and Dan will never be disgraced. You and Dada and Clare and Fan and Bob have been all the world to me. You did your best to make me white at heart; but since this trouble began I have thought and thought, and found that the black in me smudges all the good out. Don’t try to come after me. I shall hide. I would be too much ashamed ever to look at you again. Forget me, for I am nothing but an ungrateful little savage.

“Soosie.”

In all haste Dan and I set out for the camp, a mile or so further in the jungle. It was situated in a natural, symmetrical clearing, a circus hemmed in by sullen vegetation, and upon which no plant save blady grass ever invaded.

The camp was deserted. Save for a few still warm spots indicative of artfully smothered fires, there were few signs to indicate recent occupation. An hour’s search revealed definite tracks leading east — to the mountain.

No pains had been taken to baffle pursuers. Apparently the blacks had just wandered off aimlessly in obedience to a whim of the moment. There was nothing but conjecture to support the opinion that the decampment had anything to do with the disappearance of Soosie. Probably the blacks were aware, in advance of ourselves, that she had stolen away. If so, they would inevitably get her, having, possibly, the advantage of hours of start and being efficient in the art of tracking. Our plan was to hasten so that we might, if fortune favoured, be in time to save the distracted girl from the repulsive and obscene ceremonies to which she would be subject if she fell into the hands of Duckbill.

An hour’s walk brought us to the foothills of the mountain. The tracks turned abruptly north, winding indeterminately as if no special object had been in view. It might be that while the men of the camp had been intent on following Soosie’s tracks, the women and children had straggled after as if the quest was of no special concern to them.

In the broken country well in to the base of the mountain all traces of the exodus was lost, though bush instinct, supplemented by the actions of the dogs, gave sense of its direction. Blundering down into a ravine where blanched vegetation betokened complete seclusion from the sun, we clambered up the opposing steep emerging from an entanglement of jungle on a high and open ridge which commanded an unimpeded view to the west — a scene of theatrical clarity with a single theatrical smear. From a hollow far below slothful smoke filtered through the matted, sombre, dew-bespangled foliage, rose a few feet, and drifted abruptly, dissolving from diaphanous blue to nothingness. The resonant whooping of a swamp pheasant, antiphonal to a bell-voiced, crimson-crowned fruit pigeon in a giant fig-tree, the screeches of a sulphur-crested cockatoo as it tumbled in the air, evading the swoops of a grey goshawk, materialised the peace and the conflicts of a scene upon which no man had made mark.

The phantom trail of smoke betrayed the resting-place of the fugitives, though all tracks on the uneasy earth had failed. Odours of the jungle soothed my mind, contradicted the transaction of any unholy orgy, and gave assurance that the men had unravelled Soosie’s wanderings until she had begun to ascend the mountain, and that, being then on strange and terrifying ground, they had abandoned the search, returning to familiar level country free from the excursions of dreaded spirits.

With light hearts we descended the ridge, and, plunging again into the dimness of the jungle, struck as direct a route as possible for the smoke-revealed camp. Crossing a narrow creek, we peered silently through the screen of ferns and banana plants, where in a secluded glade were the wanderers in happy festival.

Could any scene approach nearer the ideal? Men, women and children, mostly unclad, talking and laughing in modulated tones, while amusing themselves with trivial occupations and eating convenient food in the depths of the jungle, sanctified by distance and scene and sound! Peace smiled, propriety approved. They ate of the fruits of the earth. The fern-embowered stream gave them to drink. No sign of the white man, with his interfering and desolating ways, assailed the sight. It was as if the mist of centuries had lifted, and for once time-soiled mortals were permitted to gaze on a Garden of Eden free from danger and innocent of sin. There was none here to make the quiet folk afraid or discontented.

As I stepped out, the scene changed with pantomimic celerity. We were in the midst of a community of excitable and resentful people, who, viewing us, if not with active hostility, at least with surprise and anger, seemed embarrassed by guilty knowledge. None of the customary greetings welcomed us. None offered other than scowls.

“Where Soosie?” I demanded in authoritative tones of a boy accustomed to treat my slightest word with respect.

With averted face he sullenly said: “That fella Tchoosie he run away. He go l-o-n-g way, alonga mountain!”

“Look here! You no humbug. Where Soosie sit down? Plenty row along white man suppose Soosie no come back. That fella Soosie belonga Missis. Missis very sorry. She bin make’m Soosie all asame white Mary.”

Still the face-averting boy reiterated: “That fella Soosie he bin go long way — more far. You fella make’m Soosie no good.”

Others gathered round. Several carried weapons — nulla-nullas and wooden swords — and assumed hostile attitudes.

Dan became uncontrollably excited, storming for the production of Soosie, and being met with inconclusive statements and evasions. Being one who knew no fear, who deemed his questions justifiable, who felt himself more than a match for the whole camp, and was convinced that the blacks were in possession of essential information, he urged the policy of chastising the sullenness out of a couple of incommunicative boys. His attitude, and mine, hitherto, towards the blacks had been of cheery good-nature tempered with considerate authority. Present moroseness was novel, and he was eager to sweep it away with a sturdy stick, and thus to demonstrate that when a friendly white man visited a camp blacks should be deferential and alert to assist his mission.

In the mood of the men tragedy was inevitable unless both of us kept cool. What would be the ending of a fray between two white men and many armed blacks, some of whom were aching under a prolonged, however inconsequent, grievance against a white family?

“Look here, Dan. Leave those fellows alone,” I said firmly but quietly. “There’ll be sorrow for some if you begin a row.”

“I don’t care for a hundred blacks! I’d kick myself if I could not floor half a dozen single-handed! Where that Soosie?”

To distract attention from Dan, I moved off a few yards.

“What you ki-ki?” I asked of Wethera, who gnawed with concentrated satisfaction at a charred bone. “You ki-ki wallaby?”

“No wallaby! This one ‘mandee’ (hand) belonga Tchoosie!”

Scorched flesh and blackened bone had left their smear on the face of the kindest cannibal of them all. On the fire was a foot with charred ankle-bones; in a dilly-bag other fragments, but in Wethera’s countenance no consciousness of evil-doing.

“Come here!” I shouted.

The excited man strode to the spot.

“Soosie,” I said, in the calmest tones I could command, “has been murdered. This is a cannibal feast!”

With a bound he upset the gin, who shrieked as she grovelled in the embers.

“You wretches! You kill Soosie! I kill you!”

As he drew his revolver from his belt I seized his hand, and, restraining him as best I could for a moment, spoke authoritative and soothing words, and led him away weak and tremulous.

Not for many months — long after Dan had left the district — did exact information as to the fate of the hapless girl reach our ears. Wethera told of the tragedy. Duckbill had followed her tracks from the house towards the mountain, had overtaken her, and, since she had fought frenziedly, had “killed her alonga head little bit,” not intending to kill her “dead, finis.” Carried to the camp, it had been found out that she was actually dead. Then all had become stricken and run away.

By her obstinacy Soosie had offended tribal law. She had suffered. In the necessitous jungle animal food is never wasted, be it beast, bird, or reptile.

It had been an edifying sacrament, too, founded on immemorial truth, for had it not been devoutly believed that Soosie’s most excellent and potent personality would remain with and glorify every participant?

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