My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter II

A Plain Man’s Philosophy

“‘Be advised by a plain man, (said the quaker to the soldier), ‘Modes and apparels are but trifles to the real man: therefore do not think such a man as thyself terrible for thy garb nor such a one as me contemptible for mine.’”— ADDISON.

Small must be the Isle of Dreams, so small that possession is possible. A choice passion is not to be squandered on that which, owing to exasperating bigness, can never be fully possessed. An island of bold dimensions may be free to all — wanton and vagrant, unlovable. Such is not for the epicure — the lover of the subtle fascination, the dainty moods, and pretty expressions of islands. The Isle must be small, too, because since it is yours it becomes a duty to exhaustively comprehend it. Familiarity with its lines of coast and sky, its declivities and hollows, its sunny places, its deepest shades, the sources of its streams, the meagre beginning of its gullies cannot suffice. Superficial intimacy with features betrayable to the senses of any undiscriminating beholder is naught. Casual knowledge of its botany and birds counts for little. All — even the least significant, the least obvious of its charms are there to, give conservative delight, and surly the soul that would despise them.

If you would read the months off-hand by the flowering of trees and shrubs and the coming and going of birds; if the inhalation of scents is to convey photographic details of scenes whence they originate; if you would explore miles of sunless jungle by ways unstable as water; if you would have the sites of camps of past generations of blacks reveal the arts and occupations of the race, its dietary scale and the pastimes of its children; if you desire to have exact first-hand knowledge, to revel in the rich delights of new experiences, your scope must be limited.

The sentiments of a true lover of an Isle cannot without sacrilege be shared. The love is an exclusive passion, not of Herodian fierceness, misgiving, and gloom, but of joyful jealousy, for it must be well-nigh impossible to every one else.

Such is this delicious Isle — this unkempt, unrestrained garden where the centuries gaze upon perpetual summer. Small it is, and of varied charms — set in the fountain of time-defying youth. Abundantly sprinkled with tepid rains, vivified by the glorious sun, its verdure tolerates no trace of age. No ill or sour vapours contaminate its breath. Bland and ever fresh breezes preserve its excellencies untarnished. It typifies all that is tranquil, quiet, easeful, dreamlike, for it is the, Isle of Dreams.

All is lovable — from crescentric sandpit — coaxing and consenting to the virile moods of the sea, harmonious with wind-shaken casuarinas, tinkling with the cries of excitable tern — to the stolid grey walls and blocks of granite which have for unrecorded centuries shouldered off the white surges of the Pacific. The flounces of mangroves, the sparse, grassy epaulettes on the shoulders of the hills the fragrant forest, the dim jungle, the piled up rocks, the caves where the rare swiftlet hatches out her young in gloom and silence in nests of gluten and moss — all are mine to gloat over. Among such scenes do I commune with the genius of the Isle, and saturate myself with that restful yet exhilarating principle which only the individual who has mastered the art of living the unartificial life perceives. When strained of body and seared of mind, did not the Isle, lovely in lonesomeness, perfumed, sweet in health, irresistible in mood, console and soothe as naught else could? Shall I not, therefore, do homage to its profuse and gracious charms and exercise the rights and privileges of protector?

“When thus I hail the moment flying,

Ah! still delay, thou art so fair!”

Sea, coral reefs, forest, jungle afford never ending pleasure. Look, where the dolorous sphinx sheds gritty tears because of the boldness of the sun and the solvency of the disdainful sea. Look, where the jungle clothes the steep Pacific slope with its palms and overskirt of vines and creepers! Glossy, formal bird’s-nest ferns and irregular mass of polypodium edged with fawn-coloured, infertile fronds fringe the sea-ward ending. Orchids, old gold and violet, cling to the rocks with the white claws of the sea snatching at their toughened roots, and beyond the extreme verge of ferns and orchids on abrupt sea-scarred boulders are the stellate shadows of the whorled foliage of the umbrella tree, in varied pattern, precise and clean cut and in delightful commingling and confusion. Deep and definite the shadows, offspring of lordly light and steadfast leaves — not mere insubstantialities, but stars deep sculptured in the grey rock.

And when an intemperate sprite romps and rollicks, and all the features of prettiness and repose are distraught under the bluster and lateral blur of a cyclone, still do I revel in the scene. Does a mother love her child the less when, contorted with passion, it storms and rages? She grieves that a little soul should be so greatly vexed. Her affection is no jot depreciated. So, when my trees are tempest-tossed, and the grey seas batter the sand-spit and bellow on the rocks, and neither bird nor butterfly dare venture from leafy sanctuary, and the green flounces are tattered and stained by the scald of brine spray, do I avow my serenity. How staunch the heart of the little island to withstand so sturdy a buffeting!

In such a scene would it not have been wicked to have delivered ourselves over to any cranky, miserly economy or to any distortion or affectation of thrift? Had fortune smiled, her gifts would have been sanely appreciated, for our ideas of comfort and the niceties of life are not cramped, neither are they to be gauged by the narrow gape of our purse. Our castles are built in the air, not because earth has no fit place for their foundations, but for the sufficient reason that the wherewithal for the foundations was lacking. When a sufficiency of the world’s goods has been obtained to satisfy animal wants for food and clothing and shelter, happiness depends, not upon the pleasures but the pleasantnesses of life; not upon the possession of a house full of superfluities but in the attainment of restraining grace.

It might be possible for us to live for the present in just a shade “better style” than we do; but we have mean ambitions in other directions than style. Style is not for those who are placidly indifferent to display; and before whom on a comely, scornful Isle shall we strut and parade? “You and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country’s fashions,” for do we not proclaim and justify our own? Are we not leaders who have no subservient, no flattering imitators, no sycophantic copyists? The etiquette of our Court finds easy expression, and we smile decorously on the infringements of casual comers.

Once a steamer anchored boldly in the bay — a pert steamer with a saucy, off-duty air. Certain circumstances forewarned us of a “formal call.” So that the visit should not partake of an actual surprise a boat containing ladies and gentlemen was rowed ostentatiously across to land awkwardly at such a point as would herald the fact and afford a precious interim in which we were plainly invited to embellish ourselves — to assume a receptive style of countenance and clothes and company manners. Careless of dignity, the charitable prelude was lost upon us. Our self-conscious and considerate visitors dumbly expressed amazement at their informal reception and our unfestive attire. Yet my garments were neat, sufficient, and defiantly unsoiled. Had I donned a full, white suit, with neat tie and Panama hat, and stood even barefooted on the beach, conspicuous, revealed as a “gentleman” even from the decks of the defiant steamer, the boat-load would have come straight to the landing smiling, and chatting, to drop “their ceremonious manna in the way of starved people.” They would have been elated had I assumed robes of reverence — a uniform indicative of obligation — a worthy response to their patronage. With compliments expressed in terms of functionary clothes they had hoped to soothe their vanity. White cotton and a tinted tie would have been smilingly honoured; and the mere man was not flattered to perceive that he was less in esteem than the drapery common to the species. I never will be content to be a supernumerary to my clothes.

Our visitors reflected not on their intrusion. My precious privacy was gratuitously violated, and in such circumstances that my holiday humour was put under restraint for the time being. Though I do profess love for human nature, for some phases I have but scant respect.

But our house was open. None of the observances of the rites of hospitality was lacking. Gleams of good humour dispersed the gloom on the faces of our guests. They had penetrated the thin disguise of clothes, and it was then that I silently wished in Portia’s words that “God might grant them a fair departure.”

Another class of visitor came on a misty morning in a fussy little launch. After preliminary greetings on the beach he remarked on my name, presuming that I belonged to a Scotch family.

“A good family, I do not question.”

“Oh, yes. A family of excellent and high repute.”

“Then, I cannot be any connection, for I am proud to confess that our family is distinguished — greatly distinguished — by a very bad name. It comes from Kent. I am a kinsman of a king — the King of the Beggars!”

“Ah! Quite a coincidence. I remarked to my friend as we came up to your Island: ‘If the exile is a descendant of the King of the Beggars, this is just the kind of life he would be likely to adopt.’”

“Exactly. I am indeed complimented. Blood — the blood of the vagabond — will tell!”

And my friendly visitor — a man whom the King had delighted to honour — with whimsical glances at my clothes, which tended to “sincerity rather then ceremony,” strolled along the beach.

If we were disposed to vaunt ourselves, have we not, in this simplicity and lack of style, the most persuasive of examples?

Indifferent to style, we do indulge in longings — longings pitifully weak — longings for the preservation of independence toilfully purchased during the poisonous years of the past. Beside all wishes for books and pictures and means for music and the thousands of small things which make for divine discontent, stands a spectre — not grim and abhorrent and forbidding, but unlovely and stern, indicating that the least excess of exotic pleasures would so strain our resources that independence would be threatened. If we were to buy anything beyond necessities, we might not be certain of gratifying wants, frugal as they are, without once more being compelled to fight with the beasts at some Australian Ephesus. Rather than clog our minds with the thought of such conflict and of fighting with flaccid muscles, dispirited and almost surely ingloriously, we choose to laugh and be glad of our liberty, to put summary checks upon arrogant desires for the possession of hosts of things which would materially add to comforts without infringing upon pleasures, and find in all serene satisfaction.

We have not yet pawned our future. No sort of tyranny, save that which is primal, physical, and of the common lot, puts his dirty foot on our haughty, sun-favoured necks.

“It is still the use of fortune

To let the wretched man outlive his wealth,

To view with hollow eye and wrinkled brow

An age of poverty.”

May Heaven and our thrift avert the fate!

The nervous intensity, the despotic self-sufficiency of this easy and indifferent existence may expose us to taunts; but how sublimely ineffective the taunts which are never heard and which, if heard through echoing mischance, would provoke but serene smiles; for have we not avoided the aches of uniformity, the seriousness of prosperity, most of the trash of civilisation, and the scorn of Fortune when she sniggers?

How magnificently slender, too, is our boasted independence! What superb economists are we! Astonishment follows upon an audit of our slipshod accounts at the amount spent unconsciously on small things which do not directly affect the actual cost of living. Taking the mean of several years’ expenditure, the item “postage stamps” is a little larger than the cost of my own clothing and boots. The average annual cost of stamps has been £5 4s.; clothing and boots, £4 12s. Indeed, this latter item is inflated, since, while I have stamps worth only a few shillings on hand, clothes are in stock sufficient (in main details) to last twelve months. The “youthful hose, well kept,” with other everlasting drapery brought from civilisation, is still wearable. The original clothing, such as conformity with the rules of the streets implies, remains serviceable, however obsolete in “style,” which is another word for fashion, “that pitiful, lackey-like creature which struts through one country in the cast-off finery of another.” For the privilege of citizenship in what, at present, is the freest country in the world my direct taxation amounts to £1 5s. per annum; and, since “luxuries” are not in demand, indirect contributions to State and Commonwealth are so trivial that they fail to excite the most sensitive of the emotions. All our household is in harmony with this quiet tune, and yet we have not conquered our passion for thrift but merely disciplined it.

A young missionary who became a great bishop, after some experience of “the wilds,” expressed the opinion that there were but six necessaries — shelter, fuel, water, fire, something to eat, and blankets. Our practical tests, extending over twelve years, would tend to the reduction of the list. For the best part of the year one item — blankets — is superfluous. Water and fuel are so abundant that they count almost as cheaply as the air we breathe; but we do lust after a few clothes — a very few — which the good missionary did not catalogue. Our essentials would therefore be — shelter, something to eat, and a “little” to wear. Fire is included under “something to eat,” for it is absolutely unnecessary for warmth. We do still appreciate a warm meal. Our house contains no means for the production of heat, save the kitchen stove.

Fruit, vegetables, milk, eggs, poultry, fish, and nearly all the meat consumed — emergency stocks of tinned goods are in reserve — are as cheap as water and fuel. Our unsullied appetites demand few condiments. Why olives, when if need be — and the need has not yet manifested itself — as shrewd a relish and as cleansing a flavour is to be obtained from the pale yellow flowers of the male papaw, steeped in brine — a decoration and a zest combined? Our mango chutney etherealises our occasional salted goat-mutton — and we know that the chutney is what it professes to be.

What more wholesome and pleasant a dish than papaw beaten to mush, saturated with the juice of lime, sweetened with sugar, and made fantastic with spices? What more enticing, than stewed mango — golden and syrupy — with junket white as marble; or fruit salad compact of pineapple, mango, papaw, granadilla, banana, with lime juice and powdered sugar?

We lack not for spring chicken or roast duck whenever there is the wish; for the best part of the year eggs are despicably common. Every low tide advertises oysters gratis, and occasionally crabs and crayfish for the picking up. Delicate as well as wholesome and nutritious food is ours at so little cost that our debt to smiling Nature, if she kept records and tendered her accounts, would be somewhat embarrassing. And if Nature frowns with denial and there are but porridge and goat’s milk and eggs and home-made bread and jam, thank goodness she blesses such fare with unjaded appreciation!

Since deprived of the society of blacks, our domestic expenditure has dwindled by nearly one-half. Indeed, it is almost as costly to feed and clothe three blacks as to provide essentials for three whites of frugal tastes. Here are a few items of annual domestic expenditure, proffered not in the spirit of gloating over our simplicity or of delighting in economy of luxuries, but to illustrate how few are the wants which Nature (with a little assistance) leaves unsatisfied. The figures are presented with the utmost diffidence, but with indifference alike to the censure of those who may scent obsequiousness to the stern philosophy of Thoreau in the matter of diet, or to the jeers of others who despise small things:

Flour £ 4 5 0
Groceries, lighting, &c. 40 0 0
Sundries 12 0 0
Total £56 5 0

And the irreducible minimum has yet to be reached. For many years my exacting personal needs demanded the luxury of coffee. Pure and unadulterated, I quaffed it freely, and (being no politician) neither did it enhance my wisdom nor enable me to see through anything with half-shut eyes. Yet did it make me too glad. Under such vibrant, emphatic fingers my frail nerves twanged all too shrilly, and of necessity coffee was abandoned — not without passing pangs — in favour of a beverage direct from Nature and untinctured by any of the vital principles of vegetables. Thus is economy evolved, not as a foppish fad but as due obedience to the polite but imperious decrees of Nature.

And having confessed — far too literally, I fear — to so much on the expenditure side of the simple life in tropical Queensland, it might be anticipated that the items of income would be stated to the completion of the story. The affairs of the busy world were discarded, not upon the strength of large accumulated savings or the possession of means by inheritance or by the success of investments or by mere luck, but upon merely imperative, theoretic anticipations upon the cost of living the secluded life. We had little in reserve, how little it would be unbecoming to say. Our theories proved delusive, though not bewildering. Some of the things abandoned with unphilosophic ease at the outset proved under the test of experience to be essential. Others deemed to be needful to desperation were forsaken unconsciously. Under the light of experience forecasts as to actual requirements were quite as vain as our preconceptions contrariwise. No single item which was not subjected to regulation. Without imposing any more impatient figures, be it said, then, that, though all preliminary estimates of ways and means underwent summary evolution, the financial end was close upon that on which we had calculated. Compulsion had all to do with the result. During each of the years of Island life our total income has never exceeded £100 and has generally fallen considerably below that amount. From the beginning we felt — and the foregoing lines have failed of their purpose if this acknowledgment has not been forestalled

“To be thus is nothing,

But to be safely thus”;

and to draw again from the unplumbed depths of Shakespeare:

“What’s sweet to do, to do will aptly find.”

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