My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter XXIII

The Recluse of Rattlesnake

“Live forgotten and die forlorn.”

TENNYSON.

Am I, living in or rather off the land of magnificent distances, entitled to claim as a neighbour a friend one hundred miles away? Sentiments obliterate space. With the lonesome individual who dwelt in an oven-like hut of corrugated iron on rocky, sunburnt Rattlesnake Island, and who lost the habit of living a few years ago, I was on social terms — terms of vague but cosy intimacy. On occasions of our rare meetings we found ideas in common. Peradventure similarities of environment focussed similar thoughts. Perhaps abnormal temperaments gave rise to becoming tenderness and sympathy. Whatsoever and howsoever the mutual sentiment, it is of the past.

The history of the Recluse of that undesirable island, a mass of granite and thin, unkindly soil is far removed from the prosaic. His was the third life sacrificed because of the lust of man to own the unromantic spot. He came to be known as “The Recluse of Rattlesnake,” but the pain of his life lies in the fact that his seclusion was not voluntary.

The earlier history of the “Recluse” embodies nothing very extraordinary. Men have fallen in love as impetuously as he. The prologue of the little drama in which he played the leading part was neither new nor strange. The originality came after, and then only was it understood how completely the divine passion had shattered his soul.

This, then, is the record of a part of his life — its dominating theme — its dramatic and pathetic ending.

A fine young fellow they were wont to call him — blue-eyed, fair-haired, sharp and shrewd and up to all the moves as becomes a man alert and successful in business. Truly a universal favourite, for he was good-humoured and amiable, full of wit and smart sayings. They say, too, that she who had pledged her troth to him was just as fine a girl as he was man. There came news to him of the death of a relative in Old England, with a summons thither to take his share of a fortune. He tarried no long time, for had he not left his heart behind him? But — and so the story goes, whether true to the letter I do not vouch — when he landed in Australia once again it was to learn that he had been slighted. His love affair hopelessly damned, he at once began to drift. The drift ended pitiably after half a lifetime — to him a lifetime and a half.

“God! we living ones — what of our tears When a single day seems as a thousand years?”

For a decade or more he lived on the Island, his resources slender and uncertain. Often he was on the verge of starvation. Once he told me that, driven by the pangs of hunger, he had trapped quail, which he had trained to come to his whistle to eat the crumbs which fell from his table during those rare times when he fared sumptuously. Then his tender-heartedness forbade him to kill them. But hunger is crueller than either jealousy or the grave, and one by one his plump pets were sacrificed. He had two faithful companions — mongrel dogs, “Billy” and “Clara”— and the wistful, beseeching inquiry in the gaze of those two dogs when he talked at them before strangers significantly showed how frequently and earnestly he talked to them when there was none else to share his confidences.

Now Rattlesnake Island, though close to a populous port, is one of the more remote parts of the State of Queensland. News travels to and from it at uncertain, fitful, and infrequent intervals. The Boer War had progressed beyond the relief of Ladysmith stage ere the Recluse of Rattlesnake knew that the Old England he loved so well and proudly was up and asserting herself. At odd times a sailing boat would call, but the Recluse was beginning to be what the polite folks benevolently term “strange,” and he would not always appear unless he knew his visitors. Then he was among the most agreeable and entertaining of men, full of anecdote and episode and quiet but true humour. A shrewd observer of natural science, he availed himself of unique opportunities for practical study. He conned first-hand the book of Nature, written large and fair, and illuminated with living designs. My one memento of him is the stiletto of a prodigious sting-ray. He had never seen a larger, nor have I nor any one to whom I have shown it. The weapon measures 9½ inches by an average width of half an inch. The birds that came to his island, the reptiles, the frogs, and the fish of the sea — he knew them all — and could tell quaint, fairy-like stories of his association with the creatures that had become too familiar to be the least afraid of him.

One day a boat anchored off his bay, but the Recluse was not to be seen, nor was the punt that he used found, nor were there any recent signs of occupation about the exterior of the hut. In due course official search was instituted. We may neglect or be indifferent to a man while he is known to be in the land of the living; when he is not and until the mystery of his fate is cleared up he becomes the object of earnest solicitude.

In the comfortless dwelling was found a diary which told its own tale of lonesomeness and starvation. Is there real pathos in the last writings of this once vigorous and independent man?

May 19. Waded with spear all over flats for rays. Did not get a shot at any. Very short commons.

May 23. I miss the tea and tobacco. Dug last row of sweet spuds. Very patchy in size, but a perfect God-send just now.

May 26. Last kerosene. No reading at nights now.

He records catching a sting-ray and getting oysters.

June 2. Not a sign of a ray. Have to live off potatoes a bit. They, too, will soon be done.

June 4. Added a P.S. to letters. A month gone and no chance to send them. Hard cheese!

June 6. Another week will see me in extremis. Wish I had a fishing-line.

June 7. Got some oysters. Oh for a good beefsteak or a chop! No sign of any boat. Lord help me!

June 9. Nearly skinned the oysters. What will I do when they are finished?

June 10. Dull; cold. Thank God for the sweet potatoes! They are my only food now. No rays about; no fish in the trap, and the whole coast of the island almost stripped of oysters. Only one candle left to cheer the night.

June 11. Miserable and hungry.

June 17. Cold and clear. Did not sleep well. The hunger woke me often. This is fearful work.

On the 19th he got some coco-nuts, which were first-rate. With coco-nuts and an occasional ray, he ekes out an existence, hungry, cheerless, without light, without tobacco. A copy of “Barnaby Rudge” and a few old papers represent his reading matter. He is glad when daylight comes.

July 3. Craft lay-to off Lorne Reef. Signalled by flag and fire from hill. They took no notice. Strange! Government cutter, I think.

So his life drags on. He tries to re-read by firelight “Barnaby Rudge,” which he must almost know by heart, but it is of no use. In the taming of a monitor lizard he finds much amusement, recording his satisfaction —“Goanna quite friendly.”

July 6. Caught a small rock-cod; roasted it for supper.

His satisfaction after a good meal is evident from the entry —

“Quite happy and contented.”

His hopes rise and fall on a diet of oysters and coco-nuts.

On July 22nd he hails with delight “a tin box of pears and condensed milk” which drift on to the reef. These have been in the water for weeks “but some are good.” He writes thankfully “the milk is grand.”

The diary described his life during the next few months “in a sort of way.” He builds a punt which he christens the GREAT EASTERN, the launching of which is briefly chronicled: “Launched the GREAT EASTERN. Sank below Plimsoll mark — like a sieve.” He returns disheartened from one or two trial trips, having to “man the pump.” ‘He complains of having to dig up and eat little miniature sweet potatoes and asks piteously: “What am I to do? I’m hungry and have nothing else!” His feet become cut and sore, and in every day’s entry is a plaintive wail at the pain.

Sept. 9. Treasure — a stranded coco-nut, quite good. A rare treat. My teeth are sore through not being used.

Sept. 26. This continuous hunger begins to tell. My blood’s poor and sores won’t heal. Can’t help it! I can’t better my lot in any way so must just endure it.

Octr. 31. Surely to goodness something will happen to put an end to my long drawn out misery. No sleep last night.

A “Goanna” that he killed and ate was a God-send.

Now. 6. Disappointed! Made sure of truffles after rain. None. No grub. I get weaker and weaker. Can hardly crawl.

Now. 11. Done up! Lay down and went to sleep. No sign from shore. The good Lord pity me in my weakness!

Novr. 12. Never thought I could get so weak and live. No sign anywhere. Must try to catch some big green frogs — good food.

Novr. 13. So awfully weak.

Novr. 14. Too weak to look out for . . . (the writing becomes unintelligible). Wrote my old friend . . . making over all property here to him absolutely. Blowing too hard for punt. I dare not try to walk I’d never get back.

The final entry is dated Nov. 15th:

“Caught three big frogs, cleaned and stewed them — delicious — like chicken! What fools we are with our likes and dislikes!”

They searched the adjacent island and the coastline, and finally concluded that the Recluse, having made a desperate attempt to reach the mainland in his wretched punt, had become overcome with exhaustion, and had drifted away to drown when the boat swamped in the breakers.

Six weeks or so after the date of the final entry in the diary a Chinese fisherman found a punt near the mouth of a mangrove creek on the mainland. In it was a skeleton, a fish spear, some empty oyster shells. A few fair hairs adhered to patches of dried skin on the skull.

So the tale is told — a brief, passionate love idyll a strange, tedious, and tragic epilogue.

Were ever the days and dreams of a strong man more completely dismantled and dismembered by a passing flick of Cupid’s wing!

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