My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter XXVI

Tom and His Concerns

DOMESTIC AND OTHER BRAWLS

Tom, who holds himself well in reserve, stood once before an armed and angry white man, defiant, unflinching, bold.

As I have had the privilege of listening in confidence to both sides of the story, and as the main facts are minutely corroborative, I judge Tom’s recitation of them to be quite reliable.

He was “mate” at the time of a small cutter, the master of which could teach him very little in practical seamanship. The captain was rather hasty and excitable. Tom never hurries, fusses, or falters, be the weather never so boisterous afloat or the domestic tribulations never so wild ashore. When Nelly, his third wife, tore her hair out by the roots in double handfuls and danced upon it, Tom calmly observed, “That fella make fool belonga himself!” But when she rushed at him, clawing blindly, he promptly and without the least consideration for her sex, silenced her for the time being with a stone. The sudden peace after Nelly’s squeals and yells of temper was quite a shock; and when she woke her loving-kindnesses to Tom were quite engaging. Tom will ever be master in his own humpy.

To tell of that other incident that caused Tom to look wicked and so bellicose. The captain of the cutter lost half a crown. His excitement began to simmer at once. A hasty general search was made without result, every nook and corner of the boat and all the captain’s garments and the belongings of Tom and the other blacks being ransacked. The money declined to be found, and the captain, like David of old, refused to be comforted, and further following the fashion of the psalmist, said in his haste all blacks are thieves. Tom put on the stern, sulky, sullen aspect that so becomes him, and when he was individually challenged with the theft, disdainfully told his master, “Me no take your money! You lost em yourself!”

This calm, plain statement of fact so angered the boss that, calling Tom a cowardly thief, he yelled, “You take my money! I shoot you!”

It is placing rather a paltry valuation even on the life of a black fellow to threaten to shoot him for the sake of half a crown; but the death penalty has been exacted for far less, according to the boastful statements of self-glorifying white men. The boss was raging. He groped in the locker for his revolver, while Tom took a side glance at a tomahawk lying on the thwart.

Presenting the revolver, the boss yelled, “You rogue, Tom! You steal my money! I shoot you!” Tom changed his sulky demeanour for the pose and look that a camera has preserved, saying, “My word! you shoot one time, straight. Subpose you no shoot one time straight, look out.”

The shot was never fired.

I asked Tom what he would have done suppose the revolver had been fired and he not killed.

“My word! Subpose that fella he no kill me one time, I finish him one time quick alonga tomahawk!”

In the course of the day the half-crown was found under the stern sheets, where the boss had been sitting.

To coolly face death under such circumstances is surely evidence of rare mental repose.

Once Tom had a jovial misunderstanding with his half-brother Willie, who cut a neat wedge out of the rim of Tom’s ear with a razor. He had intended, of course, to gash Tom’s throat, but Tom was on the alert. In revenge and defence Tom merely sat upon Willie, who is a frail, thin fellow, but the sitting down was literal and so deliberate and long-continued that Willie was all crumpled up and out of shape for a week after. Indeed, the “crick” in his back was chronic for a much longer period. Tom was half ashamed of this encounter, and while glorying in the scar with which Willie had decorated him, excused his own conduct in these terms:

“Willie fight alonga razor. He bin make mark alonga my ear. My word! Me savage then. B’mbi sit down alonga Willie. Willie close up finish. Me bin forget about that fella altogether. When Willie wake up he walk about all asame old man l-o-n-g time!”

With whatsoever missile or weapon is at hand Tom is marvellously expert. As we rested in the dim jungle after a long and much entangled walk, a shake — a poor, thin thing, about four feet long, wriggled up a bank ten or twelve yards off, just ahead of a pursuing dog. On the instant Tom picked up a flake of slate and threw it with such precision and force that the snake became two — the tail end squirmed back, to be seized and shaken by the dog, and the other disappeared with gory flourish under a root.

Most of Tom’s feats of marksmanship, though performed with what white men would despise as arms of precision, end seriously. Yet on one occasion the result was broadly farcical. He has a son, known to our little world as Jimmy, who, like his father, is given to occasional sulks, a luxury that even a black boy may become bloated on. Tom does not tolerate that frame of mind in others. The attentions of “divinest melancholy” he likes to monopolise for himself, and when Jimmy becomes pensive without just cause, Tom’s mood swerves to paternal and active indignation — which is very painful to Jimmy.

Jimmy, in the very rapture of sulkiness, refused to express pleasure or gratitude upon the presentation of a “hand” of ripe bananas. Tom’s wrath at his son’s mute obstinacy reached the explosive climax just as he had peeled a luscious banana. He sacrificed it, and Jimmy appeared the next instant with a moustache and dripping beard of squashed fruit as an adornment to his astonished face. Then he opened his mouth to pour forth his soul in an agonising bleat. Tom got in a second shot with the banana skin. With a report like unto that which one makes by bursting an air-distended paper bag, the missile plastered Jimmy’s cavernous mouth, smothered his squeal, and sat him down so suddenly that Tom thought his “wind” had stopped for ever. Kneeling beside the boy, he set about kneading his stomach, while Jimmy gasped and glared, making horrible grimaces, as he struggled for breath. Nelly, nervous Nelly, concluding that Tom was determined to thump the life out of Jimmy, assailed him with her bananas and vocal efforts of exquisite shrillness. Just as matters were becoming seriously complicated, Jimmy rolled away, scrambled to his feet, and fled, yelling, to the camp, firm in the belief that his doting father had made an attempt on his young life.

THE LOGIC OF THE CAMP

Poor half-caste Jimmy Yaeki Muggie, a pleasant-voiced lad, who always wore in his face the slur of conscious shame of birth, died apparently from heart failure, an after-effect of rheumatic fever. Tom and Nelly mourned deeply and wrathfully. Smarting under the rod of fate, they sought with indignant mien counsel upon the cause of death.

Jimmy was a young fellow. Why should a young man, who had been lusty until a couple of months ago, die? Somebody must have killed him by covert means. In the first outburst of grief they blamed me. Tom declared, with passion in his eyes, that I had killed Jimmy by making him drunk. The charge was not absolutely groundless, for when the yellow-faced fellow was chilly with a collapse, I had administered reviving sips of whisky-and-water.

Yes, Tom declared in an angry mood, and with the air of one who washed his hands of the whole sad business, the doses of whisky had killed Jimmy. As Tom indulged to the fulness of his heart in the luxury of his woe, he began to reflect further, and to change his opinion.

He mentioned incidentally that whisky was “good.” “Before you gib em that boy whisky, he close up dead-finish. B’mby he more better.”

Then he began vehemently to protest against the malign influence of some “no good” boy on the mainland, and Nelly, eager to satisfy her own cravings for some definite cause for the ending of the life of a strong boy, supported Tom’s vague theories quite enthusiastically. To each distinct natural phenomenon blacks assign a real presence. Even toothache, to which he is subject, Tom ascribes to a malignant fiend, so he asks for a pin which, without a wince, he forces into the decaying bicuspid. His theory is that the little “debil-debil” molesting it will abandon the tooth to attack furiously the obtrusive pin. The affliction upon the camp had certainly been wrought by some boy who had been angry with Jimmy. The how and the why and wherefore of such malignant influence mattered not.

There was the dead boy rolled in his blanket, with a petrified smile on his thin lips. Obviously death was due to some illicit control of the laws of Nature. No one but a black boy could so grossly intercept the course of ordinary events as to produce death. Such, at least, was the logic of the camp.

Reflecting still deeper, and always with Nelly’s unswerving corroboration, Tom began to urge that Jimmy had been poisoned.

“Yes,” said Nelly, quite cheerfully, “some boy bin poison em. What’s the matter that boy want poison Jimmy? Jimmy good fella!”

“Who poison that boy?” I asked.

“Some fella alonga mainland..He no good that fella!”

“He bin sick long time. Poison kill em one time quick!”

Tom dissented. “Some boy make em poison slow. I know that kind.”

Then he explained. “Some time ‘nother fella tchausey belonga Jimmy. He wan make Jimmy shout. Jimmy no wan shout for that boy. They have little bit row.”

“That boy wouldn’t poison Jimmy because he no shout,” I reasoned. Everybody liked Jimmy.”

“Yes,” said Tom. “Sometime he might have row.”

With an air of mystery, Tom continued: “When that boy have row, he get bone belonga dead man, scrape that bone alonga old bottle. When get little heap all asame sugar, put into tea. Jimmy drink tea. B’mby get sick — die long time. Bad poison that.”

Nelly’s grief, which had been shrilly expressed at intervals, became subdued as she listened to Tom’s theories. To her mind the whole mystery had been settled. There need be no further anxiety, and only formal expressions of grief.

During the rest of the evening the wailing was purely official. Tom’s wit had so circumstantially accounted for the event, that it ceased to be solemn.

The next day they dug a hole five feet deep in the clean sand at the back of the humpy, and there Jimmy was laid to rest with the whole of his personal property, the most substantial of which consisted of an enamel billy, plate, and mug. The Chinese matting on which he had slept was used to envelop the body, and the sand was compressed in the grave.

But Tom and his family had gone. He said — and the deep furrows of grief were in his face: “Carn help it. Must go away one month. I bin think about that boy too much.”

TOM’S PHILOSOPHY

Tom had been so long intimately associated with cynical white people that several of the more fantastic customs of his race are by him contemned. Accordingly I was somewhat surprised to discover, after a few weeks of rainless weather, during which the shady pool at the mouth of the creek whence the supplies for his camp are drawn had decreased in depth, that he had been slyly practising the arts of the rain-maker.

As a matter of fact Tom was not in need of water, but, calculating fellow that he is, he foresaw the probability of having to carry it in buckets from the creek for the house, and to obviate such drudgery he shrewdly exercised his wit. A thoughtful, designing person is Tom — ever ready to accept the inevitable, with unruffled aboriginal calm, and just as willing — and as competent, too — to assist weary Nature by any of the little arts which he, by close observation of her moods, has acquired, or the knowledge which has been handed down from generation to generation. As it was the season of thunderstorms, he craftily so timed his designs that their consummation was not in direct opposition to meteorological conditions, but rather in consistency with them. Captain Cook found the ENDEAVOUR in a very tight corner on one occasion, out of which he wriggled, and in recording the circumstance wrote: “We owed our safety to the interposition of Providence, a good look-out, and the very brisk manner in which the ship was manned.” In a similar spirit Tom’s art was exemplified. He watched the weather, while he coaxed the rain.

Some rain-makers tie a few leaves of the “wee-ree” (CALOPHYLLUM INOPHYLUM) into a loose bundle, which is gently lowered into the diminishing pool, in which he then bathes; but all are presupposed to observe the clouds, so that the chances of the non-professional being able to blaspheme because of non-success are remote. Tom slightly varied the customary process, though he accepted no risk of failure. Cutting out a piece of fresh bark from a “wee-ree”-tree, he shaped it roughly to a point at each end, and having anchored it by a short length of home-made string to a root on the bank, allowed it to sink in the water.

A few yards away, towards the centre of the pool, he made a graceful arch of one of the canes of the jungle (FLAGELLARIA INDICA) by forcing each end firmly into the mud, and from the middle hung an empty bottle. The paraphernalia was completed on the Saturday, when the weather was obviously working up to a climax, but I was not made aware of Tom’s plans, and as one of the tanks was empty, on the following Monday, with his assistance, I cleaned it out, remarking to him with cheerful irony:

“Now we get plenty rain. Every time we clean out this little fella tank rain comes. You look out! Cloud come up now! We no want carry water from creek.”

That night a thunderstorm occurred, during which half an inch of rain fell, to the overflowing of the tank.

In the morning Tom smilingly told of his skill as a rain-maker, while admitting that the cleaning out of the little tank had also a certain influence in the right direction. It was, a pleasant, gentle rain, too, nothing of the violent and hasty character such as Tom had designed, but again he had a plausible explanation.

“Subpose I bin put that mil-gar in water deep, too much rain altogether. We no want too much rain now. After Christmas plenty.” Tom asserts that the deeper the pool in which the “mil-gar” is submerged the heavier and more continuous the downpour; but as heavy rain is not liked, only vindictive boys who have some spite to work off indulge in such wanton interference with the ordinary course of the wet season.

The submerged bark which attracts the rain Tom calls “mil-gar,” and the suspended bottle (a saucer-shaped piece of bark is generally used) serves to catch PAL-BI (hailstones), which, being, uncommon, are considered weird and are eaten in a dare-devil sort of spirit. In this case PAL-BI had but the remotest chance of getting into the bottle, and for that reason (according: to Tom) none tried. “Subpose I bin put bark all asame plate — look out plenty!”

Many natural phenomena are associated in the folklore of the blacks with untoward events. The rainbow (AM-AN-EE) is not regarded by them as a covenant that the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh, but as an evil omen, a cause of sorrow, for to whomsoever shall bathe in the sea when the bow is seen in the cloud evil is certain to befall.

Unprotesting Nelly is assured of this by her own sad experience. In tones of deep conviction, which permit of no manner of doubt, she tells me that AM-AN-EE caused the death of her infant —“brother belonga Jimmy.” She had bogied at Toorgey-Toorgey, when to her dismay the harbinger of disaster appeared to spring out from the sea. In a week the child was born-dead.

Both father and mother have the tenderest thoughts of that breathless image in bronze. I saw it. Its features were refined, the nose sharp and symmetrical, and the mouth a perfect Cupid’s bow. Its expectant repose thrilled me, for it was the realisation of that which Dickens said of little Nell —“a creature waiting for the breath of life.”

No marvel they mourned, that Nelly cut her arms with splinters of glass, that she still regards the lovely rainbow with resentment tempered by fear.

Tom does not respond to cross-examination. He thinks his own thoughts and says but little. When he is communicative his veracity is the less to be trusted. Many a time have I sought his opinions on the serious import of life — to find that he has none. His thoughts are concentrated on things which affect the immediate moment. Since he is mentally incapable of denying himself the most trivial recreations upon which his wishes have dwelt, restraint is succeeded by despairing, uncontrollable moroseness pathetic in its genuineness. How could such a temperament reflect upon the future? He is no doctrinaire; he does not credit existence after death —“When you dead, you finish!”

“But,” I suggested, “plenty of your country men think about another place when you die — finish.”

“Yes, some boy he say when you dead you go long another place. L-o-n-g way. More better place, plenty tucker, no work, sit-down, play about all day. When you come alonga that place father, mother, brother, sit-down — no more can die!”

Then I put a customary question: “Yes, what all go alonga that place like when you die? You father old man when he die. He old man now alonga that good place? Little Jinny young when she die. That fella young along that place? That piccaninny belonga Nelly — piccaninny alonga that place?”

“Yes, all asame when you die you along that place.”

“Good boy and bad boy-rogue, all go one place?

“Yes. Rogue he got one heaby spear right through. Go in here (indicating the middle of his chest), come out alonga back. Sore fella. That spear fight em inside. My word! Carn pull em out. He no die. Too much sore fella!”

DEAD— FINISH

Since the foregoing was penned Tom has realised the supreme fact of existence. He is dead, and is buried in dry, hot ground away from the moist green country which he knew so well, and was wont to love so ardently.

Although he was “only a black fellow,” yet was he an Australian by the purest lineage and birth — one whose physique was example of the class that tropical Queensland is capable of producing, a man of brains, a student of Nature who had stored his mind with first-hand knowledge unprinted and now unprintable, a hunter of renown, and in certain respects “a citizen impossible to replace.”

Given protection from the disastrous contact with the raw, unclean edge of civilisation, he and others, his fellows, might have lived for a score of years longer, and in the meantime possibly the public conscience of Australia might have been aroused, and his and their last days made wholesome, peaceable, and pleasant.

There is something more to be said about Tom in order that the attempt to show what manner of man he was may be as complete as the inexorable regulation of death permits.

Strong and substantially built, so framed that he looked taller than the limit of his inches, broad-chested, big-limbed, coarse-handed, Tom’s figure differed essentially from that of the ordinary type, and as his figure so his style and mental capacity. Serene in the face of perils of the sea, with all of which he is familiar, he was afraid of no man in daylight, though a child might scare him after dark.

Tom was not as other blacks, for he loved sport. It was not all a question of pot-hunting with him. Apart from the all-compelling force of hunger, he was influenced by the passion of the chase. Therefore was he patient, resourceful, determined, shrewd, observant, and alert. His knowledge of the ways of fish and of the most successful methods of alluring them to his hook often astonished me. He saw turtle in the sea when quite beyond visual range of the white man. Many a time and oft has he hurled his harpoon at what to me was nothingness, and the rush of the line has indicated that the aim was true. He would say when fifty yards of line were out the particular part of the body in which the barbed point was sticking. If it had pierced the shell, then he must play with the game cautiously until it was exhausted and he could get in another point in better holding locality. If the point had entered the shoulder, or below the carapace to the rear, or one of the flippers, he would haul away, knowing that the barb would hold until cut out. When restrained from the sea for a few days he became petulant and as sulky as a spoilt child, for, in common with others of the race, he was morally incapable of self-denial. Big and strong and manly as he was, he became as an infant when circumstances compelled him to forego an anticipated excursion by water, and rather than stay in comfort and safety on dry land would — if he had so set his mind — venture over six miles of stormy sea in a flattie little more commodious than a coffin. He was, on such an occasion, wont to say, “No matter. Subpose boat drowned, I swim along shore, tie em Nelly along a string,” meaning that in case of a capsize he would swim to dry land, towing his dutiful, trustful spouse.

Although by nature a true lover of the sea, his knowledge of the plant life of the coast was remarkable. Among his mental accomplishments was a specific title for each plant and tree. His almanac was floral. By the flowering of trees and shrubs so he noted the time of the year, and he knew many stars by name and could tell when such and such a one would be visible. Yet, though I tried to teach him the alphabet, he never got beyond “F,” which he always pronounced “if.” Perhaps his collapse in literature may have been due to persistent efforts to teach him the difference between “F” and “if” vocalised. He may have reasoned that so finicking an accomplishment was not worth acquiring. In his own tongue he counted thus:—

Yungl One Bli Two Yacka Any number in excess of two — a great many.

But in English he did not lose himself until he had passed sixty — at least, he was wont to boast of being able to comprehend that number.

Tom was a bit of a dandy in his way, fond of loud colours and proud of his manly figure. When the flour-bag began to sprinkle his moustache he plucked out one by one the tell-tale hairs until his upper lip became almost barren, but remorseless Time was never made to pause. Though many a white hair was extirpated, Tom was as much at fault as most of us who seek for the secret of perpetual youth, or to evade the buffets of old Father Time.

Opium and rum lured Tom away during the last four years of his life. He was sadly degenerated when I saw him for the last time, and several months after, in a mainland camp, he quarrelled with his half-brother Willie — the same Willie who many years ago in honourable encounter cut a liberal nick out of one of Tom’s ears with a razor. Willie probed Tom between the ribs with a spear. While he lay helpless and suffering representatives of the police force visited the spot and the sick man was taken by steamer to a hospital, where he passed away — peradventure, in antagonism to his own personal belief, to that “good place” fancied by some of his countrymen, where tucker is plentiful and opium and rum unprocurable. And unless in that “good place” there are fish to be caught and turtle and dugong, and sting-rays to be harpooned, and other sport of the salt sea available, and dim jungles through which a man may wander at will, and all unclad, to chop squirming grubs out of decayed wood and rob the rubbish mounds of scrub fowls of huge white eggs, and forest country where he may rifle “bees’ nests,” Tom will not be quite happy there. He was ever a free man, given to the habit of roaming. If there are bounds to that “good place,” he will discover them, and will peer over the barricades longingly and very often.

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