My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter XXVIII

To Paradise and Back

“He on honey-dew hath fed

And drunk the milk of Paradise.”

COLERIDGE.

A gaunt old man with grizzled head, shrunk shanks, and a crooked arm was the most timid of the strange mob of blacks who, under the guidance of some semi-civilised friends, visited the clearing of a settler on one of the rivers flowing into Rockingham, Bay. Shy and suspicious, his friends had difficulty in reassuring him of the peace-loving character of the settler, whose hut stood in the midst of an orange-grove. In a few days, for no disturbing element existed, the nervousness of the old man in the presence of his host ceased, and it was then noticed that those who had accompanied him from the jungle-covered mountains, as well as the friends he had picked up near the home of the white man, paid him the rare compliment of deference. Well they might, for he was a man of importance, though he lacked clothing, and the elements of decency. The old man’s friends — perhaps because of his semi-helplessness, due to the twisted limb — performed various friendly offices for him, and never thought of the spice of any dread avowal, for he was far superior to them all, and righteously was he honoured. The lean Old Man had visited that “undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns.” There was no doubt of his actual presence in this. There were his young wife and several companions, male and female, ready to corroborate his story; and was not his crippled arm painful but unimpeachable testimony to the reality of his experiences?

In the telling of the history of a too brief sojourn in the paradise of the blacks the old man took but little part, for his English was NIL. The members of the party knew it by rote, and some of them could make themselves understood. Pieced together — for the story came out bit by bit — it ran thus:

A very long time ago, when the Old Man was young and lusty and the “King” of the tribe, an evil-minded “boy” made great rains. All the rivers overflowed their banks, the palm and tea tree swamps became impassable, the hollows between the hills were filled with water. Week after week it rained continuously, the floods gradually hemming in the camp and restricting the wanderings of the men to one long ridge of forest country. Soon all the food obtainable within such narrow limits was eaten. Every one became hungry, for the camp was large and its daily necessities considerable. Patiently they waited for the subsidence of the waters, but more rain came and the camp grew hungrier than ever. Many sat in their shelters and drank water copiously, thereby creating a temporary sensation of satisfaction.

In the midst of the adversity the Old Man remembered having seen a “bees’ nest” up a gigantic tree some distance away. He had not climbed the tree offhand because the feat seemed to be impossible. What might have been just possible on a well-filled stomach was worth hazarding now that he was famishing. So, wading and swimming, he gained the little dry knoll in the centre of which stood an enormous bean-tree, and there, a long way up, was the “bees’ nest.” With a piece of cane from a creeping palm and a stone tomahawk he slowly ascended the tree, for he was weak and his nerves unstrung. But he joyed when he reached the “bees’ nest,” for it was large and full of honey and brood comb — a feast in prospect for the whole camp. Then, as he set to work to chop out the comb, he heard, to his astonishment, voices below, and peering down, saw not only a wife who had departed to the land of spirits a year or so before, but his own mother, who had died when he was a youth. Greeting him in glad tones, they told him to come down, and that they would show him a big camp in good dry country where there was abundance of food.

Descending the tree with the cane loop, he saw that his previous wife was well favoured and fat, that his mother, too, was portly, that they had dilly-bags crammed with tokens of material wealth. They were overjoyed to see him, but expressed wonder that he was so weak when so much good food was available. Saying but little, they struck out for the big camp. The Old Man noticed, as they walked, that a track through the thickest part of the jungle opened up — a beaten, straight track, which he, for all his wanderings, had never before seen. The country was dry, too. Scrub hens and scrub turkeys, cassowaries, wallabies, huge carpet snakes, pigeons, fruits and nuts, bees’ nests, and decayed trees full of great white grubs were there in plenty.

Silently and swiftly the three passed along the track through a country which, at every step, became more desirable, and at last emerged on an immense pocket where there was a concourse of gunyahs from which the smoke curled up, and in every gunyah was abundance. Some of the young men were throwing sportful boomerangs and spears; large parties were so absorbed in the pleasure of corroboreeing that no notice was taken of the new-comer. The advent of strangers was too common an occurrence to distract them from unconfined joys. Such a scene, so different from the forlorn, starving, water-beleaguered camp over which the sullen despair brooded, mystified and gladdened.

The cup of happiness overflowed when, conducted through merry throngs to a particular spot, the Old Man was greeted by relations and friends for whom he had once duly mourned, plastering his face with ceremonious charcoal and clay, and denying himself needed food. Yet were they not here, alive, and in the enjoyment of every good thing? It was almost beyond comprehension. Was he not to credit the evidences of his own senses? Was not the food they pressed on him most pleasant to the taste? All the privations due to the flood were talked of familiarly. The scene of plenty was so close to the famine-stricken camp that the Old Man found himself wondering why it had not been found before. Now he knew the spot, and would in due time guide his starving friends hither and make one great camp, where all would live in undreamt-of ease, unrealisable superfluity of food.

For three days he dwelt in the good land with content, lionised by his relatives, taking part in the hunts, the feasts, the corroborees, and being urged never to return to the camp of floods and hunger. Here was bliss. Every wish amply gratified, who would willingly depart from so entrancing a place? And with fervent promises on his lips never to go away he was conscious of a sharp pain in his wrist and found himself crumpled up, stiff, sore, hungry, and helpless, at the foot of the big tree.

Reluctantly back in the land of stress and distress, so woefully weak that he could not stand without swaying, while his right hand dangled helplessly, confused sounds of Paradise still rang in his ears, verifying all that had recently befallen.

He gazed around, dismayed to see no trace of his wife or mother; no clean-cut, straight path leading to the land of pure delight. Far up the tree hung the cane loop; beside him lay the stone tomahawk. All present realities were of pain and hunger. Bewildered, slowly and with much difficulty, he made his way to the flooded camp, noticing as he went that water-courses he had been compelled to swim were now fordable — proof of the lapse of time.

Eyes starved to impassiveness stared at the gaunt, crippled creature, complaining mutely, for no food had been brought. Some muttered that he had eaten it all during his unaccounted absence.

Silently the old man bound up his wrist excruciatingly tight with strips of bark, and then in detail told of his glad sojourn in Paradise.

Then the faces of the famishing lit up with joyous expectancy and — impatient, reckless, heedless of floods, forgetful of weakness born of hunger — one and all hastened to the scene whence began the straight path to the enchanting land. But keen as the best trackers might be, not the least sign in proof of the Old Man’s experiences could be found.

The impassive wall of jungle which had opened so agreeably to the Old Man offered no obstacles to the enthusiastic searchers for Paradise. Far and wide, among slim palms standing waist deep in sullen brown water; across flooded creeks and rivers; over hills and mountains; up gloomy gorges into which none had ever before dared to venture, elated, they hastened day after day, glorious enterprise investing them with hardihood and courage. Ardently, hopefully, each vying with the other — for had not the Old Man proved beyond inglorious doubt the nearness and perfection of Paradise? — they pushed the quest far and beyond the limits of their own small province, and in vain, for they were not of the elect, however loyal and eager.

Years have elapsed, but the Old Man and his friends have not lost faith in the existence locally of the Happy Land. Had he not been hither, led by wife and mother, and did he not remain there three days — the only days of unimpeded joy in his long life? No such rich privilege had ever befallen any one else; but without questioning or envy all verify his words and delight to do him honour.

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