My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter III

“Much Riches in a Little Room”

“Go and argue with the flies of summer that there is a power divine yet greater than the sun in the heavens, but never dare hope to convince the people of the South that there is any other God than Gold.”— KINGLAKE.

No “saint-seducing gold” has been permitted to ruffle this placidity. Gold! Our ears were tickled by the tale that good folks had actually thrilled when we slunk away to our Island. Rumour wagged her tongue, abusing God’s great gift of speech, until scared Truth fled. She said — how cheap is notoriety! — that secret knowledge of hidden wealth which good luck had revealed during our holiday camp had induced us to surreptitiously secure the land, that in our own good time we might selfishly gloat over untold gold! Some came frankly to prospect our hills and gullies, others shamefacedly, when our backs were turned; for had it not been foretold that gold was certain to be found on the Island, and were not the invincible truths of geology verified by our covert ways? Had not one of the natives told of a lump so weighty that no man might lift it and on which hungry generation after hungry generation had pounded nuts? Had not another used a nugget as a plummet for his fishing-line? It mattered not that the sordidly battered lump proved to be an ingot of crude copper — probably portion of the ballast from some ancient wrecks — and that Truth was sulking down some very remote well when the fable of the golden sinker was invented. Ordinary men — men of the type whom Kinglake designated “Poor Mr. Reasonable Man”— men with common sense, in fact, the very commonest of sense — were not to be beguiled by the plain statement that apparently sane individuals wilfully ventured into solitude for the mere privilege of living. Gold must be the real attraction — all else fictitious, said they. “They have” [Rumour is speaking] “the option of an unwitnessed reef, sensationally, romantically rich, or know of a piratically and solemnly secreted hoard.” Indeed, we did think to enjoy our option, but over something more precious than gold.

But one visitor was so confidentially certain about the gold that he boldly made a proposition to share it. A fair exchange it was to be. He would, then and there, lead to a shaft 60 feet deep, and deep in the jungle, too, at a spot so artfully concealed that no mortal man could ever unguided hope to find it, where was to be revealed a reef — a rich reef blasted by the mere refractoriness of the ore, a disadvantage which would vanish like smoke before a man of means. To this sure and certain source of fortune he would provide safe and speedy conduct if on our part we would with like frankness confide in him our secret.

Our lack of secret, was it not boldly writ on our faces? But it was fair to assume an air of mystery. “Our secret,” said we, “is more desirable than gold, yea, than much fine gold. Yours, at the best, is but dross!”

The very worst that could happen would be the discovery on this spot of anything more precious than an orchid. Gold, which would transform the Isle into a desert, is therefore selfishly concealed, and the reason for the concealment remains an incomprehensible enigma. Was it not the pinnacle of folly to retire to an Island where gold was not to be gotten either by the grace of God or by barter or strife with man? So bold a foolishness was incredible. Yet we get more out of the life of incredible folly than the wise who think of gold and little else but gold.

The singular perfection of our undertaking —“the rarity to run mad without a cause, without the least constraint or necessity,” the exercise of that “refined and exquisite passion”— stamped me a disciple of Don Quixote, and such I remain.

Some ancient said that the more folly a man puts into life the more he lives — a precept in which I steadfastly believe, provided the folly is of the wholesome kind and on a sufficient and calculated scale.

For several years prior to our descent no blacks had been resident on the Island. After the blotting out of the great multitude, the visits of its descendants had been irregular and brief. Therefore — and the assurance is almost superfluous — most of the evidences of the characteristics of the race had, in the course of nature, been obliterated. A few frescoes adorning remote rock shelters, a few pearl shell fish-hooks, stone axes and, hammers, a rude mortar or two (merely granite rocks in which shallow depressions had been worn by the pounding of nuts), shells on the sites of camps, scars of stone axes on a few trees — these were the only relics of the departed race.

Has a decade of occupation by wilful white folks wrought any permanent change in the stamp of Nature? None, save the exotic plants, that time, fire, and “white ants” might not consume. My kitchen midden is less conspicuous than those of the blacks, and, decently interred, glass and china shards the only lasting evidence thereof, for the few fragments of iron speedily corrode to nothingness in this damp and saline air. Unwittingly the blacks handed down specimens of their handicraft — the pearl shell fish-hooks, a thousand times more durable in this climate than hooks of steel. Geologists tell us that shells with iridescent colours are found in clays of such ancient date that if stated in centuries an indefinite number of millions would have to be assigned to them. It is not strange, then, that some of my pearl shell hooks are as lustrous and sharp to-day as when the careless maker mislaid them in the sand for me to find half a century later. We leave no records on the land itself which would betray us after the lapse of half a dozen years. Is it not humiliating to find that the white man as the black records his most durable domestic history in rubbish, easily expungible by clean-fingered time?

Is humanity ever free from worries? What it has not it invents. Remote though we are from the disturbance of other folk’s troublous cries, the ocean does not afford complete exemption from the sight of the shocking insecurity of the street.

One memorable day, casually glancing at the mainland, I saw on the beach something moving at astonishing speed. Whereupon the telescope was brought to bear, and to my dismay revealed, actually and without fiction, a practical spring cart, drawn by a real horse at a trot, which horse was driven (as far as the telescope was credible) by a man! Over four years have elapsed since I saw any wheeled vehicle other than my own barrow — the speed of which is sedate (for I am a sedate and determined man, and refuse to be flurried by my own barrow). Nervousness and excitement began to play. Thank the propitious stars, two miles and more of mighty ocean separated me from the furious car. Otherwise, who may say? I might in my confusion have been unable to avoid disaster. This place is becoming thrilling. Let me move farther from the rush and bewilderment of traffic. Let me flee to some more secluded scene, where my sight, unsoiled hitherto by motor-car, may for ever preserve most excellent virginity. I have since made inquiries, and have been assured that the nerve-shocking juggernaut of the opposite beach is palsied — liable, indeed, to dissolution at any moment. When the collapse occurs I propose to venture across to inspect the remains and renew youthful memories of the species of conveyance to which it belonged.

How do we spend our day? How fill up the blank spaces? Goats are to be milked’, fowls to be fed, dough to be kneaded, breakfast to be prepared, firewood to be cut, house to be looked after. Most of the substantial improvements have long since been finished, but there is no place but has to be kept in repair. One day, a week practically, is bestowed on the steamer. All odd moments and every evening are devoted to books.

During the cool season, when day tides range low, hours are passed on the coral reef, as often as conscience permits, in contemplation of the life of that crowded area. Seldom do we leave the Island, and rarely does any but a casual visitor break in on our privacy. Satisfied of the unpotentiality of wealth, here we materialise those dreams of happiness which are the enchantment of youth, the resolve of maturity, the solace of old age. Let other questants abandon hope, for I have found the philosopher’s stone.

My concerns are far too engrossing to permit my mind to wander on the trivial, unreal, incomprehensible affairs of the Commonwealth, for the command of which practical politicians continuously grapple, though, I am one of those who mourn for democracy, since democracy has chosen to indulge in such hazardous experiments. The Government of a country which gives equal voice in the election of its representatives to university professor and unrepentant Magdalene is not altogether in a wholesome way, even though over a dozen Houses of Parliament clamour to manufacture its laws.

It is enough for me to possess the Isle of Desire — the evergreen isle that “sluttish time” has never besmeared with ruin — where one may wander whithersoever the mood of the moment wills, or loll in the shade of scented trees, or thread the sunless mazes of the jungle — that region of shadow where all the leaves are dumb — listening for faint, ineffective sounds, or bask on the sand — on clean, unviolated, mica-bespangled sand — dreamily gazing over a sea of flashing reflections where fitful zephyrs, soft as the shadows of clouds, alone make blueness visible.

The individual whose wants are few — who is content, who has no treasure to guard, whose rights there is none to dispute; who is his own magistrate, postman, architect, carpenter, painter, boat-builder, boatman, tinker, goatherd, gardener, woodcutter, water-carrier, and general labourer; who has been compelled to chip the superfine edges of his sentiments with the repugnant craft of the butcher; who, heedless of rule and method, adjusts the balance between wholesome toil and whole-hearted ease; who has a foolish love for the study of Nature; who has a sense of fellowship with animate and inanimate things; who endeavours to learn the character and the purpose of varied forms of life; whose jurisdiction extends over fifteen sacrosanct isles; who is never happier than when reading — need never bewail the absence of human schemes and sounds or fret under the galling burden of idleness. Here is no bell to affright; nor are we subject to the bidding or liable to the assault of any passer by. Smooth-flowing time knows not mud or any foulness, while its impassive surface, burnished by August sunshine, reflects fair scenes and silent doings.

The freedom from care, the vague sense of selfish property in the whole scheme of Nature, the delicious discovery of the virtues of solitude, the loveliness of this most gay and youthful earth, and the tones of the pleasant-voiced and often surly sea fill me with joy and embellish hope — vague and unsubstantial — for is not this Isle the “place where one may have many thoughts and not decide anything”?

For all my occupations, I am often driven to “dialogue with my shadow” for lack of less subservient auditor, and though, as the years pass, I find that I become more loose of soul and in broad daylight indulge the liberty of muttering my affairs and addressing animals and plants and of confiding secrets to the chaste moon — poets and dramatists term such incontinence of speech soliloquy and employ it for the utterance of edifying inspiration — it is because it is impossible to be ever quite alone. Not so very long ago in Merrie England if a person muttered to himself it was enough on which to establish a charge of wizardry; but it is also said that real witches and wizards, though subject to the most ticklish tests, never perspired — a default which hastened conviction. Therein is my hope of salvation. If it be my fate some day to be found

“With age grown double,

Picking dry sticks and mumbling to myself.”

I shall claim a profuse prerogative, and continue to saunter down into the gloom at the foot of the hill of life unblinking in the sun.

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