My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter IX

The Birth and Breaking of Christmas

“He doubted least it were some magicall

Illusion that did beguile his sense;

Or wandering ghost that wanted funerall,

Or aery spirite under false pretence.”

SPENSER.

He was a tremulous long-legged foal on the Christmas Day we became known to each other. I accepted him as an appropriate gift, and he regarded me with a blending of reserve, curiosity, and suspicion, as he snoodled beside his demure old mother. The name at once suggested itself. It seems the more appropriate now, for he is whitish, with flowing mane and sweeping tail, of a fair breadth, and open countenance.

Can the biography of a horse be anything but crude, lacking reference to ancestry? On this point there is the silence of a pure ignorance, and the record will be deficient in other essentials. Moreover, none of the phrases of the cult are at command, nor can a purely domestic story be decorated with clipped, straw-in-the-mouth, stable-smelling terms.

Christmas’s mother was a commonplace cart creature with a bad cough. It was a chronic cough, and in course of time its tuggings took her on a very long journey. She passed away, assisted towards the end with a cruel yet compassionate bullet, for in my agitation I made a fluky shot. She died on the beach, and as the tide rose we floated her carcass into the bay to the outer edge of the coral reef. The following morning the sea gave up the dead not its own. Once more we towed it away into the current which races north.

Some time before these reiterated ceremonies Christmas had been born, and I was grateful to the old mare, whose chronic cough had become one of the sounds of the Island, for he is an ornament, a chum, a companion, and a real character. I find myself confronted by inherent disadvantage, for I cannot even describe his points in popular language. He is a “clean-skin.” That is the only horsey (or should it be equine?) phrase in my vocabulary. He is a “clean-skin,” and in more than one sense. Clean describes him — character and all — and I like the word. He is 5 ft. 4½ in. at the shoulders, barefooted, for he has never known a shoe, and his toes are long; his waist measurement is 6 ft. 8 in., his tail sweeps the ground, his forehead is broad, his eyes clear, with just a gleam of wickedness now and again; his ears neat, furry, and very mobile; his colour a greyish roan, tending more to white in his maturity, which now is. Lest the detail might prejudice him in his love affairs, of which he is as yet entirely innocent, I am determined not to mention his age, even in the strictest confidence, and though the anniversary of his birth is at hand.

Though he spends most of his time in the forest, he takes astounding interest in maritime affairs, watching curiously passing sailing boats and steamers. More than once he has been first to proclaim, “A sail!” for when he flourishes his head and tosses his mane and gives a semi-gambol with his hind quarters, we know that he sees something strange, and look in the direction in which he gazes.

But I am ahead of my story. When he was in his shy, frisky foalage — as nervous and twitchy as might be — one lucky day I offered him from a distance of thirty yards one of the luscious bananas I was enjoying as I strolled down the path to the beach. The aroma was novel, and apparently very pleasant, for to my astonishment he walked towards me gingerly, but with a very decided interest in the banana. As he approached on the pins and needles of alertness, I extolled the qualities of the banana. He stopped, and started again, anxious to taste the hitherto unknown delicacy, but not at all trustful. Soon he came boldly up, and taking the banana from my hand, ate it with the joy of discovery in his features, and calmly demanded another. Thus began the breaking of Christmas, and if I had had sense enough to have followed up his education on similar lines, a deal of hard work, risk to life and limb, and the loss of some little personal property might have been saved. Ever after, Christmas could not resist the decoy of a banana.

When he was two and a half years old we decided to break him in. He was big, and strong, and wilful, and how was a feeble man with no experience and a black boy confessedly frightened of the big horse to accomplish such purpose? Tom is at home on a boat, and enjoys outwitting fish and turtle and dugong. However unstable his craft and surly the sea, he keeps calm; but with a tempestuous horse, who was wont to play about on the flat, pawing the air like a tragic actor, and kicking it with devastating viciousness, well —“Look out!” As was the horse, so was the yard designed — big and strong. Some of the posts are one foot in diameter, and four and a half feet in the ground. As neither of us had built a yard before, there may be original points about this one; but I would admonish others not to imitate them unless they have time, heaps of time, and an oppressive stock of enthusiasm, and I may add, fascinating experience, upon which to draw. The last-mentioned quality is invaluable in all such enterprises. If you have it, full play is permitted the speculative, if not the imaginative, faculties. If you have it not, then the work is merely a brutal exercise, in which a dolt might excel.

During the building of the yard I frequently reflected whether, though Christmas lived to enjoy a long and laborious age, would all the work he performed compensate for the strains and aches and bruises suffered. Circumstances prevented the completion of the yard in exact accordance with plans, for experience, that harsh stepmother, proved that the enclosure was unnecessary. The yard exists as a monument to profane misunderstanding of Christmas’s character. Had I realised his high-mindedness, his amiability, his considerateness and shrewdness, the yard would never have been built; a month of fearful over-exertion, and many pains would have been obviated, and poor Christmas saved much physical weariness and perplexity. At the cost of three ripe bananas all the virtue of the yard might, had we but known, have been purchased.

High and strong, and especially ponderous where it was weak, the yard was at last ready. The next process was to induce Christmas to enter it. We had another horse, Jonah, the nervous, stupid, vexatious skew-ball. In the absence of saddle and bridle, Tom deemed it wise not to attempt to round up Christmas. I admired his wisdom without exactly committing myself, and we resorted to strategy.

Naturally Christmas is inquisitive. He watched the building of the yard so intently that we half expected his curiosity might prompt him to try if it were adapted to his tastes and requirements. But when we chuckled and coaxed he grew suspicious, behaved quite disdainfully with his heels, and took a marine excursion to a neighbouring island. When he came back after three days, a banana tempted him. He was a prisoner before he realised. We giggled. The next thing was to rope him. Our perversity converted a trustful, gentle creature temporarily into a ramping rogue. Twice he snapped a new Manilla rope of like make and dimensions to that which is used in the harpooning of whales. For two days the conflict continued. Sullen and suspicious, Christmas ate scantily of the green grass we cut for him and drank from a bucket when we were not looking. At last a crisis came. Tom lassooed him once more. Nelly (Tom’s spouse) assisted me to take up the slack round a blockwood tree as Tom cautiously, but with great demonstrations of evil intentions, hunted the weary horse into the corner, where we designed to so jam him that a halter might be put on with a minimum of risk to ourselves. Christmas made a supreme effort. He roared and reared, and when the rope throttled him, in rage and anger dashed his head against the foot-thick corner-post. The shock loosened it, so that two rails sprang out (just missing my scalp) and stunned Christmas.

As he lay on the ground with twitching lips, with frantic haste we cut the rope, and in a few seconds he rose to his feet, discovering that he was in the land of the living with a joyful whinnying. If he had not been endowed with the suavity of a gentleman and the long-suffering of a saint, he would have walked off, for the yard was in a disreputable state of repair, and we were all shaky from the effects of nerve-shock. But no, in spite of abuse and misunderstanding, he was resolved at cost of whatever discomfort to himself to give us further lessons in the science of horse-breaking. He stood patiently while we patched up the fence. Then, taking the halter, and my courage, in both hands, I walked to his head, and with a few comforting words put it on. The good horse looked down at me with wondrous eloquence. His sensitive upper lip spoke, and his sneering nostrils; his twitchy ears told his thoughts as truly as semaphores; his clear eyes under sagacious white lashes transmitted emotions I could not fail to comprehend. “Is that what you wanted me to do?” said he. “Why didn’t you do it before? We have quite misunderstood one another! And what an exciting time we have had! I thought you were going to garrotte me. Yes, give me a banana. Follow you? Yes, of course, with pleasure; but don’t attempt to hang me again or else there’ll be trouble. Another banana if you please. Now, don’t be frightened, I’m not going to run over you. I’m not that sort of horse. If I were there might have been a beastly mess in this yard any time the last two days. I was beginning to feel quite peevish. I don’t know what might happen if I became really vexed. Another banana. Certainly you took great risks for a little man. We are beginning to understand one another. Are there any more ripe bananas handy?” He said all this and more, as he looked round, cheerfully accepting peace-offerings and listening to many consolatory words. The next morning he showed us how a young and not foolish horse should accept bit and bridle.

Several other episodes embellish the early career of Christmas as a working horse, all of them, I conscientiously confess, arising from gross misunderstanding. He knew in what manner a good-natured, competent, lusty horse should be handled and trained. We didn’t, and necessarily had to learn. He trained himself while we took hearty lessons in holding him. Once he decided to gallop with a sled. It was a mere whim — a gay little prank — but Tom couldn’t stop him. He ran too, holding on to the reins at arm’s length, contrary to my counsel, urged from discreet distance. Christmas ran faster, and by and by Tom sat down on his chin, and Christmas went on without him. He didn’t quite remember the width of the sled. Consequently when with a careless flourish he whisked between two bloodwoods the sled struck one with a shock that for a moment “dithered” the Island. It was just like that sucking earthquake which went off bang under Kingsley’s bed when he was in Italy. The bruise is on the tree now, and the sled wasn’t worth taking home for firewood. Christmas went on but just as the passion of the moment calmed down, the trailing reins — fit to hold a whale, be it repeated — caught in a tough sapling, and it was Christmas that went down. It was only a trip, but as he got up and faced about looking for the remains of the sled, the harness, tugged by the reins, crowded on his neck — backband, collar, hames, chains and all. Then began a merry-go-round, for Christmas, properly bedevilled, lost his presence of mind, and in a fancy costume of the Elizabethan age — a ruff of harness — waltzed most fantastically.

Again a few soothing words and two bananas calmed his affrighted and angry soul. Great is the virtue of the banana! A goodly hour was spent in untying the knots, and Tom made the one joke of his life. “My word, that fella Christmas he no good for boat. He make’m knot — carn let go quick!” Christmas is not petulant, though he is occasionally indignant on a large and complicated scale.

Early in his career Christmas showed and materialised the quality of masterfulness, his chief trait. He bullied Jonah, now banished to “an odd angle of the Isle,” courted encounters with a huge nondescript dog belonging to the blacks which once disrespectfully snapped at his heels and for ever after took a distorted view of things on account of a lop-sided jaw, and was wont to scatter the goats with a wild gallop through the flock. How meek and gentle his demeanour when he whinnies over the gate for bananas, or screws his head beneath the kitchen shutter and shuts his eyes and opens his lips, tempting his mistress to treat him to unknown dainties! And for all his masterful spirit did he not once fly from Jonah? During one of Tom’s many absences ex-trooper George was chief assistant in the administration of the affairs of the Island, between whom and Christmas cordial companionship was manifested; for George, in his understanding of horses, knew how to flatter and gratify Christmas with small attentions.

More at home in the saddle than on foot, having improvised bit and bridle, he rode off on Jonah into the bush, unobserved of Christmas, who had never beheld one of his species so hampered by a human being. While George was away it occurred to one of us to suggest that a high-mettled, never-ridden steed might be flustered when confronted with novel and incomprehensible circumstances. When George cantered home, Christmas gazed, horror-struck, for a moment, bounded into the air, snorted, and with flowing mane and flying tail fled to the most secluded corner of the paddock with strides that seemed to gulp the ground. In a few minutes he returned at the trot, inquisitive, high-stepping, tossing his head, flinging little clods of earth far behind, snorting, and tail trailing like a plume of steam from a locomotive. Again he looked, baulked, and with a contemptuous fling of heels raced up the paddock. Retreating to him was not running away, nor was staying wisdom when danger overbalanced hope. Again he made a gallant effort to vanquish his fear, but at the critical moment Jonah, under the stimulus of George’s heels, charged, and Christmas, with a squeal of terror, thundered blindly among the trees. Now was he convinced of the grisliness of the visitation. That downtrodden, servile Jonah, from whom he exacted prompt obedience to every passing whim, should be thus translated and so puffed up with audacity as to chase him was proof of the presence of incredible mischief from which the most valorous might with discretion retire; and without pause he galloped — free and wild as the blast of a tempest — round the paddock time and again, keeping the greatest possible space between himself and the pursuing apparition.

George kept up the fun until Christmas, beginning to reflect, swerved from fear to the attitude of anger, and to paw the ground and to sniff defiantly the air. Trotting boldly up towards Jonah, he neighed imperatively, but George waved off his assurance with his hat, and Christmas collapsing with fright, made furious haste for non-existing solitude. Once more he ventured, with bolder, more menacing front. He reared, pranced, kicked, savaged the air — not an item of all his pentup wickedness being undemonstrated. Then George dismounted suddenly, and calling in soothing tones, Christmas realised that the appalling creature was but a temporary compound of his playmate and the abject Jonah. Cautiously advancing in a series of contours dislocated with staccato stops and starts and frothy exclamations, he seemed to recognise the whole episode as a practical joke, of which he had been the victim, and to promise retaliation upon Jonah, for no sooner was that meek animal at liberty than he became the sport and jeer.

From the catalogue of the more theatrical doings of Christmas one more may be cited. Within a week of his yarding he had taught us so much, inspired us with such confidence in his resourcefulness and ability, that we resolved to give him a treat in the plantation dragging round a miniature disc-harrow, a particular brand of agricultural implement known as the “pony dot.” Being so, in fact and appearance, it was quite a misfit for Christmas — a mere toy with which a gay young horse might condescend to beguile a few loose hours. It was a charming morning. Birds were vulgarly sportful. Honey-eaters whistled among the trees, scrub-fowl chuckled in the jungle. Christmas, too, was bent on amusing himself, and he was so lusty and jocund, and the toy jangled and clattered so cheerfully that neither Tom nor myself could bestow much attention to the birds. What was gentle exercise to Christmas was quite sensational to us. He did not mind what stumps and logs were in the way. We did. Our agility was distinctly forced. But it was a charming morning, and Christmas was out for pleasure. In an hour or so the monotony of the picnic began to pall on Christmas, and as Tom began to chirp at him familiarly, if not quite authoritatively, I sat down in the shade to reflect that while Christmas had been violently exercising me, some of the charm of the day had filtered through my aching fingers. How pleasant it was to think that the discordant labour of the tropical agriculturist was past! This charming morning had settled it all. Tom and Christmas and the “pony dot” would keep the whole plantation as innocent of weeds as the Garden of Eden. Thus to muse in the dim arcade of the jungle absorbing the sounds of the birds, and of the murmuring sea, while a horse did all the work, in holiday humour, was the very bliss of the tropical farmer.

In the midst of a soothing, inarticulate soliloquy the “pony dot” burst out into a furious jangle. Tom yelled. Quick hoofs thudded on the soil, and Christmas swept through the banana-plants like a destroying angel, in a glorious bolt for home. The picnic had palled; and Tom, shouting rebukes, orders, and suggestions from behind a tree, showed by his dun-coloured skin that he had been dragged ignominiously through the freshly tilled soil. A remarkable feature of the plantation is a steep bank, the original strand line of the Island. Christmas, with the reins soaring like lassos, and harness welting his fat sides, stampeded to his fate. In a flash I saw what a ludicrous misfit the “pony dot” was. The impish invention — malignant purpose in its incompassionate metallic heart — furiously pursued Christmas twenty feet at a bound, discs whirling, every bearing squeaking with spite and fury. Struck with bewilderment, the honey-eaters became dumb, the dismayed doves forgot to coo, the scrub-fowl ceased their chuckling, and three cockatoos flew from the blue-fruited quandong-tree shrieking abominable sarcasms. As Christmas heaved over the banks the reins thrashed him. Resenting the insult, his heels flew high. The “pony dot” flew higher and jangled and screeched with accumulating vindictiveness. To what fearsome figure had this hasty flight transformed the mean little emblem of rusticity? A tipsy goblin? No — rather a limping aeroplane of the Stone Age; and it rattled like a belfry under the shock of bombardment. Could there be any crueller device to tie an unsophisticated horse to, and a horse whose single thought had been a merry morning? It would, when the crisis came, leap frenziedly on Christmas and slice him with keen, whizzing blades.

Tom raced past — a five-act tragedy in pantomime! A terrible jangle and catastrophic silence! No groan from misused Christmas. No remarks from the dumbfounded birds! With the vicious aeroplane hopping after him, he had galloped for the narrow aisle through the ribbon of jungle concealing the beach. There he had met his fate! Yes, the “pony dot” anyhow and everywhere, and Christmas all of a heap beyond. With imprecations on all “pony dots” in my mind, I hastened to inspect the mangled remains. They groaned, struggled to their feet, shook themselves and went placidly home as soon as we had unhitched the chains. One scratch on the most rotund part of the body was the only record of the “brief, eventful history,” and Christmas smiled in Tom’s face as he munched a soul-soothing banana.

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