George, who considered himself as accomplished and as cultivated as a white man, was assisting his master in the building of a dinghy. Contemplating the work of his unaccustomed hands in a rueful frame of mind, the boss recited, “Thou fatal and perfidious barque, built in eclipse and rigged with curses dark!” “Ah,” said he, “you bin hear that before, George?” “No,” replied the boy; “I no bin hear ’em. What that? Irish talk?”
A few days after, George peered into one of the rooms of the house, the walls of which were decorated with prints, among them some studies of the nude. He sniggered. “What you laugh at, George?” “Me laugh along that picture — naked. That French woman, I think, Boss!” He was evidently of opinion that all true and patriotic Irishmen talk in verse, and in throaty tones, and that the customary habit of French ladies is “the altogether.”
Proud of his personal appearance, George shaved regularly once a week, borrowing a mirror to assist in the operation. He was wont to apply the lather from pungent kerosene soap with a discarded tooth-brush which he had picked up. Long use had thinned the bristles woefully, but the brush was used faithfully and with grave deliberation. One morning he came and said —“Boss, you got any more brush belonga shaving? This fella close up lose ’em whisker altogether.”
The sensational episodes of his trooper days provided George with unending themes. He gave an account to a friend of the suppression of a black rogue, a faithful report of which is presented as an example of unbowdlerised pidgin English.
George —“You bin hear about Mr Limsee have fight? My word, he fight proper; close up killed. We three fella ride about. Cap’n — big strong boy that — me and Mr Limsee. Wild boy — boy from outside; Myall — beggar that fella — longa gully. Hit Mr Limsee. He bin have long fella stick, like that one Tom take a longa fight — short handle. Heavy fella that — carn lif ’em easy, one hand. Mr Limsee tumbledown. Get up. That boy kill ’em one time more hard. My word, strong fella boy that. Catch ’em Mr Limsee — tchuk longa ground, hard fella — like that. Me and Cap’n come. Mr Limsee alonga ground yet —‘Hello! Mr Limsee, you bin hurt?’ ‘Yes, my boy I hurt plenty. Not much; only little bit. That fella boy hit me alonga sword. You catch that fella. Hold ’em.’ Me and Cap’n say —‘You no run away, you boy.’ ‘Me no fright.’ He have ’em spear. Me tell ’em —‘You no runaway. Me catch you.’ He say —‘Me no fright, you fella.’ Me say —‘You no runaway. I shoot you.’ He say all a time —‘Me no fright. Me fight you.’ Me say —‘You fool, you carn fight alonga this fella bullet. He catch you blurry quick.’ That fella stop one place. We two fella go up alongside. Cap’n he say —‘Hold up your hand. Le’ me look your hand?’ He hold up hand. Quick we put ’em han’cup. That fella no savee han’cup before. He bin sing out loud — loud like anything. We two fella laugh plenty. Mr Limsee tie ’em up hand longa tree, and belt him proper. Belt him plenty longa whip. My word, that fella sing out — sing out — sing out. Mr Limsee belt him more. All time he sing out. Bi’mby let ’em go. He bad fella boy that altogether. We fella — go home along camp. Mr Limsee feel ’em sore tchoulder. Nex’ day that boy — very tchausey fella — come up along camp. He say —‘Me want fight that fella Cap’n.’ Cap’n come up. That fella catch ’em, Cap’n tchuk him hard alonga ground. Get up; tchuk him two time. Head go close up alonga stone. Two fella wrastle all about long time. Cap’n strong fella. That boy more strong. Knock ’em about like anything. Bi’mby come back he have spear — three wire spear — long handle. Tchuk ’em spear. Catch ’em Cap’n longa side — here. Wire come out nother side — here. He carn stay — tumble down. Good boy that; my mate long time. Some fella go alonga house tell ’em Mr Limsee —‘That boy bin kill you, fight long a camp. Cap’n catch ’em spear longa inside.’ Mr Limsee come down. He say —‘Cap’n, my boy, I think you finish now; me very sorry for you.’ Bad place for spear longa side. Hollow inside. Suppose spear go along a leg and arm, no matter. Suppose go inside, hollow place inside, you finish quick. Plenty times me bin see ’em man finish that way. Mr Limsee he very sorry. We catch that boy. Put han’cup behind, lika that way. My word he carn run away now. Chain alonga leg. Mr Limsee bi’mby send ’em down Cooktown. That fella no more come back. He go along Sen’eleena (St Helena penal establishment). Me bin think he bin get two years. Cap’n he carn stay. Two days that fella dead. He bin good mate, me sorry. Mr Limsee he very sorry. Good fella longa boy.”
Once George illuminated his conversation with an aphorism. Describing a battle between the Tully River blacks and those of Clump Point, in which his mate, Tom of Dunk Island (leader of the Clump Point party), had been severely wounded, he said —”‘Nother fella boy from outside, come up behind Tom. He no look out that way. That boy tchuk ’em boomerang. Boomerang stick in leg belonga Tom. Tom no feel ’em first time. He stan’ up yet. Bi’mby when want walk about, tumble down. Look out. Hello! see ’em boomerang alonga leg. He no more can walk about.”
The boss remarked —“Might be long time, Tom feel ’em leg sore.”
George —“Ah! me like see ’em kill alonga head. Finish ’em one time. Danger nebber dead.” Whether George wished to enforce the opinion that in battle nothing short of death was glorious, or that Tom though wounded was still valorous and would live to fight again, was not clear, but “Danger nebber dead,” probably represents the only aboriginal aphorism extant.
George is not the least superstitious. He takes everything for granted. Rain, in his opinion, comes from a big tank up above somewhere. Asked as to his belief in the personal “debil-debil,” of whom the mainland boys have such dread that few will stir out after dark, he said with a guffaw —“Me nebber bin see one yet. Suppose me see ’em, me run ’em!” George is, therefore, as yet unable to give a description of the fiend; but from hearsay authority declares that it possesses three eyes, two in the ordinary position, and one at the back of the head. It is believed that the third eye insures the “debil-debil” against all possible surprises, thus preserving the mystery of identity.
Though he has not a shadow of respect for the “debil-debil,” George has a firm faith in the existence in the neighbourhood of Cooktown of a camp of what he calls “groun’ gins.” His experience with these mysterious subterranean sirens he thus describes —
“Little bit outside Cooktown camp belonga groun’ gins. Me and Sargen’ go look big corrobboree; my word. Some gins come out alonga groun’ from hole. When go down, groun’ close up himself, like winda. My word, me fright. Me shake. One good fella nice gin come up. Sargen’ say —‘You go corrobboree dance along that fella.’ Me say —‘We go home now, me fright. We want go alonga town. This no good place.’ Sargen’ laugh little bit. He say —‘No, my boy, you no fright. All right here. You dance alonga that fella gin — good nice gin.’ Me go up. Me feel ’em fright. Feel ’em cold inside. Too much fright. My word; han’ belonga that fella gin — cold like anything. That gin say —‘Where you from?’ Me say —‘Me come from alonga town.’ That gin say —‘What you look out?’ Me say —‘Me look out bullocky, musser ’em cattle. Tail ’em up. Look out weaner alonga paddick. Plenty hard work.’ Me dance little bit alonga that gin. Not much. Too fright. Bi’mby that gin go down below. Groun’ shut ’em up. All day down below. Come up night time. Carn come up alonga sun. Soft fella that. Suppose come up alonga sun, sun kill ’em. Too sof’ altogether.”
Cooktown blacks, according to George, use a much lighter sporting spear than that in vogue in these parts. Instead of a slender sapling (preferably of red mangrove), straightened and toughened patiently over the fire, he would provide himself with the scape of a grass tree (XANTHORRHEA ARBOREA), true and straight as a billiard cue, light, and 8 or 10 feet long. Into a socket in the thicker end he would insert a single 1/4-inch steel point, 18 inches long, or three pieces of No. 8 wire, with the sharpened points slightly spread.
The merit of his weapon was the subject of frequent debate, the Dunk Island natives arguing in favour of a heavier spear, but George showed that his was effective as well as economic. During a discussion, George told the following story, which, it will be noticed, has in some details, its parallel in a tragic incident in the history of England. No attempt is made to refine George’s language:—
“This fella spear kill plenty. Kangaroo, wallaby, fish — kill ’em all asame. He go ri’ through longa kangaroo. One time me see ’em catch one fella boy. Brother belonga me — Billy — strong fella that. One time we go after kangaroo. Billy walk about close up, me sit down alonga rock; me plant me’self. ‘Nother boy close up. He plant. We no see that fella. Bi’mby me see little fella wallaby feed about. Me bin whistle alonga my brother. ‘Here wallaby. Come this way; quiet!’ my brother come up. ‘Tchuk spear, miss wallaby, catch ’em that other fella boy, here. He bin sing out — cry like anything. My brother fright. That boy sing out —‘Billy, you; what for you spear me.’ Billy run away, that boy sing out —‘Billy. No, you run away. Come up; pull out spear, quick fella!’ Billy run away. Me sit down quiet. No make noise. Me hear that fella cry, cry, sing out like anything. He carn walk about. Me go quiet along a grass long way. Come round ‘nother side. That boy no bin see me. Bi’mby me see gins — big mob. Sing out —‘One fella boy bin catch ’em spear. He very bad. Close up dead now.’ Billy plant himself long way. Boys and gins come up, where boy sing out. ‘Carry ’em alonga camp.’ Me go long way, where auntie belonga me sit down. That spear cartn pull ’em out. He got hook. All a time that boy sing out, ‘Pull out spear.’ Bi’mby Billy come back. He very sorry. He say —‘Me no wan’ spear you. Me no look out you. Me wan’ catch ’em wallaby.’ That boy say, ‘All ri, Billy. You good mate belonga me.’ Three days that spear inside yet. Me come alonga camp. That boy look ’em all ri’. Me say —‘Me very sorry. Me think you dead now.’ He say —‘Me no dead. Me feel all ri’. Me want pull out spear.’ Old men pull out hard. Carn shift ’em. Old men say —‘We cut ’em now.’ Get knife, sharpen ’em, cut ’em, cut ’em, cut ’em. Three strong boys pull ’em spear. Pull ’em hard altogether. Pull out plenty beef longa that hook. That boy no sing out. My word. He carn stop. Two weeks dead. Gins no bin bury ’em. What you think? Cut ’em up beef from bone; put beef in bark, put white paint alonga bark, tie ’em up and hung up ’em a longa dilly-bag. My word, puff! Bi’mby you se-mell ’em stink.”
George was not pressed to display his accomplishments. He chose during many months to hold himself in reserve, and to live up to the reputation of being quite a scholar, as far as scholarship goes among blacks. But in accordance with expectations, his pride and enthusiasm got the better of him. He produced two scraps of paper, on each of which were a number of sinuous lines and scrawls, saying
“You write all asame this kind?”
“No,” I said, “I no write like that.”
“This easy fella? All the time me write this kind.”
“Well, what you write?” George’s attention at once became concentrated, and gazing steadfastly on the paper for a minute or so for the marshalling of his wits, said —“This fella say Coleman Riber, Coen Riber? Horse Dead Creek, Massac (Massacre) Riber, Big Morehead, Kennedy Riber, Laura Riber.” These are the names of some of the streams north from Cooktown, George’s country. On the other scrap of paper, according to him, the names of some of the islands in this neighbourhood were written. Though the papers were transposed and turned upside down, George could read them with equal facility. The list of rivers would be read for the islands, and the islands for the rivers, quite indifferently, and with entertaining naivete. But he treasured the papers, and continued to delude his fellows with the display of what they considered to be wonderful cleverness.
“Mislike me not for my complexion.”
He said that his name was Mickie, and that he was an Irishman, and a native of the great Palm Island — 40 miles south. He hath no personal comeliness — his face is his great misfortune. Though he asserts with pride his nationality, he admits that his mother, now among the stars, “sat down alonga ‘nother side,” and his complexion, or rather what is seen of it through an artless layer of charcoal and grease, applied out of respect to the memory of his deceased brother-in-law, shows no Celtic trace. Yet he has a keen appreciation of fun, has ready wit, and, according to his own showing, is not averse to a shindy, so that, perhaps his given name is at least characteristic of his assumed race. A flat overhanging forehead, keen black eyes, a broad-rooted, unobtrusive nose, a most capacious mouth, beard and whiskers thin and unkempt, and a fierce-looking moustache, a head of hair which in boyhood days had probably been a mass of crisp curls, but now shaggy tufts, matted and uneven, altogether a shockingly repulsive physiognomy, and yet an “honest Injin” in every respect and one who would always look on the happy side of life, but for twinges of neuralgia —“monda” he calls it — which rack his head and face with pain. I saw only the peaceful side of Mickie’s nature, and therefore this chronicle will be unsensational as well as imperfect. There is a tradition that the Palm Island blacks are of a milder, less bellicose disposition, than those of the mainland opposite. Many years ago when a party of bushmen, fresh from the excitement and weariness of the Gilbert rush, reposed for a few days on the soft grey sand of Challenger Bay, the spot was invaded by a band of mainland natives. In the early dawn the peace-loving Palm Islanders awoke the friendly whites with the news that a “big fella mob” was coming across in canoes. Under ordinary circumstances they would have fled to the jungle-covered hills until the invaders had retired, but the knowledge that the whites had a couple of guns, and a good supply of shot, inspired a high degree of temporary courage. Possibly the extraordinary courage of the islanders in thus awaiting the attack put the invaders on their guard, for they would not approach nearer than 50 yards. A closer range was desired, for there was a special barrel loaded with coarse salt, and the invaders were innocent of clothing. However, a round of duck-shot had some effect, though the blacks who escaped the pickling slapped themselves in a defiant and grossly-contemptuous manner. Each who did so, however, grieved, for another round was fired, and each hero must have depended upon the good offices of his brother in distress in picking out the pellets. This is said to be the last occasion on which the placid Palm Islanders saw an enemy land upon their shores. Mickie did not remember the invasion, or if he did so, he was not anxious to demonstrate that his ancestors were not cast in the heroic mould. Probably all recollection of the escapade is lost to the natives of the Palms, and I am driven to accept the white man’s uncorroborated version of it.
Mickie is very proud of his well-conditioned spouse, “Jinny”—“Missus Michael,” as Mickie calls her when in the sportive vein — and Jinny, or “Penti-byer,” her maiden name, reciprocates the regard, and sees that the dilly-bag, which does duty for the larder, is supplied with yams, nuts, roots and shell-fish, Mickie being responsible for the fish — speared in the lagoon at low tide — and the scrub-fowl eggs, and the ivory white grubs, etc., upon which they live when there is no “white fella” sitting down. When Providence sends a “white fella,” they appreciate flour, tea, sugar, potatoes, meat, and all sorts of game, from cockatoos to flying-foxes. Once Mickie was asked how he managed to win the favour of such a fine gin. “Unkl belonga her giv’em me,” he replied. There was no marriage ceremony. There was no knocking out of a tooth, or the administration of a stunning blow on the head with a nulla-nulla, no eating of maize-pudding from the same plate, no drinking brandy together, no “hand fasting,” nor boring of the bride’s ears by the bridegroom, no tying of hands, nor smearing with each other’s blood, nor binding together with ropes of grass; simply, “Unkl belonga her giv ’em me!” Once in his possession, however, and Mickie proceeded to set his mark on his bride, so that should any dispute arise as to identity, he at least would have authentic brands. With an apparently studied array of cicatrices, each 3 inches long and half an inch wide, on her arms and shoulders, Mickie marked Jinny for his own. The couple have one girl — Mickie prefers to use the word “daw-tah”— and his child had been but lately received into the bosom of the family, after several years’ exile among the whites. It is somewhat of a trouble that “Minnie” had almost forgotten her native tongue, and that her parents have to yabber to her in English. According to them it will be a year before Minnie regains lingual facility. In the meantime great pains are being taken with her education, and her accomplishments promise to be varied, though entirely unornamental. She will in time be able to recognise at a glance the particular kind of decayed timber in which the delicious white grub resides, will know that the nut of the cycad has to be immersed in a running stream before it is “good fella,” and how to grind the kernel into flour, and how to mould the dough into a German sausage-shaped damper; she will be able to walk about the reef, picking up blacklip oysters and clams, without lacerating the soles of her feet, and to make a dilly-bag, and, finally, to enjoy a smoke.
Mickie appreciates a joke. When Jinny complained that the scrub caught her brand new pipe and had broken it short off, Mickie with an extravagant grimace softly urged her to go along Townsville and buy another.
He is also superstitious. After dark he will not move a yard from his camp without a flaring torch of paper bark, a fiery aspersorium for the scaring of the “debil-debil.” His opinions on the supernatural are unsatisfactory. He does not know what the “debil-debil” is like, or what form the ill-will of that mystic being would take — nothing but “that fella sit down alonga scrub,” and that he has “long fella needle alonga hand”; and so he carries and waves about his paper bark torch to scare this viewless and dreaded enemy.
Mickie’s views as to the future are not quite explicit. “Suppose me go bung, me go alonga sky. Bi’mby jump up ‘nother fella.” He is not at all certain whether the transformation would be into a white man or not; in fact he appears absolutely indifferent. Another time he will say —“Suppose me go bung. Good-bye, finish; no come back. Plenty fella alonga Palm Island go bung. He no come back.” Daylight disperses all his fears. In point of fact he has nothing to fear. His foes are dead, and there is no poisonous snake or offensive animal on the Palms. Once he sprang suddenly and excitedly into the air as we tramped through the long grass on the edge of the sweetly-smelling jungle, with the exclamation, “Little fella snake!” Being reminded that he had boldly asserted that there was no bad snakes on the island, Mickie replied —“That fella no bad. Only make foot big.” He never missed a chance of securing a hatful of grubs, which, together with the chrysalides and the full-grown beetle (brown and glossy) were devoured after being warmed through on the ashes. When the tomahawk in the process of cutting out damaged a grub, Mickie with a leer of satisfaction would eat the wriggling insect with a feigned apology —“Me bin cut that fella.” Baked in the ashes the chrysalids have a wholesome, clean appearance, with a flavour of coco-nut, and the “white fella” always came in for his share.
Mickie’s bush craft, his knowledge of the habits of birds and insects and the ways of fish, is enviable. Signs and sounds quite indeterminate to “white fellas” are full of meaning to him. Of course, by failure to comprehend such things, no doubt he has many a time gone hungry, and the keenness of his appetite has so sharpened his perceptions that he is seldom at fault now. The scratching of a scrub fowl among decayed leaves is heard in the jungle at an extraordinary distance, and a splash or ripple far out on the edge of the reef tells him that a shark or kingfish is driving the mullet into the lagoon, where he may easily spear them. He can tell to a quarter of an hour when the fish will leave off biting; he hears the scamper of the iguana in the grass when the “white fella” fails to catch a sound, and knows when the giant crabs will be “walking about” in the mangroves. He is trustworthy and obliging, and ready to impart all the lore he possesses, an expert boomerang thrower, a dead shot with a nulla-nulla, and an eater of everything that comes in his way except “pigee-pigee.” Having long had the pleasure of his acquaintance, I can cordially wish him a never-failing supply of “patter” and tobacco, and surcease of “monda”; and what more can the heart of a blackfellow desire — save rum?
Tom has been thrice married — at least he has possessed three wives. For a few months he had two at a time, and placidly endured the consequences.
Of the bride of his youth history has no word — for Tom is the only historian of that period, and he ever bears sorrows in silence.
Nelly, whose country borders the beach of the mainland opposite, could not speak his language when he fought for her fairly and honourably, and won her from her first man. Though reared but a little over 2 miles apart, these twain have totally different words for the same objects. During married life each has added to the vocabulary of the other.
When we took possession of the island, Nelly would glide into the jungle like a frightened snake and hide for days. She was wild, suspicious, uncleanly, uncouth — a combination of all the shortcomings of the savage. Now she lights the fire every morning, kneads the bread, makes the porridge and the coffee, feeds the fowls, washes plates and clothes, scrubs floors, and generally does the work of a domestic. She is cheerfully industrious, emphatic in her admiration of pictures, and smokes continuously, preferring a pipe ornamented with “lead,” for she has all the woman’s love of show. From the most quarrelsome and vixenish gin of the camp she has been transformed into a decent-minded peacemaker — always ready to atone for the misbehaviour of others, and to display without a trace of self-glorification the virtue of self-sacrifice. Nelly is never happier than when working about the house, except when she saunters off on a Sunday morning, in the glare of a new dress, and with the smoke curling from her ornamented pipe, beneath a hat which, in variety of tints, shames the sunset sky.
Students of ethnology who may scan these lines may find food for reflection in the fact that Tom and Nelly offer exceptions to the rules that the totems of Australian blacks generally refer to food, and that those whose totems are alike do not marry. Tom’s totemic title, “Kitalbarra,” is derived from a splinter of a rock off an islet to the southeast of Dunk Island. “Oongle-bi,” Nelly’s affinity, is a rock on the summit of a hill on the mainland, not far from her birthplace. The plea of the rocks was not raised as any just cause or impediment to the match when Tom by force of arms espoused Nelly. “Jimmy,” Tom and Nelly’s son, born in civilisation, bears a second name, that of a deceased uncle, “Toola-un-guy,” the totemic rendering of which is now unknown. Another “Jimmy,” a native of Hinchinbrook, is differentiated by “Yaeki-muggie,” the title of the sandspit of one of the Brook Islands.
The confusion of tongues between Tom and Nelly may be briefly illustrated —
|TOM (“Kitalbarra”).||NELLY (“Oongle-bi”).|
The big-eyed walking fish of the mangroves, which the learned have named PERIOPHTHALMUS KOELREUTERI, Tom knows as “manning-tsang,” and Nelly as “mourn!”
During one of his bachelordom interludes a smart young gin known as “Dolly” attracted Tom’s fancy. He had just “signed on” for a six months’ cruise with the master of a beche-de-mer schooner. Dolly smiled so sweetly upon Tom that Charley, her boy, raged furiously. Tom — never demonstrative, always cool and deep — obtaining an advance from his captain, bought, among a few other attractive trifles, an extremely gaudy dress, and having artlessly displayed the finery, took it all on board the schooner, which was to sail the following morning at daylight.
During the evening Dolly strolled casually from the camp and the society of the fuming Charley, and disappeared. Tom had quite a trousseau, new and bright, for his sweetheart, when she clambered on board, naked, wet, and with shining eyes. Next morning Charley tracked her along the beach. An old and soiled dress — his gift — on a little promontory of rocks about a mile from the anchorage of the schooner completed the love-story.
This intrigue took place many years ago, but Charley was so deeply mortified that he hates Tom to this day, and Tom is an uncomfortable fellow for anyone disposed to resentfulness.
We know, because he says so, that Tom fought for her, and that Nelly gladly accepted the protection of the staunchest man of the district. Tom, in his surly moments, is exquisitely cruel; but Nelly’s devotion is unaffected. Her vanity led her to flaunt her gaudy hat in the hut. Tom reproved such flashness — he invariably selects the gayest shirts himself — by burning the hat and all the newly-acquired finery. Nelly struck back, and Tom, as her eyes were big and ablaze with fury, threw — at the cost of burnt fingers — a handful of hot sand and ashes into her face. From Tom’s point of view it was a splendid feat — one of those bold and effective master-strokes that only a ready and determined sportsman could conceive and on the instant carry into effect. Nelly’s eyes were closed for weeks — well-nigh for ever — and the skin peeled off her face; but she consented to the cruel punishment without a murmur after the first shriek of agony, and won Tom to good temper and tolerance of her vanity by all sorts of happy concessions.
How many such tiffs — tough and smart — has poor Nelly borne? Her grief has been so sore that she has torn her hair out by the roots in frenzy and stamped upon it; but Tom, surly and impassive Tom, is her lord as well as her most exacting master, and in their own way they are devoted to one another.
The roughest cross Nelly was called upon to bear was the presence of Tom’s third wife —“Little Jinny”— the manner of whose wooing and home-coming is to be told.
News came from Lucinda Point to Clump Point — passed from one to another — that Tom’s half-brother (a purely fictional relationship) had died, leaving a young widow. According to Tom’s rendering of the matrimonial laws, he was the rightful heir. The widow was all that his half-brother had left that was of the slightest consequence.
Tom, telling the circumstances, asked for a holiday that he might personally lay claim to his inheritance. Reminded that he had one wife, he frankly declared in Nelly’s presence, and she seemed to acquiesce, that she was no good; but that the other one was a “good fella” in every respect, even to washing plates and scrubbing floors.
His holiday was granted. He went away with money in his pockets, blankets, several changes of raiment — among them Nelly’s best dress and hat, dilly-bags brightly coloured, and weapons — boomerang, two black palm spears, a great wooden sword, a shield decorated with a complicated pattern in red and white earth, and a flashing new tomahawk.
So he departed, with Nelly’s best wishes, and full of hope and expectation, promising to return in two weeks.
Two months slipped past, and one evening a forlorn, ragged, lean scarecrow of a black boy — without a hat, unshaven, without a blanket, and even destitute of a pipe, clambered over the side of the steamer, and dropped into the boat without a word. It was Tom!
In shreds and patches the history of his experience was related. He had arrived at Lucinda, had charmed “Little Jinny” with his manly presence and spruceness and the amount of his personal property, supplemented by the display and free bestowal of Nelly’s choicest finery, and had, as a matter of course, been compelled to fight for her. He had been beaten, terribly beaten. One ear had been viciously “marked,” a triangular slice being missing (a subsequent combat removed all trace of this mark), and he showed the meritorious scar of a spear-wound on the arm.
Having failed in the stand-up fight, he had resorted to stratagem, had been foiled, and forced to flee, abandoning everything, even to that last vestige of independence — his pipe.
We knew that he had been hard pressed, for on going gaily away he had volunteered to bring a fat young pig from one of the wild herds of Hinchinbrook, and he came back empty-handed. He talks of the pig — how fat and very young it was — even to this day. He came with his life — that was all, and a threadbare sort of life it was at that.
Several months went by — a black boy recovers condition in a day or two as does a starved dog — and Tom had saved money. He never forgets, never swerves from a purpose. He is as determined as a dung-beetle.
Another leave of absence was granted. A second raid was made upon Nelly’s wardrobe — two big bailer shells. Elated, freshly shaved and smiling, he was a different sort from the individual who had shamefacedly slipped over the side of the steamer, bereft of everything but life.
He said he would be back in two weeks, and to the day he appeared. His youthful third wife he handed down into the boat, and the boat was full of their luggage. Ah, that desolated camp at Lucinda! The young lady’s trousseau was complete even to lingerie. He had won the fight, and the bride and the spoils were his.
Poor Nelly! She welcomed “Little Jinny” effusively, and “Little Jinny” gave her a dress and a second-best hat. Life for a couple of days at the camp was idyllic. Then they took back the gifts of clothing, and turned Nelly out of the hut. She built a separate establishment — a dome of dried grass on bent sticks, and in it she wept and upbraided, and fired up frequently under the torments of jealousy.
Shrill squabbles were of daily occurrence, until the great Peacemaker removed Tom’s favourite wife. And who more sorely grieved than Nelly!
Will the title bear a few words as to Tom the hunter? Was ever a keener, a more patient, a more self-possessed, and consequently a more successful, sportsman? He it was who, from a cranky punt (no white man would venture out to sea in such a craft,) at three o’clock one windy afternoon, harpooned an immense bull-turtle, which towed him towards the Barrier Reef, into the track of the big steamers 4 miles to the east. He battled with the game all the afternoon and evening, overcame it at “the dead waste and middle of the night,” and towed it back to the beach, landing after thirteen hours’ continuous work. Tom accomplished the feat in a strong breeze and with a turtle diving and tugging, when he might have cut the line at any moment and paddled home comfortably.
He is as much at home on the top of a bloodwood tree, hanging round a swaying limb while cutting out a “bee nest,” as in a frail bark canoe among the sharks on the skirts of a shoal of bonito.
As we neared the beach one day a big sea-mullet came into view. Without a moment’s hesitation, and as it flashed past the boat, Tom, using the oar as a spear, hit the slippery fish with such precision and force as to impale it. He will harpoon a turtle as it rushes away from the boat, 5 feet beneath the surface, with the coolness of a billiard-player, and with unerring accuracy “taking off” for the speed of the boat and the refraction of the water. All the ways and habits of fish, and their favourite feeding-grounds, are to him as pages of an open book.
A groper, more voracious and bolder than usual, followed a safely-hooked perch from the dim coral garden, worrying it like a bull-dog. As the struggling fish splashed on the surface the groper, abandoning its illegitimate prey, swerved swiftly downwards. The retreat was a second too late, for Tom had seized the, harpoon lying athwart the boat, and though the fish appeared through a fathom and a half of water, a vague, fleeting, contorted shadow, he reached it. The barbed point passed through it, carrying a foot or two of the line, and a 30-pounder was added to our catch at one stroke and without a tremor of excitement on Tom’s part.
He sailed his punt — 12 feet long and 4 feet wide — 6 miles, loaded with eight adults, eight piccaninnies, five dogs, a cat, blankets for the crowd, and all the frowsy miscellanea of a black’s camp. It was not a boatload that landed on the beach: it was a procession. But Tom would go to sea on a chip. His skill as a sailor of small boats is largely a manifestation of characteristic caution, his precept being —“Subpose big seas come one, one — all right. Subpose come two, two — look out!”
She was called “Little Jinny” to distinguish her from another of the blacks about the place — a great, good-natured, giggling creature who laughs perpetually and grows ever fatter. There was nothing in common between the two. Indeed they frequently had differences, for “Jinny” proper is industrious, obliging, cheerful, and full of fun, while she, “Little Jinny,” was silent, sulky, and ever averse from toil.
Tom, her man, alternately petted and beat her. She, no doubt, deserved both, for she was proud and haughty for a black gin, and as venomous at times as a scorpion. His hand is heavy, and when he lifted it in anger poor “Little Jinny” suffered — but suffered in silence. Her chastisements were not frequent, but they seemed to increase her loyalty towards her lord and master.
From a European standpoint, “Little Jinny” had little of which to be vain. She had a fuzzy head of hair. Some, like fur, crept down across her brows, giving her face a singularly unbecoming cast. I did not notice this peculiar uncomeliness until she was dying, and I felt then more than ever that she was not to be judged in accordance with our standard of beauty — though she had many of our little weaknesses. Her ignorance of civilised ways was pathetic, yet she was vain and coquettish as the fairest of her sex. And her besetting vanity was endeavouring to be a “lady.” Work was sordid, for she wore garments which made her the leader of fashion. She possessed a pair of — well, a bifurcated garment — and her whole life was spent in trying to live up to it — or them. She succeeded to a certain extent. Her ways were mincing and precise, and she lazed away her days quite artistically. A can of water was too heavy for her to carry, less than two hours “spell” at a time quite an offence to her ideal of the amount of repose that a lady wearing the bifurcated garment should permit herself. She was wont to sit in the shade of the mango-tree and pretend to do a little gardening. It was all pretence. What she really loved to do was to wander among the bloodwoods — with Tom, of course — with next to nothing on, the next to nothing being the drawers. There, you have them. Then you saw her at her best — or rather worst, for she was a thin sapling of a girl, of a dull coppery colour, and the garment was not always snowy-white.
Hers, after all, was an ideal existence. She had plenty to eat, as much tobacco as was good for her, and outer raiment that in gaudiness outrivalled the flame-tree and the yellow hibiscus. She was the favourite of two consorts, and only when her pride and scorpion-like attributes got the better of her was she corrected.
Now, just the other morning, Tom announced that “Little Jinny” was sick “along a bingey” (stomach), and suggested that salt medicine might do her good. It was quite a common occurrence for her to be sick. It was such an easy and excellent excuse for a day’s holiday, when she would bask on the soft grey sand and smoke, gazing across the placid bay and waiting for meal-times. So no one took her sickness seriously. Subsequent inquiries, however, elicited the fact that “Little Jinny” had eaten little or no tucker the day prior to Tom’s application for medicine on her behalf, and that she was really entitled to sympathy of the most practical kind. But no one had the least suspicion of the fact. Dinner-time came and she did not appear, though she was strolling about the flat below the house, apparently only a “little bit sick,” as Tom reported when he came up to his work.
“That one all right to-morrow,” was the reply to an inquiry.
But at five o’clock Tom visited his hut, and hurried back for medicine. “Little Jinny” was very bad. We went down with remedies that seemed fit from his diagnosis of the case and description of the symptoms, and there lay “Little Jinny,” obviously dying. She had never complained nor whimpered when Tom’s heavy hand had corrected her, though the dried trickle of blood had been seen on her forehead, and now that she lay a-dying, with her figure strangely swollen, she moaned only when Torn, with his heavy hand, sought to squeeze out the dead man, “all the same like debil-debil,” who was, according to him, the cause of the trouble.
But it was all too implacable and crafty a “debil-debil” for Tom to cast out. We did our best with brandy and steaming flannels; but it was all so useless, for none understood the sickness, or how to prescribe a remedy that might be effective. Our helplessness was grievous. We could only repeat the sips of brandy and water, and endeavour to warm the chilly little body with steamy flannels.
All did something. Even Nelly, the second best wife, who had had to play a very subordinate part in the camp, and whom “Little Jinny” had slapped and had abused with all the volubility of spite and temper, crouched beside her dying rival, chafing her cold hands and warming her cheeks.
And here was the most touching incident of the pathetic scene. We had brandy and blankets and flannels wherewith to endeavour to afford relief. Poor Nelly had nothing. Her poverty was grim, but she had some resource. She had no means of alleviating the suffering save those which spendthrift Nature provided — the smooth oily leaf of the “Raroo.” She used these aromatic leaves, all that she had, with no little art and tenderness. Warming them over the fire until the oil exuded, she would apply them to the hairy jowl of the girl, and anon to her furry forehead and cheeks.
While there is life there is hope is evidently Nelly’s creed, and so she crunched and warmed the pungently odorous leaves, and rubbed the hands that had often smitten her in anger. Poor Nelly sighed piteously as she continued her work, while Tom massaged the body of the girl, hoping to expel the “debil-debil!” His theory was, and is, that some man whom “Little Jinny” had known down about Hinchinbrook had died, and his “debil-debil all the same like dead man,” had “sat down” in “Little Jinny’s bingey,”— hence her distended condition.
His efforts to cast out this personal “debil” were futile, and as the poor creature lapsed into unconsciousness he would blow gusty breaths upon her big black eyes. It was his method of revivification. In my ignorance I knew none more to the purpose. But it was all in vain. The great eyes of this specimen of uncivilised humanity clouded over, and then brightened. She moaned in response to Tom’s well-intended but too forcible massaging. Nelly applied without ceasing the one means of relief that she possessed, the heated “Raroo” leaf, to cheek and forehead, while we exhausted our woefully meagre stock of knowledge in endeavouring to ease the last moments of the dying.
But poor “Little Jinny’s” creditor was not to be denied. He was exacting, cruelly exacting, imperious, implacable. He would have the uttermost farthing’s worth of her poor, crude life.
Nelly might sigh and use the whole armful of “Raroo” leaves; Tom might massage, and the others do their best, which was pitiably poor, and their uttermost, which was ever so mean and little, the Conquering Worm would have its victim. And so with a few long-drawn, gulping sighs, each at a longer interval than the last, until the final one, “Little Jinny” passed away as the sun touched the dark blue barrier of mountains across the channel to the west.
Then Nelly’s sighs changed into a wail, in which the other members of the camp joined, a penetrating falsetto cry which continued for two days, mingled with the strong man’s expression of woe, a low, weird yet not inharmonious hum. For two days they chanted the virtues of the dead, told of her likes and dislikes, and of their grief, crouching beside the blanket-covered form. Then they buried her in the smoky hut in which she lived, digging a shallow grave in the black sand, and there she rests with them.
Tom has put on the mourning of his tribe, and will not for several years eat of a certain fish associated with “Little Jinny’s” original name. Nor can he bear to be reminded of her. The day after she was buried he spent the hours between daylight and sunset wandering about wherever “Little Jinny” had been wont, obliterating the tracks made by her feet. With the keenest of sight, which is one of the superior qualifications of the race, he discerned the tracks on the sandy, forest-clad flat, and rubbed them out with his foot.
Just as love-lorn Orlando ran about the forest of Arden carving on
“Every tree The fair, the chaste, the unexpressive she,”
so this tough, rude savage, spent the, whole day smothering the marks that would “sad remembrance bring” of the poor creature for whom he had that kind of feeling that in the savage stands for love. Nature would have performed the office as effectually, and perhaps more tenderly, but Tom’s hasty grief drove him remorselessly, until no outward and visible sign of the dead girl remained to challenge it.
When I ponder upon Nelly’s “Raroo” leaves and Tom’s terrible and precise earnestness in blotting out the memory of the past, I am convinced that this race, despised and neglected of men, can be as devoted to one another as truly as we who are so superior to them in many attributes.
Casual investigations confirm the opinion that the language of the natives of Dunk, Hinchinbrook and the intervening isles was mutually understood. Certainly there are more terms in common with Dunk Island and the southern end of Hinchinbrook — 40 miles away — than with Dunk Island and the adjacent mainland. In pre-white folks days amicable intercourse between the natives of the islands and of the mainland was unknown though the islanders frequently visited one another. Hence no doubt their dominant character and higher order of intelligence generally. Literally the insular was a floating population, and derived the advantage of intercommunication. That of the mainland was stationary. It groped dimly in the jungle, each sept, isolated by bewildering differences in language, cramped, narrow, suspicious. Tribes whose country came within 2 or 3 miles of the sea never intruded on the beach, and the Beachcombers dared not venture beyond recognised limits. To this day Tom will not “walk about” inland unless he is in possession of real superiority in the matter of arms, or has a following in force. He professes fear of the primordial savagery of the “man alonga bush.”
The last King of Dunk Island — known to the whites as “Jimmy”— was a tall, lanky man, irreclaimably truculent, incapable of recognising the dominance of those who bestowed his Christian name. Long after most of his fellows had submitted in a more or less kindly spirit to the o’ermastering-race, “Jimmy” held aloof, and in his savage, self-reliant way, deemed himself a worthy foe of the best of them. Often he endeavoured to persuade his companions to join him in a policy of active resentment. Once, when remonstrated with on account of some offence against the rights of property, he assumed a hostile disposition, and calling upon others, took up a spear, determined if possible to rouse a revolt. Few in number, the whites could not permit their authority to be questioned, and a demonstration with a rifle silenced all show of opposition. “Jimmy,” disgusted with the docility of his fellows, departed, uttering wrath and threatenings, and was no more seen in the vicinity. This incident took place nearly twenty years ago on the mainland. “King Jimmy, the Irreconcilable,” died a natural death. He does not sleep with his fathers on his native soil, but at Tam o’ Shanter Point, nor are any of his acts and deeds remembered, save that which illustrates his hatred of the whites, and his bold and truculent spirit.
None of those who remain is equal to the last of the royal line in stature. Toby stands 5 feet 7 1/2 inches. Tom, 5 feet 7 inches. Brow, 5 feet 2 3/4 inches, and Willie, 5 feet 2 inches. Tom’s expanded chest measures 36 1/2 inches, and Toby’s, 36; Brow’s, 34 1/2, Willie’s, 34 inches.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50