Last Leaves from Dunk Island, by E. J. Banfield

Thunder Season

Thunder every other day and revivifying showers have characterized November (1917). Plant-life becomes almost obnoxious under the stimulus of the heat which precedes the thunder and the rains which maintain in the soil the dampness of a forcing-house. Between successive flashes of heat cool and calm days intervene, deluding the exasperated tiller of the soil with promise of easier times — less rain, less heat, and, consequently, less impertinence on the part of the vegetation he finds it necessary to repress. When the cycle of change is completed in a single day the changes are, of course, sudden, and mayhap sensational under given circumstances.

If the morning promised fair — agreeable temperature, cloudless sky, gentle easterly breeze and swell-less sea — was it not an invitation to abandon ordinary occupations and start off to the mainland, with, primarily, the benevolent purpose of visiting a neighbour six miles away, in a remote nook on the slope of the blue range across the blue water, and incidentally of absorbing some of the delicate sensations derivable from perfect weather and changeful scenes?

Almost insensibly the breeze veered to the north, creating that gently frolicsome sea in which a little boat seems to be sprightly with eagerness and vanity and endearing swan-like buoyancy. With the wind from that quarter there is a cosy cove for her, into which her betters in size must not intrude; and there was she left, bowing to each admiring swell that peered over the basaltic boulders, which form a rude sort of protection even when the weather comes from open sea.

From the landing a track through jungle leads to a lonesome hut. No gleam of sunshine penetrates to the red soil; the lofty, thickly-leaved trees are for the most part the hosts of creepers, some parasitic, some with huge, independent stems, strangely twisted and festooned, springing from the ever-damp earth. Their own leaves, and those of the great burdens imposed on the trees, create an agreeable shade; but to-day the soft light has a singular quality, not worth emphasizing but yet perceptible, and the cassowary after which the dog raced seems to be grumbling and mumbling in the distance at strangely regular intervals, as if its hasty flight had carried it a mile ahead.

Emerging from the jungle into the forest, we felt that the wind had ceased. Few, indeed, of the everyday sort of breezes visit this sheltered nook; the stillness, therefore, was more of a mental than a physical sensation, and the mutterings of the nervous, long-winded cassowary suddenly became transformed to distant thunder, grumbling behind intervening hills.

Having chatted with the lonesome man, and having eaten abundantly of the varied and kindly fruits of his well-kept clearings, it was time to return to the beach through the leafy tunnel, now gloomy, but richer than before with the scents of flowers and profuse leaves and wholesome earth. Certain effects — an agreeable warmth, a delicate stillness, an echoless silence — gave our voices unaccustomed tone; at least, the listener fancied so. Perhaps the atmosphere was denser than during the morning, and voices did not carry so far, and appeared to be abrupt, yet clear. Though scores of nutmeg pigeons were feeding among the tree-tops, and an occasional displaced fruit fell with a thud or pattered through the foliage to the ground, no voice of bird sweetened the air. Nature seemed to be holding herself in check for some authoritative effect in the way of sound.

From the beach how changed the aspect! Blue-black clouds overhung distant islands, and draped mainland hills in unbecoming sombreness. The storm which the morning had heralded with cassowary-like plaints was gathering fast. Its centre seemed to rest on the customary pivot — the always-dark mountain north-westwards — and it was wheeling to impose itself between the anchorage and home. The question of the moment was, Is it possible to cross the leaden-hued water before thunder-charged clouds make mischief? Let the risk be taken; at least we shall feel in half an hour the influence of the Isles, breaking down the angry seas if the wind veers to that quarter from which it makes the present spot uncomfortable if not dangerous. So, up and away with all possible speed!

No sooner was the hurrying boat so far on the way that she would have been caught as surely in retreat as in advance, than the thunder spoke in menacing tones; skirmishing drifts flew down the ridges to the west, and an enveloping movement on a grand scale began to operate with irresistible vigour and haste. The glassy sea was ruffled here and there with spear-heads of wind, which subsided almost as suddenly as they appeared, but became broader every second; and the sounds of the eager engine, coaxed to emit every atom of power, were heightened by the quietude. With dramatic rapidity the black wall to the south changed to grey, the mainland was smeared out with a similar hue; a vertical flash of lightning descended, or seemed so to do, on the highest peak of our homeland; a deafening roar shook the boat, and the wind and rain raced towards her with a line of foam in straight and unbroken array, as if both wind and rain stamped to the music of the thunder. In a few seconds the boat was the centre of a grey blotch a few yards in diameter., in which furious though not great seas seemed intent upon tearing her to pieces, while the wind rushed past like a fiend, angry and searching.

In the brief opening phase of the fight both steersman and engineer were soaked to the skin. As in a cyclone, the wind brushed off the crests of the waves, so that the circle in which the boat was central was a blur of most indefinite outline. For a time the steersman felt the way by the sting of the mixture of rain and spray on his right cheek, but presently these uncertain aids to direction became confusing; however he turned his face, they smote him on both cheeks at once, and, though it might be safe to assert from the location of the lightning and thunder-peals that for a time at least the boat headed across the track of the storm, a very few minutes elapsed before sense of the course was lost, and all that could be done was to attempt to dodge the seas that flew at the bows, three at a time, and sent jagged pieces from stem to stern, sharp as teeth and cold yet savage.

Faced with an exciting problem which exacted immediate solution, we drew the waterproof cover over the boat and up to the knees of the steersman, who had to handle the tiller and keep the pump going. At all hazards the engine must be kept dry, for who could guess at the duration of the storm, and how far the boat might be carried out of her course before a sight of land verified her whereabouts?

Now the tumult increased, after never so slight a rift directly overhead. A flash of lightning seemed to hit the sea just ahead; with but the briefest interval, the thunder crashed and the rain fell in torrents, so benumbing the anxious crew that it was barely possible to attend to urgent and essential duties.

An hour earlier the sultry jungle had teemed with pleasantness, and was pervaded with silence!

In the midst of universal greyness, ‘mid lightning and thunder, the rush of rain and the snap of fierce little seas on bows that always mounted them, the chill which made teeth chatter and benumbered fingers, there was time to recollect the calmness, the stillness, and the warmth of the leafy tunnel through which we had wandered with light-hearted, time-ignoring carelessness. Not that the present moments were entirely destitute of pleasure — for does it not brace the nerves to be in a sound and worthy boat when she battles with forces that you are convinced she may overcome, given some sort of co-operation and guidance? You have seen her behaviour in all sorts of weathers, and have never known her cause the slightest apprehension. She accepts the seas, and is still mistress of her fate; but at the moment there are other circumstances to be considered. Will the supply of petrol hold out? What freakish spirit in the engine makes the mixture of petrol and kerosene, which usually gives pure satisfaction, distasteful? Charge the repugnance to the thunder-impregnated air, and yet no practical solution to the doubts of the moment is forthcoming.

Is it not best to conserve the pure spirit and let the boat drift before the storm? She will do so in safety, but when the storm ceases where shall we be? Where is the despised compass now? With the stopping of the engine, strife with the encircling waves ceases. The boat, an irresponsible chip centralizing the blur, drives easily, with lightning and thunder and torrents of rain as startling, loud, uncomfortable, but harmless attendants. Vain are speculations as to the direction of the drift and its speed. Will it take the boat on to the rocky point — or past it — or to the neighbourhood of the anchorage left ever so long ago? There is nothing to be done save to shiver with cold, find comfort in the heat of the silencer, and watch the edges of the blur for hope-giving light. The rift overhead was but momentary; but now along one edge appears a straightened halo, dim at first but rapidly gleaming through the crest-broken waves and the rain. In five minutes the sky is clear, with the thunder retiring to the mountain, which seems its lair, the seas just lively, and the deck already drying. The boat has drifted in the direction of the cosy corner wherein she spent the day; but the engine responds to the first impulse, and she runs home with, as the crew is happy to reflect, a certain saucy jauntiness, a conscious exultation of having fought a good fight without the least show of submission, and now with real joy in the victory.

The sun shines brightly, the air is sprightly, the distances radiant. The cycle from freshness to sultriness, storm, and obscurity, and again to freshness and clear sky has been completed for the edification of two holiday-makers in a single wayward day.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50