This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.
Last updated Wednesday, December 17, 2014 at 10:44.
To the best of our knowledge, the text of this
work is in the “Public Domain” in Australia.
HOWEVER, copyright law varies in other countries, and the work may still be under copyright in the country from which you are accessing this website. It is your responsibility to check the applicable copyright laws in your country before downloading this work.
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Early in the year 1918 two great storms visited the coast of North Queensland. One centred off the port of Mackay, four hundred miles to the south of Dunk Island, on 21st January, and the other about twenty-five miles to the north, on 10th March.
Forty-eight hours prior to the Mackay storm premonitory effects were observed here, succeeding a memorable tidal jumble. During a breathless calm a mysterious northerly swell set in. To ears accustomed to the silence and the musical whisperings of a sheltered bay, the roar and burst of the breakers of a wind-forgotten sea suggested a confused mental picture — a blending of black and grey without form.
Heaving, as with deep-drawn breaths, out from the beach the sea seemed to be both restless and angry, as glistening rollers heaved themselves on to the strand, to be shattered into spray. They rifled the Barrier Reef, threw on the sand lumps of coral to which brown seaweed hung, like the scalps of mermaids, and swept them to and fro with savage persistency. They brought driftwood from afar, and claimed all sorts of sun-dried relics from previous depositary moods.
After a time the sea became silent again, with a sparkling, wavering ripple, while the noise of its assault on the mainland beach had the tone of distant, unceasing thunder.
Ten days before the second storm, while the sky was cloudless and the air serene, a change in the quality of the heat was felt. During the first three months of the year — the period of heavy rainfall — the temperature is generally humid., Suddenly it became dry and burning, with a tingling intensity, as rare as uncomfortable. For the time the moist vapours of a mild steam-bath were dispersed by scorching breath as from a furnace, to the discomfort of animal life and the injury of vegetation.
Early on the morning of Sunday, 10th March, the sky became overcast. A fresh southerly breeze had sprung up during the night. A short, confused sea tumbled in the channel, and the usually placid bay mimicked its sport. With fearsome steadiness of purpose, the wind developed as it veered to the east. At 5 p.m. it was travelling at furious speed, twisting branches from trees and thickening the now gloomy skies with leaves. Consistently with the strength of the wind the barometer fell until between 9 and 10 p.m., when, with a conglomeration of terrifying sounds varying from falsetto shrieks to thunderous roars, the centre of the cyclone seemed to bore down on the very vitals of the island.
The devastating assault lasted about half an hour; it was followed by a lull, succeeded by another attack of violence from the north and north-west; then, as orderly as the storm had developed so it subsided.
With the barometer at 29.90 at 9 a.m., who would have prognosticated a dangerous cyclone within twelve hours? Mark the regularity of the derisive finger that, having failed to herald the storm, acted as a servile registrar of its various phases at the moment of occurrence:—
9 a.m. 29.90
3 p.m. 29.70
4 p.m. 29.60
5 p.m. 29.50
6 p.m. 29.60
7 p.m. 29.30
8 p.m. 29.18
As the 8 p.m. observation was taken, the unassisted finger dropped 2-100ths with a jerk, and within a few minutes the demons of the air were crazy with fury. That was the final reading for the night, for the crisis came with such ferocity that the wreckage of parts of the house made the site of the instrument inaccessible; nor was it possible to consult it again until shortly before nine o’clock the following morning, when it stood exactly at the point from which it had begun to move twenty-four hours before.
Only while the core of the storm was passing was lightning seen or thunder heard. Then the whole mass of tumultuously-racing clouds and vapour was luminous at frequent intervals, and the rumble of the thunder almost continuous — but the glow was weak and tremulous, and the thunder timorous, as if the electricity was a cowed captive at the chariot-wheels of triumphing Wind.
Throughout the night rain was incessant; but its torrential tramplings on the resonant, ceilingless roof were not to be detached from the discordancies of wind and wave, save only while breath was held in expectation of whatsoever might happen after the terrifying lull. The gauge overflowed at 10.50 in., so that the exact quantity for the twenty-four hours during which all ordinary concerns and interests were wafted aside cannot be stated; but, by comparison with results of previously recorded deluges, the fall must have exceeded 14 in., the greater volume of which should be ascribed to about five hours.
Being in perfect sympathy with each other’s fury, wind, rain and sea, in a common tongue, spoke threats of ruin and devastation, and fulfilled them all in more or less degree. And it has to be confessed that the crash and confusion of the awe-inspiring night, after three years of healing, still ring in the ears.
While the rage lasted, a slight degree of comfort was attained from considering the suddenness of the storm and its very violence. At its lowest the barometer indicated nothing out of the normal; but its marvellous activity as the wind gathered in force, the sensational drop immediately prior to the crisis, the recovery as the depression passed over, and the subsequently revealed fact that the course of the storm was brief — little over a hundred miles — show that it was home-brewed. Subsequent information proved that the dangerous phase was not experienced for more than twenty miles to the south and twenty-four miles to the south-west.
Having thus disposed of the formalities of a great occasion, the pages to follow will be devoted to a review of its consequences, not to human beings — and they were sad and disastrous enough — but to the natural features of the island, as they came to be revealed.
At sunrise on Sunday a leafy wilderness; at sunrise on Monday a leafless wilderness, wanting only grey skies, snow on the hills, and ice on the pools to suggest an English winter scene. Along the beach, on the flat, on the spurs of the range, astonishing transfiguration. The shrub-embroidered strand is now forlorn, its vegetation, uprooted and down-beaten, naked roots exposed to critical view. Not a shrub has escaped, and broken and shattered limbs of tough trees appeal for sympathy. The country is foul with wreckage.
Rain ceased two days after the storm, giving way to dry air under a cloudless sky, and the effects of the visitation were revealed in harsh crudeness and nakedness. Not a single tree escaped more or less serious injury. Those not uprooted or broken at the trunk, are almost limbless and entirely leafless. Instead of a compact mantle in various shades of green, hills and spurs — and even valleys and the rims of ravines — have assumed a tattered and frayed raiment of brown, as if a mighty flame had singed the verdure.
All the minor secrets of the land are bare; the “verdurous glooms” of yesterday are open to the inquisitive sun; the streams, fair-running but foul-tasting now, are blocked with decaying vegetation, and the flat lands are strewn with fallen timber.
Ravished by the profligate wind, once tender and lovable scenes flaunt their wretchedness and woe, and seem to appeal for consolation. The islet in the bay-hitherto a garden to the water’s edge, offering to the admiration of the sun and sea masses of golden-brown orchids and red clumps of umbrella-trees, of incomparable luxuriance and beauty — is but a bare rock with a forlorn crest of seared shrubs.
Let the dreary picture be blotted for the time by recollection of the endearing past.
Huge coco-nut palms, that a few hours ago might have vaunted their stately straightness, lie uprooted or broken at the base, or lean at pitiable angles. Some lie fifty yards from the spot where their fronds saluted Sunday morning’s sun, yet still carry fragments of their burden of nuts. What significant illustration of the demonism of the wind does a fallen palm present! During ordinary gales the fronds stream before the wind like the loosened hair of a woman, offering to it coy resistance; but, subject itself to the tormenting cyclone as the palm-tree may, lean in obedience to its will, bow before its strength, sway to its caprices, there comes a time when graceful acts are of no avail. The wind will have its savage way. The wailing palm is prostrated, torn and dishevelled, carried along as if it were a straw, and piled with other trophies of victory and violation in calamitous heaps.
The veering of the wind to the north-west, since it took place about the hour of high water, occasioned a tidal wave, evidences of which strew the green places of yesterday a hundred yards beyond the strand. Shrubs four feet high are buried in white coral sand. Here, amidst the desolation, an artificial flower-garden, acres in extent, has been created by the successive action of wave and rain. Thousands of small shells from the bleached hordes of the reef are stranded with the concavity uppermost. Then the nor’-wester swept the surface of the new sand, leaving each shell resting on the summit of a sturdy little pinnacle. At first glance the scene is that of a magically-planted field of strange, white flowers, the single atonement for the ravages of the dark hours. Here, too, every exposed rootlet, every twig and fragment of drift-wood, is the crest of a sand-ridge in miniature, telling the direction whence came the wind’s final onrush.
Forlorn birds, made tamer by one irresistible touch of Nature, flit mournfully among the battered branches. They are silent. None of the cheerful jeers and chuckles of the scrub-fowl comes from the trampled jungle; the great flight of terns, which settled on the sand-spit on Sunday and sat in a dense crowd, head to sea, has been dispersed. A solitary, wind-wearied gannet sleeps, head under wing, in the sun.
Thousands of maritime birds were killed, and those of the land suffered in like degree. Here the only species which seems to be in pre-storm numbers is the swiftlet, the home of which, in secret places among huge granite rocks, was safe against the shake of anything less than an earthquake.
Some shy birds have been made confiding by the stress of hunger. This is specially noticeable among the fruit-eating pigeons, which frequent the jungles. For several days these beautiful birds swarmed about the ruins of the aboriginal settlement on the mainland opposite, perching in protected spots at dark after a great deal of preliminary fluttering. This voluntary faith in the goodwill of man on the part of a timorous bird shows that the storm had destroyed its supplies and shelter. Although many species have been seen since the perfidious date, they have not made free with the dwelling, possibly because a few acres of jungle still stand, fresh as ever, at the head of a deep ravine.
The roof being off the store at the settlement, bags of sugar were soon converted into syrup, which soon attracted swarms of bees of Italian descent, and for days overindulgence in heady nectar seemed to be borne without disorderly effect. As time passed, however, many became bloated, and, being tipsy, passed from the stage of excited good-humour to almost helpless pugnacity. Unable to fly, they crawled and staggered and rolled on the ground, and savagely attacked bare-footed trespassers, illustrating the ease with which industrious and provident bees fall from grace under the temptation of a superabundance of stimulating sustenance.
Conversely, there is a change of outlook, equally quaint, among certain birds. Cockatoos had acquired a taste for the seeds of citrus fruits, to the dismay of owners of groves, but in consequence of the loss of the entire crop these birds have not been able to indulge the habit. Moreover, the figs and the wattle-seeds generously supplied during normal times being non-existent, the noisy birds have fared ill. For many weeks after the disturbing event few cockatoos visited the island. In the past many reared broods in the security of this sanctuary, making morning trips to the mainland for food and recreation among the more numerous communities there, and returning shortly before dusk. Recently fairly large flocks have resumed their accustomed journeys to and fro, proclaiming the hour of departure and arrival with discordant cries.
Many scrub-fowls on the Isle were killed by whirling missiles from the groaning trees. In two or three instances incubating mounds of renown, in which chicks had been hatched from periods traditional to the blacks, were destroyed; and at least one of recent origin, and under frequent observation, was swept away by the tidal wave. But after an interlude the industrious birds began to chuckle and crow in the bedraggled jungle, and to rake over the thick carpet of fallen leaves in the forest. Now attempts are being made to gather the material, of which there are superabundant supplies, for new mounds. All through the forest where the soil is light and friable the indefatigable birds work with energy, and with much noise during the evening; for the white ants, having come to their kingdom, must be kept down, and the capacity of the scrub-fowl for such food represents a prodigious natural check.
It will be seen, then, that what Shakespeare might have termed “this great perturbation of nature” had its effects on things small as well as great, some of which operate generally to man’s disadvantage. It destroyed thousands of molluscs, tore up acres of what we are satisfied to call seaweed, displaced coral by the ton, and made in the shallow waters a maze of snags. On land, in common with distressed birds, millions of insects cast themselves on the hospitality of human brings, to our dismay and discomfort. Among the many species came thousands of fruit-moths from the desolated banana-grove, invading the house after dark and settling on maturing bunches, until each fruit was covered with living mosaic. Dusky, greedy, gross of habit, they feasted the whole night, and with quivering wings deposited their ova, retiring to obscure places for the day. Their enemies — bats and nightjars — having been decimated, their numbers were almost overpowering, so that for decency’s sake the fruit that attracted them had to be destroyed. And yet the pomelo and the lemon and lime trees, broken and crippled, are already displaying flower-buds, and with the tender green of new leafage emblematize the most alluring of the cardinal virtues — Hope.
The loveliness of the Isle is of the past; but do I love it the less while it bears the stripes of its chastisement? Shall I not rather attempt to comfort and soothe it and heal its scars? Behold, how it blossoms in its distress!
Did I not, years ago, banish certain garden creepers to the jungle, in the hope that sooner or later they might wrestle successfully with coarser-fibred natives, that seldom displayed aught but foliage? Have they not now come to their own, taking advantage of the downfall of the crude and intolerant rioters which flourished rampantly when all was calm and well? And are they not offering tribute of blooms in half-forgotten and unexpected places? Even a great, bullying, maniacal wind has its compensations. Here they are presented in masses and garlands of pale lavender.
Much is to be learned from such phenomena. Certain features of the Isle, often conned but never understood, are invested with fresh interest, and have become amenable to inquiry. For instance, cannot it now be anticipated that the effects of the storm, instead of being inimical to plant-life on a large scale, may prove to be beneficial in the most sumptuous style?
Many forest trees were uprooted, or broken down, or reduced to a branchless, leafless, almost limbless state — forlorn relics, so that in the despondent phase dismal pictures were evolved. Would it not take a score of consolatory years to restore the beautiful foliage and hide the disfigured trees? How soon did Nature begin her soothing duties!
In the shattered forest the sun searched out spots sheltered from its rays for many a generation, and germinated seeds of jungle plants which had been dropped by careless birds or carried by idle winds. A thick undergrowth is springing up, which from present appearances may permanently transform the country. Instead of forest, there will be forest in the process of conversion into jungle, and in years to come there will be specific jungle vegetation.
Instead of permanently destroying vegetation, the big wind will have to its credit denser and more beautiful growths; instead of grassy glades, an almost impenetrable entanglement; palms will sprawl over lofty trees; huge vines, with stems as thick as a man’s thigh and bearing pods a yard long, will spread a network over all; and instead of the forest’s comparatively dry surface will be maintained a moist, sweet-smelling soil, and steamy conditions and half-lights. In time, too, the gradual accumulation of vegetable mould must tend inevitably to the enrichment of the land. We mortals are apt to fly in the face of Providence, to rail against decrees that cannot be resisted, and bemoan their effects; whereas, if we were able to look a month or two ahead, and were wise enough to interpret Nature’s laws, we might conclude that the results would be to our ultimate pleasure and profit.
Occasionally, a single victim presents in its fall a more striking picture of disaster than a number of others piled up in hopeless confusion. One such — a soft-wooded tree which some call the “sunflower,” and the natives “gin-gee”— lies not far away. It stood in a hollow some yards from a low gully, so protected that the insurance of holding-roots seemed, perhaps, superfluous. Taken at a disadvantage, its collapse is pathetically complete. Trunk, limbs and branches lie smashed and shattered as if the tree had been broken on the wheel under the rigour of the Inquisition, its seemly proportions, huge leaves, and crown of golden flowers utterly and completely desolated. Yet in other localities other specimens, tried and toughened by the experience of many a storm, stand but slightly affected, to the wonder of those who know of the tenderness of the white wood.
Even in so imperfect and slight a reference to the stability or otherwise of the trees of the afflicted coast we cannot omit the hibiscus. In the van of beach vegetation on such occasions, it must bear the brunt of the attack of the surges. In very few instances was the tough and pliant wood broken, although twisted into strange shapes; but the shrubs met the fate of the frontal line, being uprooted and overturned so that hardly a single specimen escaped. However, the fact that seeds are produced in great quantity gives hope that the beach may soon be redecorated with the familiar soft foliage and the great yellow bells.
After such a visitation, probably the most conspicuous trees of the coast are the tea-trees, for the lustful wind tore off their weather-stained layers of bark, revealing naked limbs and branches of a pale-red tint. The tea-tree’s bark is composed of an infinite number of layers, thin as tissue paper; within a few weeks of its ravishment, the exterior became white, and, contrasted with the seared and stricken forest, each looked like an emblem of purity and an example of strength. How few of these magnificent trees were overthrown whose roots had obtained secure hold! Few were snapped below the spring of the branches, or otherwise mutilated. Most were stripped of foliage, but slender branches and twigs stand out as an elaborate fretwork against the sombre hue of the battered and slowly recovering background. Over a fair extent of country not a single instance of an uprooted tea-tree is to be seen, save where the tidal surges had attacked its base; and hundreds exultingly display clean trunks and limbs and all the elaborate and beautiful complexity of branches and twigs, now glistening with silvery leaf-buds. Wrong as it would be, on such evidence, to ascribe to this particular species supremacy on the score of durability, yet as far as visible signs may give assurance, it makes excellent claim thereto.
Different, but scarcely less sturdy, stand the bloodwoods. Few are uprooted, fewer broken at the trunk; but how horribly are most maimed and disfigured! Limbs lopped off, they stand gaunt and grotesque, with few evidences of life save a profuse crop of leaf-buds, soon to develop into what at first glance seem artificial rosettes of leaves along the stumps of branches. But for these superabundant buds, the woeful and distorted forest through which Dante passed in the infernal regions could scarce have provoked more dismal reflections.
Less at ease under extraordinary conditions, the Moreton Bay ash-trees suffered greatly. In the thick of the sheltered forest they lie, scores uprooted, scores severed at the trunk, and most of them more or less seriously mutilated by loss of limb. This tree is more susceptible to decay than bloodwood, and offers more inviting food to white ants, though when seasoned it becomes almost imperishable. In the general disaster huge trees involve the ruin of lesser trees of other species; but when the cleansing fire breaks out Moreton Bay ash will burn, root and branch, to a white ash.
Forest mahogany, or mess-mate, another eucalypt plentifully represented, shows contemptible subservience to the will of the wind in all phases of disastrous ruin; and in its perversity it will not burn unless logged into masses and heaps. Thousands of prone trunks will litter the forest until the white ants complete their office.
Of the wattles, that which is known locally as the black — the toughest and the densest — behaved with the greatest staunchness, though many were destroyed by the uprooting and severing force of the wind. It would seem that the weak spot of many a specimen was about ten or twelve feet from the ground; at least, thereabouts the trunk was often broken. Another species, lacking a familiar name, but often more conspicuous because of its size and the richness and fragrance of its bloom, fell like ninepins, few being broken. The favourite habitat of this species is sandy flats, where the foothold is insecure. The storm there cried “Havoc,” and let slip all its dogs of war. The scrub wattle went down placidly, for in its home the soil is soft of surface.
Figs, soft-wooded, but willing to bend before the wind, do not show very serious effects, though many in exposed parts were cast down. Slim shrubs of upright habit and pithy texture escaped almost scot-free, being pliable and submissive, and pandanus palms stood the test bravely in comparison with many trees which vaunt a tougher nature.
Most of the jungle being in sheltered aspects, it is difficult to apply the gauge which might serve for forest country; but elsewhere it is said that the tallest and hardiest trees succumbed. For the most part the fate would be a common one, since few of the denizens of the jungle are independent. An entanglement of serpent-like vines of gigantic strength is over all, binding tree to tree, and when a single giant falls it may bring ruin to an acre.
The records of experienced and competent observers preserve proof that birds and other creatures are endowed with sensibilities so much more acute than those of human beings as to seem by their actions to forecast changes of the weather. Gilbert White, of Selborne, mentions that before the end of an exceptionally severe frost roosters which had been silent “began to sound their clarions, and the crows to clamour as prognostic of milder weather.” It may, therefore, be reasonable to attribute to snakes, as well as to birds, the faculty of prevision of so great a storm before indications of its approach were given by the barometer or were perceptible to human beings. Such a theory, indeed, has the support of facts. Lesser frigate-birds rarely visit this part of the coast save in advance of foul weather. Ten days prior to the event a large flock appeared, wheeling high up in the sky. These, or others of the species, were seen each day until the morning of the outbreak, and reappeared in diminished numbers the day after. It may be that, as the storm became localized, the birds fled before it; they came back when the wind changed to the north, so battered and dishevelled that the fresh breeze thrummed on taut but ragged wings, and the confident flight of the past was reduced to evident efforts to keep on the wing. Several worn-out bodies were found on the beach.
Unaccustomed silence on the part of swamp pheasants for more than a week following the black-letter day, led to the conclusion that many representatives had been exterminated; but it was soon discovered that, although quiet, the birds were with us, having been, apparently, frightened and saddened by the storm. Even now (1918) they seldom tell of their presence; but the time will come when forest and flat will resound again to their mellow voices.
One, at least, of these birds affords proof of the dispersing effects of the big wind. So far as years of patient observation are to be trusted, no swamp pheasants existed on any of the isles of the Family Group other than this, the largest and best watered. A few weeks ago, when passing the isle of Timana, three miles to the south, the happy sound of a contented bird came from it, leaving no doubt that the bird, slow, weak and clumsy of wing, had been driven from Dunk Island when the change to the north occurred.
Before the event which brought ruin and dismay to many, no bird was more frequently seen, more admired, and more welcomed than the frail little thing which takes its familiar name from the sun. For many weeks afterwards no sign of it had been seen, nor had its thin, squeaky note been heard; and it had been regretfully included in the list of permanent and regretted losses. Then, in the quiet of a lustrous and lazy afternoon, one of the living jewels came to feast among the red hibiscus blossoms. It received a joyful though suppressed greeting. Without its sunbirds the Isle would have lost no little of its glitter.
This imperfect review of the effects of the storm on bird-life ought to include brief reference to an element which may have good results indirectly. Immediately after the storm it was evident that many land snakes had been killed, bodies being seen among the long ridges of rubbish on the beaches. For two weeks prior to the event quite a number of reptiles known to the blacks as “Wat-tam” congregated about the poultry yard, and it is safe to say that few escaped the alarmed vigilance of a black boy, who believes in the legend of the extraordinary viciousness and the venomous qualities of a snake which men of science hesitate to pronounce dangerous. About a dozen were shot. Subsequently, reflection on the invasion provoked the theory that possibly the snakes had an instinctive premonition of the disturbance. Lesser frigate-birds did give warning. Is the most subtle of the beasts of the field to be denied so beneficial a faculty? Not a single specimen has been seen since, and it is likely that snakes of such habit would be serious sufferers during a whirl of limbs and branches, and that birds generally would ultimately benefit by the destruction of many enemies.
If in these writings the subject of the March cyclone crops up with irritating persistency; if, indeed, it becomes as intrusive as King Charles the First did in the memorials of the famous Mr. Dick, peradventure pardon may be granted; for, after all the event was real, and has stamped itself so deeply on the face of the land that no glance is free from impressive reminders of its hasty coming, brief term, and boisterous disrespect towards the concerns and sentiments of human beings.
Yet it may be quite possible to say certain pleasant things about the event, and to speculate whether it may not have beneficial results as time passes. Indeed, already incontrovertible evidence exists on the latter point. Within a few weeks after the storm two strange grasses appeared in three different localities — within a few feet of high-water limit in two places, and about fifty yards therefrom in another area over which the tidal wave had romped. Soon the cows showed that the grasses were good, substantiating the welcome of man. It is safe to say that these grasses had not previously been included in the island flora, nor had any of those to whom they were pointed out ever seen them either. One of the visitors who shrewdly examined both is a man of wide experience as a grazier in North Queensland, a cattle-owner, and one who takes more than ordinary interest in the dietary of his herd. He was unable to identify either, and was astonished when proof of the cows avidity for them was pointed out.
My well-informed friend is apt in the opinion of abnormal developments in various directions traceable to that fateful whirl. Do they crop up not only in connection with plant and bird life, but also with the actual life of the island itself? Did not the storm cut deep furrows here, raise ridges there, amend the shore-line beyond belief, and subject the mental processes of its inhabitants to a vigorous but not to be despised treatment which has brought about subtle changes of temperament — something beyond “the immediate material compulsion of life?” Can it be other than a pleasant and proper duty to register from time to time, as they become obvious, some of the physical changes due to such an exhibition of magnificent and supreme force?
Much might be written of the more simple problems which affect the shore-line. Let it be said that the tidal wave swept over an isolated rock mass known geographically as “the Forty-foot Rock” and locally by the less significant but better-sounding title of “Wolngarin,” and it will be the more readily understood how the shore-line in more impressionable material was cut up and transfigured. The work of repair began almost with the next high tide, and has been slowly maintained since; but between the ordinary tidal range and the limit of the advance of the tidal wave over the flat shore, raw sand still lies, with here and there shoots of buried shrubs peering through the repugnant covering. In this inhospitable element, and just beyond high tide, several species of plants have shown themselves, inclusive of watermelons, tomatoes, (not of that degenerate variety which sometimes crops up in unexpected places, but good, rotund, sweet-flavoured sorts), the beach hibiscus, the native cabbage, that lovely silvery-leafed shrub known as SOPHORA TOMENTOSA, the poona oil tree, with its coppery new foliage, many small and vigorous plants of the umbrella-tree, and several varieties of grass.
There is, therefore, actual promise, within seven months from its desolation, of the restoration of the admirable and lovely features of the strand-line; but on the weather aspect, where for the greater extent compact vegetation overhung the sea, the band of bare, hot rock, forty feet wide, will probably remain until many wet seasons have encouraged the successive encroachment of adventurous vegetation.
The “vagrant wheat” which came wellnigh to maturity on the coarse sand of the spit may be satisfactorily accounted for; but these plants were not the only ones to sprout. Others sprang up in other situations, mystifying the observer as to the origin of the seed, and seeming to establish their right to occupy the barren margin of the Isle, and to proffer, as did Herrick’s, twice ten to one for each bushel sown.
The most prodigious, if not the most remarkable of the vagrant plants of the beach was a single specimen of the castor-oil plant, which on being transplanted into garden soil developed hugely. Whence did the single seed come? True it is that some years ago seeds were sown half a mile from the spot where the plant established itself; but since none came to maturity it would be vain to look for a local origin for the wanderer.
So far only two of the plants that have undertaken the care of the shore-line are to be credited with special qualities for the work, one being the more wiry of the running grasses previously mentioned. This has already highly commendable results to its credit; and it is to be noted that, though the seeds must have been wave-borne, and that all the plants are growing in sand, those which lie close to high-tide mark show indifferent resistance to the scalding of sun and sea. What a recent writer on the entertaining subject of tidal lands terms “vegetable groynes” are necessary influences in the restoration and maintenance of shore frontages. It will be interesting to note the part taken by the self-sown plants in a great natural process, the beginning of which occurred, as has been said, within a few days after the destruction of the first and second lines of defence against such assaults of the sea.
Readers of Rudyard Kipling’s SECOND JUNGLE BOOK will remember with joy and thankfulness how with elephantine vigour the jungle was let in upon a village, the inhabitants of which had earned the displeasure of the “man cub.” Let the great wind of half a year ago represent the wild creatures that acted on the suggestion of Mowgli, and see how true to nature are the writings of men of genius. Over a considerable extent of this Isle the wind did uproot and trample down the great crop of trees, so that the scene was distorted and rumpled; but what is the result? Vitalizing sunlight was let into many a shadowy spot; seeds from the jungle which had lain dormant for many a year germinated under its influence and that of warm rain; and now, instead of a shady forest, there stands a mutilated one, with an undergrowth of jungle vegetation which promises to become dominant in the fight for supremacy. This thick undergrowth excludes grasses and low shrubs, and is too succulent to burn, so that the promise of the immediate future is a change from forest to damp jungle with its cooling airs and earthy scents.
Truly, there are infinite problems to be watched and waited for.
During the first month of the present year of grace (1922) rain occurred on this Isle on seventeen days, mostly between sunset and sunrise, the heaviest for twenty-four hours being 3.48 in., and the total 19 inches. Compared with January last year there is an excess of 7.79 in.; and, since the opening of the wet season, according to local records, is significant of its character, it may be judicious to anticipate an average amount of rain during the next three months.
A friend, whose observations of the weather of the coastal strip between Hinchinbrook Island and the Johnstone River extend over the third of a century, asserts that the rains have been unusually late. With a trifle of mental exertion, a December that gave over 27 in. is recalled. In the succeeding year (1907) the wet season lasted until the end of May, over 63 in. having been registered by that date.
My neighbour is of opinion that Providence is too profuse of watery blessings during the cool season, such as has been our lot for a season or two, and regards as ideal the good old thumping downpour, beginning about seven in the evening and ending with a jerk about eight the next morning, from December to April, and just occasional and genial showers for the rest of the year. Yes; there is something to be said in favour of such a season. With a sound roof over one’s head, all neat and secure outside., the boats housed, the lamp alight, an absorbing book, and what matters the sound of the rain?
An inch of rain per hour for the best part of the night contrives changes of the daylight scheme, and sets the miniature fall half a mile up the ravine, among the palms and tree-ferns, roaring more truculently than thousands of sucking doves. Having found its melodious voice, it will continue its refrain for weeks — a musical competition with the fluent tones of the sea. Then there will be shallow swamps on the flat, alive and musical with frogs — gruff bass and shrieking treble, and all tones between, and every frog panting to be heard. All the lagoons will be full to the brim, and the brown crayfish, with dandy claws of blue tipped with red, will become busy in a gliding, stealthy way among the submerged logs where the eels grow fat.
During such a season, too, the rivers of the mainland send out to sea the makings of many rafts. Unattached, independent, aloof, the logs lurch and roll in the swell as the current takes them always, with rare exception, north, and on them journey white, full-breasted terns, to which one is inclined to say, “Whither goest? Your home is here.”
Every beach of the Isle is transformed. The big rain makes short cuts to the great sea, and the sea chokes the sluices with weeds and spoil, from which the sun distils a scent compounded of flotsam and drift that seems invigorating. At any rate, it may be enjoyed unrestrictedly, and, with a trifle added by imagination, may inspire many a romantic theme. As a tickler of the more subtle qualities of the mind, what is more effective than a pungency — agreeable or disagreeable? And can there be anything to excite unpleasant reminiscences in fresh incense from unpolluted gatherings of sea and shore? On such grounds is the revel in a hearty wet season founded.
Sodden to bedrock, the Isle flourishes. Every plant gushes with excess, and consequently suffers. Long, soft, sapful shoots hang limp and faint, and seemingly sorrowful, as tipplers from over-indulgence, when the sun disperses the low-hanging clouds. Good to behold is the magic of growth. It tells a heartening story. Untamed, unrestrained, untended — see what a crop of crudeness and waste!
The cool breeze blows in through the window. Likely it will be a night of reading to thunderous rhythm.
It came after unexampled drought. Far-off thunder had heralded it the day before; but heavy clouds had so often gathered and had dispersed without affording the parched soil any refreshment, that signs which under ordinary conditions would have betokened the break of the season were frankly discredited.
Filmy, heated vapour tinged the hills. The still, hot air, saturated with the essence of smoke from many “burnings off” on the mainland, quivered in response to the swiftly approaching disturbance. Clouds gathered suddenly. A startling clap of thunder sounded near by, and big, widely-dispersed drops began to splutter on the dust and to stutter on the roof. Other sounds were deadened.
Rain was so eagerly desired that, merely to enhance the pleasure of anticipation, we preferred to assert that it would not come. Most of the tall, blady grass had become as yellow as hay, and there were actually bare patches, revealing bluish-grey soil whereon the little blue doves squatted and pecked, almost invisible until sheer nervousness made them rise. Of other grasses and of herbs many had become crisp underfoot, and brown; but with the first gentle sprinkling dry soil and faded leafage sent up an incense as from flowers blossoming in the dust.
Another loud peal from a fast-gathering, ominous cloud — the base of which rested on the nearest hill, and began to descend, fixed and determined of purpose — and the welcome din began. All surroundings were blotted out by a grey mantle of warm but invigorating rain, while lightning played and thunder rattled and our spirits began to jubilate. The time of doubt was over.
In half an hour the smaller watercourses, where they were not banked up with leaves, ran headlong races to the flat, spread out into pools, and gave the soil more than it could gulp. Like a man rescued at the last moment in a dry and thirsty land, it could not absorb liberal helpings, but had to be content with trivial doles until it became accustomed to the effects of long-denied moisture. Soon the storm travelled across the sea, vapour gathered on the hills against an inky background, and all the birds began to call — the swamp pheasant the loudest and most mellow, the scrub-fowl the merriest, with its coarse hilarity and contented chuckles.
To the south the blue-black bank of thunderous cloud rested on the sea, with never so slight a blur where rain beat on the lustreless surface. Most of the Isles were hidden; some were mere misty blots, while those near at hand stood out preternaturally green and bold, with the slaty sea enveloping their fringe of mangroves. All this dull shade and breathless calm seemed to exist for a single purpose — to intensify the vividness of the nutmeg pigeons, that trailed in irregular procession from the mainland to the restful Isles. Snow-white and swift, they flew low over the sea in companies of ever-changing formation, and the islet near at hand suddenly seemed transformed — its almost leafless trees and shrubs burst in white bloom, and the blending of wing-beats and coos came as one of the pleasant sounds of early evening.
But sights and sounds do not sum up all the refreshing and invigorating elements which visit a scene blessed with a soaking and noisy shower after a period of silent, nerve-agitating drought. Walk along one of the many cattle-tracks through the forest, where all the trees are respiring.
Flowers are few, but the freshly-fallen and decaying leaves underfoot give forth an odour rich and varied; one must stop occasionally to fill the lungs with so potent and pleasant a balsam, and to give thanks for enjoying it on such a generous scale. All the air is saturated with its invigorating principles. Gums and wattles, the huge-leaved “gin-gee,” tea-trees, the ripe, orange-tinted fruit of the pandanus along the gullies, the big spreading figs on the edge of the jungle, the pungent native ginger, the full-fruited nutmeg, the few last flowers of the milkwood, the resiniferous gum of the “tangebah,” the patchouli-like ixora, and the sodden grass — all contribute to the medley of perfumes, and create a longing for some magic art by which the combination could be fixed, materialized, and sent to those who may still believe that Australia is a scentless land.
A mile away, the little pool of the jungle-entangled creek, which was opened up for the sake of our dainty jerseys, is all thick and brown with the scouring of many a loop and bend, and gives out a virile smell as of brewery waste; for is it not a solution of fermenting leaves of scores of different species of plants? Better so than to be tainted, as it was, with the remains of an inconsiderate eel, which died therein just when pure water was greatly to be desired.
But why think of the immediate past and its trivial anxieties and discomforts and apprehensions? Are not the little creeks flushed by over two inches of rain descending wilfully in one riotous half-hour? Is not fresh and juicy herbage springing from the warm, moist soil? Are not aged and sedate cows behaving like frisky calves, and calves, full to the lips with mother’s milk, gallivanting with that giddy irresponsibility which nothing but a calf may assume, and maintain the least pretensions to sanity? The air is cool and balmy; smoke-stains have been washed out of it, and the yellow beaches of the mainland and distant hills are as a new and glistening painting, with slaty clouds as a background.
Compare this mild evening, and all its pleasant pungencies and its vivid revelations of scenes that were blurred for weeks with haziness and smoke, with the past drought that is already almost incredible; and, if you are not harmonic and cannot sing a gladsome note, leave such gloating to the shrike-thrush, as he makes the gloomy dome of the mango resound with fluty whistling.
If Gilbert White of Selborne were living to-day, and among us, he would deem it a duty to record every characteristic and incident of this wonderful season — its winds and calms, its rains and mists and drizzles, its temperatures; the growth of its vegetation; the condition and conduct of domestic animals; the moods of its birds, the activities of its insects, baleful as well as beautiful — and draw just conclusions therefrom for the edification of his day and for generations to come. Possibly he would have referred to it as ANNUS MIRABILIS, not because of bewildering disasters, such as plagues and fires and floods, and falling stars, but because of its genialities, its uniform and, so far, persistent beneficences, and its charms.
Bold in the assurance that no cruel comparisons can be made between the records of a man of genius who delights hosts of readers all over the world and the crude, thin observations of a loving disciple, an attempt herein is made to register, as Gilbert White would have wished, some of the everyday facts which have been noted since the beginning of the year. It is understood, of course, that merely local conditions are to be mentioned, though it is apparent that similar experiences have been the fortunate lot of the North, whether along the coastal strip or in the big, open spaces where conditions are generally quite dissimilar.
What could be more agreeable to the needs, or more in consonance with the hopes, of those of us who live in direct touch with the goodwill of Mother Earth than the lasting, artistically modulated wet season, with naught of excess and but one attempt on the part of unruly winds to fly in the face of a serene barometer? The sum of the first three months being much below the average did, it has to be confessed, seem to signify a shortage of rain throughout the year; but, just when one was inclined to give way to doubt, came a series of genial showers, followed by nearly two months of mist and drizzle, with warm, clear, radiantly blue days. These restored confidence and that good-humour which is never far below the surface in the mind of a man who loves land and expects it to respond to his trivial ticklings. And so the season progresses, without a single note of disapprobation, save on the part of the confirmed pessimist who declares it to be too good to last, while the little creeks babble with assurance, and most of the trees and plants revel and indicate well-being by the exhibition of glossy leafage and abundant flower.
There are singular exceptions, however, to the general appearance of vegetation impudent with fat living, and certain birds have been wholly misled. The umbrella-trees quite forgot to flower, and the big tea-trees made but a poor attempt. Both produce nectar in excess, and expectant birds must have been driven to less prolific and less tasteful fountains. Two species of birds seem to regulate their migratory flights in accordance with food-supplies — nutmeg pigeons and metallic starlings, and, as has been recorded, (CONFESSIONS OF A BEACHCOMBER”) the blacks were wont to foretell their coming by three trees in particular, one of the palms, the coral-tree, and the nutmeg. The latter was always specially associated with the pigeons, but since it and the coral-tree manifest (the one with fruit, the other with flowers) the advance of the season, the blacks accepted them as calendars. When the leaves fell, and red flowers began to decorate the leafless branches of the coral-tree, the blacks knew of the coming of the pigeons.
This year (1920) the coral-tree has been unusually dilatory, and it would seem that the theory of the blacks in respect of its association with the pigeons is established. Records of nigh upon a quarter of a century show that the pigeons arrive about the 7th of August, the starlings having preceded them by two or three days. This season the starlings arrived on the 10th, announcing themselves, as they invariably do, with the whir of rapid wings, and acidulous exclamations. Not until the 20th were the first pigeons seen — a small flock that seemed to be weary and spent with travel. When it is said that the local coral-trees have still to bloom, and that the nutmegs are scarcely edible, from the pigeons point of appreciation, it will be admitted that the season has its contradictions, and the birds were in the right in delaying their arrival.
It has been noted, too, that some of the orchids are later than usual, and that certain culinary vegetables have been exasperatingly slow in development. Reports from the immediate neighbourhood tell of the tardiness of the orange bloom, while the mango-trees have flowered off and on during the last three months without establishing hope of fruit, and without that excess of foliage which often registers a mild and encouraging season. It is said that sugar-cane is making the heart of the farmer rejoice over the next year’s prospects, that new lands are being cleared and planted, and that the cultivation of the banana in the North is about to be revived on a scale worthy of the fruit and the clime.
See, therefore, the elasticity of the mind of man under the pull of the weather. Not that in ordinary seasons there is much to complain about as far as the coastal tract is concerned; but when all conditions are favourable the stimulus becomes irresistible. Timely rains, naught of excess in temperature, bright and cloudy days ideally alternated, wholesome mists which have swathed mountains and hills in a dripping blanket of grey — under such influences hope springs eternal in the breast of that portion of humanity which gaily gambles with the weather for livelihood.
And that brawny breast, does it not expand with this vitalizing, tepid air that folk from the chill South hasten to share with the fortunate North Queenslander? And is he not proud of his country? And does he not chuckle over the juvenile inconsistencies of those who cry, tremulously, for a White Australia, while declaring out of their ignorance or prejudice that the most richly endowed part of it is fit only for blacks?
Ah! we know-do we not? — the riddling and the quibbling of theorists on what they term “climatology,” and how they apply their theories. We know. too, that we have the only part of Australia in which certain articles of food can be produced to the best advantage in quality, quantity, and in the shortest space of time, and that we enjoy a monopoly — bestowed by climate, and therefore permanent and superior to the manipulations of the envious — over other products essential to the well-being of the Commonwealth. When we do trouble ourselves to ponder affectionately over the catalogue of our industries, present, prospective and possible, we ought to be the most contented of Australians.
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.
If one wanted proof of the significance of Kipling’s saying that last year’s nuts are this year’s black earth, it lies at hand. just before the cyclone a diminutive garden, solely for utilitarian purposes, was made in sand fronting the beach, and with a short, narrow, spongy depression, tributary to a little creek, as a background. Tall tea-trees and many pandanus palms flourished there in the peaty soil which was never dry, and where the frontal ridge rose from swampy levels the sand was black with the mouldering vegetation of centuries.
Adjacent to the crude fence once stood a huge coral-tree which had had its day and ceased to be, and the soft wood as it decayed formed heaps of tindery stuff that mingled with the sand, helped to this end by the industry of scrub-fowls.
For generations before the coming of white men the great coral-tree, as has been told elsewhere (“CONFESSIONS OF A BEACHCOMBER”) was the centre of activities of the aboriginal proprietors of the Isle. Some of their dead were buried beneath its shade. The living feasted there, for have not their stone ovens been unearthed? Birds lodged in the big tree. Being deciduous and of succulent foliage, it contributed largely to the enrichment of the absorbent sand which its roots explored far and near.
When it died it fell silently — so silently that the few resident blacks were scared, and began to cast about for some unlucky chance that ought to follow so unaccountable a fact. Other forms of vegetation sprang up like magic, to the further sustenance of the sand, and the spot became a circle of decayed vegetation with a scrub-fowl’s mound about the base of the rotting trunk.
Taking a hint from Nature, it was decided to form a vegetable garden where water and sandy humus, enriched by the deposition of the refuse of ages, were available. Tons of vegetable mould were transferred a few yards; tons of decayed manure from the milking shed were added as a special stimulant, and to give it body; and the work was wellnigh completed when the storm and its attendant tidal wave desolated the scene. The buoyant elements of the soil were carried off like froth, and deposited in the peaty hollow where the pandanus palms stood, ever refreshed; little but salt sand, raw from the beach, remained on the scene which had absorbed so much enthusiastic labour. The fencing had to be restored, the beds reformed, and some of the disarray of the spiteful breeze smoothed with hasty hands, for the season was advancing. The cows became curious, discovering fencing insecurities, and making havoc among the irregular plots that were ready for seed.
How speedily, notwithstanding the ruffianly check, did the site justify itself! It might have been thought that the very heart had been taken out of the soil, but elements inappreciable to the eye remained in the seemingly intractable sand, and soon gave positive evidence of their existence. Seeds germinated with almost magical spontaneity, and plants of varied character made extraordinary growth.
In one case another lesson direct from Nature was accepted in thankful spirit and put into practice. It was seen that vagrant tomato plants grew among the beach rubbish, until the cows developed a taste for foliage and fruit alike. Several bags of decaying leaves, seaweed, sponges, the cases of dead crustaceans and mummified little fish were dumped beside a huge log, and in this light stuff young tomato plants were set. The results have been excellent as to quantity and flavour, though in size the fruit has much to its discredit. Cabbages, beans, green peas, carrots, parsnips and radishes, with neglected sunflowers, are giving good returns, though for several weeks the weather has been by no means propitious for succulent greens, and oft-times serious affairs have interfered with regularity in watering the beds.
Let it be remembered that most of the crops in the primitive garden belong to cool, if not cold, climates, and that here — well within the tropics — in almost pure sand, in some spots hot enough at noon to blister the feet, no check has been sustained by plants usually associated with cloudy skies and dripping mists. On the untended sand-ridge beyond the highest limit of the tidal wave pumpkins and vegetable marrows have gone on doing more than justice to themselves, some plants having lived through two seasons productively. But the particular area occupied by the rampageous vines was previously covered with wattles and a great variety of more or less densely-foliaged shrubs, each of which would add its quota to the accumulation of fallen leaves and discarded fruit or shelly seed-husks, slow but certain of decay.
“Alas for human culture!” exclaims Thoreau. “Little is to be expected of a nation when the vegetable mould is exhausted and it is compelled to make manure of the bones of its fathers.” Was this thought in the minds of the authorities when the regulations against the careless use of fire were issued subsequent to the cyclone? Was it recognized that in the jungle country fire would destroy not so much fallen timber as the very life of the soil, the result of ages of vegetable decay? Here in the North lies the biggest deposit of “last year’s nuts.” No other area within our borders possesses such an accumulation of the spoils of the past; and it is the duty of the individual, if not of the State, to safeguard the elements of the soil which are liable to destruction by fire.
Of course, it is true that all jungle lands prior to cultivation have to undergo the chastisement of fire; but it would be a calamity if during the dry season now prevailing fires were started in jungle country which had been subject to the will of the cyclone. We do not yet make use of the bones of our own ancestors to enrich our garden plots, but in the primitive spot referred to the bones of the forefathers of the vanished blacks may have had their part in its fertilization.
What must not be permitted is the destruction of the soil; therein lies life not only for the transient individual. but for the ever-improving race of mankind. If the labour of trivial hands may produce results such as this ribbon of sand displays, what might be the result of proper cultivation of the soil in areas where Time and Nature have performed their offices, unrestrained, time out of mind?
Though flocks of light-hearted tourists flee from. the searching cold of the South to bask for a brief season in the genial warmth of the North, there are scenes of fascination denied them. They may wander with unquiet haste far and wide to accredited beauty-spots, but sequestered ones of infinite charm are in reserve for the permanent dweller, who abhors the misuse of God’s good time, and disdains unholy zeal for quantity rather than quality in his scenery.
It may be but a proof of conceited simplicity on the part of an individual to proclaim such a spot or such another as the most satisfying, since a bare half-dozen people may be capable of confirming his opinions or confounding them. Yet, if these little-known charms were to remain uncommended, mischief might be wrought. Chivalry, too, should compel the fortunate individual who may have joy, special and peculiar, in a particular scene to give others pleasure by telling of the combination of blue sea and green islets and glowing sky which appeals more strongly than other land and sea scapes.
Among the islets of the Family group, sprinkled between Hinchinbrook and Dunk islands, not one is denied distinction. All are, for the most part, rugged on the Pacific slope, though some decorate even that exposed aspect with vegetation of a sumptuousness that conceals the crude, confused masses of granite. Each has a truncated sand-spit jutting out to the north-west, while two have masses of snow-white coral spoil, which clinks and chinks underfoot, and upon which shrill-voiced terns scatter, with careless profusion, daubed and spotted eggs. The waves that break on it with measured stride, scarcely whiter than the coral, wallow among its finger-shaped fragments, combing and rustling them, until all point obediently to the reef whence old Ocean tore them.
But not always does the sea burst roughly on those banks to overhaul and re-arrange its treasures in severe lines. More often it sleeps, and smiles in its sleep; and then the lighter and unconsidered coinage tinkles as it rolls under the impulse of playfully indifferent touches. Then, too, the hot rocks glisten with micaceous spangles, and, where the sand is, our toughened and unworthy feet are dusted with glittering specks. It is all wealth of a kind — not material in the accepted sense, but real enough if you are in the state of mind which is superior to the “toil of fools.”
When one wanders among such scenes, where there is no sign of traffic save that of his own footprints, no sound save the confidential whispering of the sea, the thin screams of terns and the whimsical cackling of scrub-fowl in the jungle, he becomes a part of the realm of Nature, a trivial and insignificant item soon to disappear, but for a brief space supreme — the only part of teeming Nature capable of disinterested joy in all the other parts. The sea will quickly smooth away the last trace of his trespassing feet, and will moan and gurgle in cool crevices whither bottle-green crabs scurry when the red-backed sea-eagle soars vigilantly overhead. Yet for a time he has been absorbed into the scene. He possesses it and is possessed by it, and will bring away with him a loving remembrance of it which entices beyond power of abstinence.
There is, of course, one scene which combines more of excellences than the others, however admirable individually. A little bay lies open to the turbulent south-easters, yet lacks not a sheltering cove wherein a small boat may nestle. The cove is formed by a bold and rounded mass of granite, on which pandanus palms and straggling shrubs find foothold. The boat glides round the sturdy rock, revealing a white beach, the sand of which has been ground to such singular fineness that it feels as silk underfoot. Where the anchor rests, it is rippled in correspondence with the gentle heaving of the sea, while patches of golden-brown weed sway to the same poetic motion. Coarse grass marks time at high-water limit.
From a low pinnacle of rock, on which an osprey is fond of perching, the virtues of the wider scene are best revealed. Five islets, wildernesses of leafage, trip out to the east. A mass of fantastic rocks, round which confusing currents swill, intercepts the fairway, and beyond the islets are the Brooke group, with Goold Island and Hinchinbrook to the right to complete the picture. The bay beneath is shallow close inshore, for coral is industriously building substantial domes and fragile lacework in limestone. The reef gleams dull-red through the blue water, and white and pale green patches show where sand has occupation of the unallotted places.
On a very still and clear day you may see turtles browsing on the weed below, and at any time they may burst upwards through the surface with splash and bubble for gulps of scented air.
On the rocks, piled high, is a long pencil-cedar log, weathered almost to the tone of the granite. It has reposed there, with but slight changes of position, for fifteen years and more, and the salt spray and the tepid rains have done it but small harm; but the rocks have fretted its sides as it has rolled uneasily when the seas have sought to claim it again. The old log is the one relic of the coarse effects of the hands of man. Few visit the spot. All its charms are held in reserve.
No sort of tedium dulled the too brief trip over the serene sea. No device for killing time by eating inordinately, or quarrelling, or flirting, was needed, though we had one custom in common with life on an East Indiaman before the age of steam — ceremony was banished.
Porpoises, snow-white terns sitting on drifting wood, sea-eagles, ospreys, sea-snakes, sails, the smudge of steamer-smoke and its ten-mile plume, sunlit isles and speckless sky, with no sound save the purring of the engine and the prattle of the water against the bows — a catalogue of the commonplace, and yet stimulative of entertainment and content. Not one of the three would have exchanged places with far more favoured mortals. Here was, indeed, the freedom of the sea — the sea in its happiest and most alluring and loveliest of moods. No restrictions existed. The little boat sought out ways of her own, nosing shoal-showing buoys and beacons, and hugging the land whensoever and wheresoever she chose.
New aspects of familiar scenes thus become revealed. Seen from such a low level, the heights of Hinchinbrook and all the shoulders and spurs and ridges of the mountain demand uninterrupted attention, for are they not transformed? Bold and clean-cut, the skyline with its abrupt declivities, its peaks and contours — here the profile of a giant with beetling brows, long, slim nose and babyish lips, there a succession of irregular notches and knolls — are projected against a perfectly limpid atmosphere, while in vale and gorge
Just a faint cloud of rose shall appear,
As if in pure water you dropped and let die
A bruised, black-blooded mulberry.
And this tinted haze seems to magnify trees and obtruding rocks, revealing hitherto well-guarded secrets. The sources of torrents which in the wet season seam the brown rocks with silver, now cushioned with moss and islanded with yellowing sedges, are shown by an occasional flash and glitter as the sun plays upon them at a reflective angle.
Each time the channel is explored from the deck of a steamer some new feature stands to the credit of the gaunt hills, and those who know them best make free to assert that it is beyond the capabilities of man to carry in mind all their individualities. A few miles back Leafe Peak was a perfect cone of delicate blue. More than once it has seemed to change its position, and now it might stand for a model of Castle Hill, Townsville, as that was wont to be ere nakedness shamed its base. There is legend extant that the name is derived from the ribbon of leaves which almost invariably stretches from the mangroves and jungle at the foot to the mangroves of the flats of the mainland; and it is further said that hereabouts the northern and the southern current meet, creating the watery ridge defined by leafy flotsam. But there exists a counter-statement to the effect that the name commemorates that of one of the surveyors of the channel. It is a good name, whatever its origin; and perhaps the wavering line of yellow leaves, as permanent in its perpetual renewal as the impassive rocks, will retain its hold on the imagination as an emblem of unity between the mountain and the mangroves, when good folks in holiday humour have ceased to concern themselves about the name of a mere man.
In days that are gone an adventurous black “boy” told of a short cut from Ramsay Bay, skirting the mangroves of Missionary Bay, to the channel. No one credited him, though he gave dramatic evidence in support of his account, describing the manner in which the spurs and slopes of certain mountains interlocked. Viewing the landscape from the deck of the hasty little boat, the route taken by the “boy” was easily discerned, and since the chart shows that the distance from the mangroves in Missionary Bay to those of the channel is not more than four miles, the pass ought to be better known.
In popular imagination the mountains of Hinchinbrook, however picturesque and grand, are too severe, rugged and precipitous to tempt any but the boldest and toughest of athletes; but a resident of the Herbert district undertook many years ago to demonstrate that from a mountaineering point of view the difficulties of ascent were not so great as appearances suggested. For the love of the thing he rowed across the channel from Lucinda Point, fought his way through the jungle, scaled the shoulders of Mount Diamantina, and signalled his presence at the great rock on the summit by smoke in such a short space of time that the Mount might well have felt humbled. A singular feature of the boulder surmounting the rugged height is that it seems to be a pivot round which other elevations swing — at least, such is the illusion as the boat runs down the channel and out to sea to the south-east, and from whatsoever aspect the stern boulders of the mount are viewed, they seem to express aloofness and disdain. Not so the nooks and coves in the sheltered parts of the channel, which coax little boats to spend quiet hours within rocky arms, and promise gurgling lullabies the livelong night.
Within such a cove the boat lay in silence and serenity. In the deep shadow of the morning a fast steamer, blurred with mist, came rushing down the channel — a white blotch with a backward-curling smudge of smoke, calling to mind one of Turner’s masterpieces; but that famous picture lacks the foreground of bold declivities and the distances of hills aglow with the beams of the rising sun. Thence the course was to the northern extremity of Pelorus Island, avoiding the shallow shoals opposite Lucinda, and, when a clearance was made, direct to Pioneer Bay in Orpheus Island.
Here is good shelter for small boats in all weathers, save the uncommon and brief winds from the west which seldom raise a sea. The entrance needs to be known, for it is interlocked by boulders and blocks of coral. Thence the course lay almost due south, miles to the westward of the steamer track, close past Dido Rock, with its outlying sandbank, snow-white in the distance — not much larger than, and somewhat of the shape of, an upturned boat. Most of these islands, rocks and shoals bear the names of men-of-war, derived in the first instance from the classics. Is it not possible, then, that the steep-faced, weather-scored rock which bears the name of Dido caught the fancy of surveyors who had in mind the citadel that valiant woman built on the African coast, when a storm drove her fleet there, and she bought of the inhabitants as much land as could be encompassed by a bull’s hide cut into thongs?
Swarms of welcome swallows issued from the crevices of the red rock, circled round the boat, twittering greetings, and flew back to their nests when their invitations to stay were disregarded. At Herald Island, where anchor was dropped at 4 o’clock in the afternoon close inshore, flocks of swallows again paid the boat respect, perching on the rigging and spars, and making themselves easy and familiar.
Two or three spent the night on board, and the rest of the colony seemed to have homes among the low granite boulders and blocks that fringed the shore just above high-water mark. Here, as elsewhere, the sea was sparklingly clear, so that isolated rocks crowned with brown, wavy seaweed, rounded masses of coral and dead shells, gleaming white, were revealed, and the merging tints, pale-green to deep-blue as the water deepened off-shore where the sand was soft and pure white, made the heart glad. It was invigorating, too, to wallow in such stainless water before sunrise, the air being crisp and the only sound that of the cheeping of the welcome swallows.
Suddenly clouds gathered in the south-west, and before a moaning wind the serenity of the sea fled, chased by white horses. The boat lay snug under the spit until the early snack of coffee and biscuit was disposed of — then, rejoicing as a strong man to run a race, she swept disdainfully round its apex and with frolic and saucy capers flew homewards.
Last evening (March 6, 1921) we saw the very gates of heaven. Those who live under sullen skies seldom have a chance of seeing the majestic paintings of the sun; but here, where hills and sea and sky are the mediums in which a tropical sun plays fantastic tricks of bewildering variety, you become accustomed to, though never satiated by, the glories of The Beyond.
All day it had been scorching hot — that kind of hotness that tingles the small of the back and adds two shades of brown to the shoulders during the sun-bath following the noontide wallow in the sea. I had spent an unclad hour clearing away loose coral from one of the favourite runs of the little fishing-net, and had cooled down in the sparkling, noisy streamlet that the wet season stimulates and freshens. That loll in the fragrant water — it comes down the palm — and fern-tree-embowered ravine — created an appetite for lunch, and afterwards influenced a dreamy while of reading.
When I really woke and began to stroll among the mango-trees, the western half of the sky, or rather a big area of it, was sullen — thickly, diabolically blue, as if reeking with fumes from hell. Beneath was a zone of curry-coloured sky, outlining ranges almost black in the intensity of blue.
Away aloft, so high that a backward tilt of the head was necessary, the cloud-bank was edged with light as ineffably variable as the shadows over a wheat-field on a breezy day. Soon rainbow tints, appearing, disappearing and reappearing magically in detached flakes and patches, and severed by purple rays, hovered and flitted over and along the cloud. Occasionally lightning zig-zagged horizontally across the densest part, and you could just catch the mutterings of thunder.
A great patch of yellow light sprang from the middle of the upper edge of the dusky cloud, like the half of an enormous nimbus, glowing and glittering. Then, with the gentlest of gradations, its yellow gave way to other primary colours, delicately displayed and quivering with fairy-like agitations. A huge ravine opened up, a valley through rainbow-land, leading to a wall as ruddy as imagination may paint, and embossed with a pearl as great as a house.
Twice appeared a strange shape. Picture a bird soaring in a huge, circling flight from north to south, hidden by the cloud-screen save for one fully-extended wing, and that wing displaying bands of blending tints of gold and green and silvery rose, with feather-tips of sepia, fluffy and breathlessly soft. Picture the wing wavering and slowly vanishing, until the final feather seemed the shadow of a golden plume and as slowly reappearing in all its magnificence — inspiring the hope that the glorious bird of Paradise would emerge and be seen soaring in its proper sphere at the gate of heaven.
All the ships, the ragged remnants, the fragments and frayings of all the rainbows of the most decorative of wet seasons, skirted the cloud or were tossed about in luminous heaps; and then the scene burnt itself out in extravagant redness, leaving the Isle in a lurid gloom, and its inhabitants stiff-necked, but with a rare joy at heart.
Though the piccaninny’s arrival had preceded it, the pigling vanished first, and since this is a record of departures it deserves prominence in the title.
Both were island bred.
George the Greek, who seldom leaves the vicinity nowadays, brought the pigling from Goold Island, where there was wont to be such a superfluity that parents abandoned them on the merest sniff of danger. Possibly George had murdered one of its able-bodied relatives, for he had with him a joint of something that bore a distant resemblance to pork and was so tough and tasteless that Debil-debil (the authoritative dog now of “that equal sky”) and his consort got it, after apologies to George. Impossible pork, it looked like a junk out of a newly-felled bloodwood log, but had naught of the wholesome odour of the fresh red wood.
So much for the pigling’s uncle.
George was upbraided because he had inflicted the Isle with a rest-disturbing orphan, helpless and squeakful. Inspired by hope, and permitting his imagination to dwell on the attractiveness of a six weeks’ suckling, fat and tender, with a crisp exterior, browned and glistening, and an interior gushing with gravy and fragrant with herbs, he proceeded to pet the helpless, lean little creature. Imprisoned in an improvised hutch, well padded and bedded with blady grass, the pigling forgot its brief experience of freedom, finding consolation in a diet of coco-nut milk.
Intent upon giving its flesh a nutty flavour, over which his eyes twinkled, George, after three or four unsuccessful attempts, made a huge grater out of a foot square of galvanized iron, and spent an hour or so every day stuffing his pet with porridge of shredded coco-nut and milk. As its fat increased the squeaks of the pigling mellowed into throaty grunts. Was it not living an ideal life? A luxurious nest, a plethora of squashy food, a foster-parent who watched over it with stern vigilance. If it had been in the habit of reflecting, it might have thanked its lucky stars that fate had brought it to a scene where there was no vociferous competition for mother’s milk, no trapesing through blady grass as one of a hustling brood, no sort of care or anxiety regarding the next meal.
About a month before the advent of the pigling, Lucy had made Ned gloomy and thoughtful by becoming the mother of a piccaninny, about a span-and-a-half long, the colour of a tan shoe, with whitish soles to its feet, and hands and fingers so crumpled and soft, and of such tender hue, that they might have been the unfolding frond of a tree-fern. About the same age as the pigling that protested shrilly if George’s other duties belated meal-time, the piccaninny so seldom made a sound that its devoted mother began to imagine that it never would. Within its tiny hutch it kicked feebly, grasped at empty nothings with fern-like fingers, grimaced and writhed in an agonized attempt to cry, and emitted a squeak so puny and faint that it was hardly worth an effort so painful. But in its mother’s ears that beetle-power sound was as charming as the din of a corroboree.
George ignored the piccaninny, but took the pigling to his heart, ever and anon assuring the community that very soon it would be fat and tender. He hung about its hutch, contemplating its proportions in the exulting, gruesome mood of that midshipmite who seasoned the steamy cauldron, and, no doubt, hummed to himself in Greek, “How very very nice you’ll be!”
Both youngsters prospered. The piccaninny began to make her voice heard. Her fingers unfolded. Her complexion became that of a new penny and her mother foresaw all sorts of charms in her face. The pigling squeaked when hungry (which was seldom), grunted when satisfied, snored when asleep (which was often) and spent all the time putting on fat; and its foster-parent saw more of beauty in its rapidly rotunding figure than did Lucy in her wrinkled and crumpled offspring.
As far as interested observers could judge, both parties were happy, each tolerant of the other’s pet, each anxious to demonstrate the peculiar fascinations of pigling and piccaninny, respectively. Interested observers, moreover, came to the inevitable conclusion that, at this stage, for intelligence and appreciation of the appropriate benefits of life the pigling had the advantage. George liked it and in a sense bullied it. It knew George and liked him and bullied him, and, true to his cast of mind, George liked the bullying, responding by scratching the bully’s pink-and-white back until it squirmed and wriggled in ecstasies of delight.
The dogs watched the petting from a distance; for George scowled fearsomely when they approached the hutch, and promised exquisite tortures if they dared to sniff. They also pricked their ears when the piccaninny began to wail above a whisper. It was a foreign sound to them, impossible, for all their restraint, to ignore. The conduct of both, however, was admirably discreet. They were interested. No affectation in that respect could avail. They were curious, but their curiosity was tempered by wisdom. They were obviously jealous, but suppressed that emotion under a pose of austere superiority. How could high-spirited dogs be sincere in their indifference to two strange animals, one vocal with assertiveness, the other a mere whimperer? They glared out of the corner of their eyes while their tails waggled the assurance that both were quite safe so far as they were concerned. If Debil-debil’s state of mind was interpreted aright, all his sentiments were humanized by that great gift of his — humour. He would direct sudden gleams of actual savagery towards the grunter’s hutch, and then, turning towards his master would, like a popular actress grinning with her teeth, demonstrate love and affection and universal peace and goodwill!
Brooking no contrary opinion on the point, George decided the date of the execution of the pigling, foretelling a rare feast, and, of course, Ned and Lucy did their share of anticipatory gloating.
Two days before the fatal date, while the sun was below the sheltering hill, Ned discovered that during the night the half-expected had happened. Unable longer to resist temptation, the dogs had overturned the pigling’s hutch, scratched and torn at the door until it flew open, and the rest was —!
There sat the upturned hutch, minus its petted occupant, while the dogs stood by, sniffing and tail-wagging with what appeared to be a blending of self-accusation and plea for mercy in their faces. Who could blame dogs for the inability to resist so pleasant a sin? When George came on the scene, anger and grief made the hills vocal.
On the assumption that the dogs might have merely chased the pigling into the jungle and that it might be tracked by them, they were encouraged to sniff the hutch, which they did joyfully, and with Ned, experienced tracker, in the lead, all the able-bodied of the Isle joined in the hunt. The dogs, leading across the paddock to the ravine, ran, nose to ground, down its steepness and up through the orange plantation, followed enthusiastically by Ned and the others, just as the character of country permitted. Early in the hunt the dogs put up a scrub-fowl, which noisily fluttered and spluttered through the jungle, and, ending its flight on a lofty branch, jeered and chuckled as it peered down at the intruders.
Then Debil-debil scented a big brown lizard, cosy in a hollow log and loudly appealed for help, which Ned gave with a stick; but Cricket had the best of the luck and made a good catch. Debil-debil scored with a fat rat which, nosed out of its nest of leaves, had scampered up a slender sapling. Leaping high, he jostled the rat to the ground and snapped it up with the alertness of a conjurer.
Being now hot for the chase both dogs ran wild, quartering the shady places industriously, and soon struck off up the steep slope on a good scent. In a few minutes they gave tongue, yapping and yelping with uncontrollable eagerness. Through the undergrowth, Ned in advance, we struggled as fast as lawyer vines, the prickly raspberry (almost as obstructive as barbed wire), saplings and shrubs interwoven with creepers permitted; for did not humanity and love for delicately-fed pigling demand that the fugitive should not be altogether wasted on the dogs?
Hot and puffing, with scratched and bleeding hands and arms, and George anything but poetic in his terms of denunciation, we got up to the dogs — to find them frantically trying to unearth a spiny ant-eater, which was just as frantically but mutely digging itself in among a mat of roots!
George poked up the animal with a stick as Debil-debil took a spell, his bleeding muzzle showing that the “porc” had drawn first blood. Without a pick and shovel, extrication was impossible; besides, we were after a distressed and homeless pigling, not a porc disturbed while at home in ease. George wanted to put in operation tactics he had once applied at Hinchinbrook when his pup had scented out a porc and fought it for three hours, with claws and teeth and voice. Night had come on and then George took the part of the pup. A jamtinful of kerosene was poured on to the creature’s back and touched with a match.
“That pup he work for t’ree hour; he dig out t’ree barrow-load ground. In t’ree seconds that porc he run feefty yard like star, that pup biting fire all the time!”
Forbidden to experiment with fire on the pet porcs of this Isle, George became sulky, and said awful things about Debil-debil, which the good dog accepted as compliments, no doubt concluding that George’s blistering terms were meant for the porc.
Calling off the dogs, the hunt went farther afield, Ned exhorting both; but naught was seen save ordinary vermin. In the afternoon we took a different direction, under the leadership of Ned, whose theory it was that the pigling was still alive, but too frightened to respond to affectionate and soothing calls. The dogs enjoyed themselves, and so, apparently, did the blacks and George. Alas, results were negative, though Ned skilfully pointed out fresh tracks and once said that he heard the lost pigling’s squeal.
A season of regrets, tempered by philosophy, followed.
George’s incessant proclamation of the richness of a roast sucking-pig crammed with herbs had created imaginary bilious attacks. Besides, there was far too much of garlic in his scheme of flavouring for the tastes of those denied more than a strictly poetic sight of the Levant. He was excitedly, deeply affected by the loss not only of a pet, but of a prospective feast that would have smothered the subtle scents of the Isle. Others beheld the silent hutch without the tribute of a sigh.
Lucy continued to smile as the piccaninny passed from the squealing to the squalling phase. Even Ned’s responsibilities seemed less tragic.
Just as George had become reconciled to the loss of the pigling the piccaninny vanished — not alone either. Both father and mother accompanied her. The hut on the beach was silent — and smellful. On a shelf was half a loaf of bread and half a tin of jam. Sticking in the roof was an unfinished boomerang. On the walls were pictures from illustrated papers, and on the floor oddments of raiment and a mattress of bags. There had also vanished from its anchorage a big flattie belonging to a fisherman, a countryman of George’s. Two days later the owner came to recover the boat, and after a week’s search found it on the mainland, high and dry.
Three months passed, then George, having occasion to visit the mainland, discovered something for which he was not looking and has never been able to see — a popular joke. It was rife and blithe in every blacks’ camp between the mouth of the Tully and the Tully Falls up among the ranges, and from the Hull River to Wreck Creek down by Cardwell. And when the blacks take hold of a joke the birds of the air hear of it. Cockatoos scream it; scrub-fowls chuckle over it; honey-eaters make a song about it; the listening lilies overhear the lotus-birds whispering it, and, nodding, smile.
Every black grinned like “Debil-debil,” for there was not one but knew that the perfidious Ned, and Lucy and the giddy piccaninny had eaten the pigling.
Weakly, sedately, yet not lacking mincing precision, Peter slowly followed the margin of the rippleless sea.
The boys, at the moment busy cleaning and painting the boat resting on her cradle, knew him and smiled at his pensive progress. Further, they made jerky remarks about him in their own tongue, one word of which —“Ba-bah”— gave clue to his character.
Approaching the busy scene he slowed down, hesitated, and, glancing ahead, saw that it was not possible to pass along to the corner of the Bay, into which the babbling creek flows, without incurring the derogatory asides of his contemptuous countrymen. His glance back towards the sand-spit, where the water is deep, was momentary; with an assumption of friskiness — too energetic a term for so mild and transient a mood — he ventured nearer and politely greeted me, holding his battered hat abaft his shoulder. There was such humiliation in his attitude and tones, such obsequious deference, that a cheery response was necessary to set him at ease.
Hunger and illness were plainly written in his face; but he smiled wanly as I intercepted him and gave him the formal freedom of the Isle,
“Ba-bah” described him.
In his left hand he carried an aggressively sacerdotal book, and from his arm, in the approved style, hung the crooked handle of an umbrella of the past, its ferrule shining with the polish of the sand. His right hand balanced with unstudied ease a long and slender fish-spear. In the meekest of tones he said that he had fever — too many of his fellow exiles were at the moment making like complaint, but in different terms. His was the voice of the patient martyr intent upon the edification of the unelect.
“I have had nothing to eat this morning, Mister. I was just going out to spear some fish. Will you let me go round to the other little bay? I won’t do any harm. I am a very releegious boy, Mister. I like going by meeself, away from the other boys. I can read a little of this good book; but not much, Mister. It is the Bible.”
He spoke slowly and with novel inflection, as if understudying some mouthing pulpiteer, and turning over the leaves of the book, glanced at the print. It was the BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER— held upside down.
“I am very seeek this morning, Mister; but I must not grumble, for I am a Christian. I am a very releegious boy, Mister. I am Church of England boy, Mister. This book tells me true. I must be a good boy.”
Tremulously weak and quite beyond the spearing of fish, he brisked up when told to go to the house for physic and food, returning in about an hour quite translated, to announce to the ribald boys that the mistress of the house was also a Christian. Fish spearing no longer an urgency, he sat in the sun, ignored the other boys and told of his conversion, of his hatred of bad language, of playing cards, and prayerless companions. He tried to do good.
Like others with a mission. he earned jeers. The boys said he was cranky. Was a man cranky when he tried to stop boys from using bad language and playing cards? The good book told him he ought to make Christians.
The paint-besmeared boys giggled.
Peter had his dinner apart at the house, and disappeared. Referring to him afterwards, the boys said, “Ba-bah!”— and giggled.
The natives’ camp was on the sand-spit under the shade of the ever-sighing beach oaks. Most of its occupants were would-be escapees from the settlement over the water. Some were not quite virtuous. Indeed, they were rowdy as well, deceitful, and as lazy as overfed pups. The camp boasted of cards — a grubby, frowsy, and incomplete pack; and the boys spent most of the nights playing, or rather imitating the playing of, euchre, with language of the strongest type as the chief part of the game.
At daylight next morning one of the truly respectable members of the camp was at the house, wild-eyed and fear-stricken. He told of certain nocturnal happenings, and on the strength of his story I went to the beach. The boat-shed was half full of scared gins and big-eyed piccaninnies, and thence towards the sand-spit sleepers were distributed at odd intervals, just above the limit of high tide. The only occupants of the camp were Peter, his wife and little boy. They were peacefully asleep.
Dick — truthful, gentlemanly Dick — told of the happenings of the night. The card-players had indulged in imaginary gambling and real language to the tormenting of the soul of the righteous Peter, who had exhorted them to give up their bad habits and become Christians, until, driven to desperation by the jeers and the taunts of “Ba-bah!” he had let loose all his zeal and endeavoured to convert the heathen with the fish-spear unused yesterday, and with the might of a much-refreshed arm.
In the blackness of the night the camp had vanished. Better the whole scene to his Christian self and family than the presence of gamblers given to unwholesome phrases. In his exalted mood he had not discriminated, for unoffending Dick and his family and all the other quiet folks had been driven into darkness with the triple-pronged spear, and not one of the crowd, orderly or disorderly, dared to whisper “Ba-bah!” lest Peter., in his repose, might hearken and be saucy.
When the Christian family awoke, Peter, without the slightest taint of exultation, corroborated all that Dick had told, merely adding that, being a very “releegious” boy, he could not stand the bad language and bad habits of the gamblers, and had taken the course of stopping both by hostile demonstrations with his spear and the repetition of some texts from the Bible.
As he glorified his actions, his wife, Maude, sauntered up and was presented. She, too, was civil, not to say choice, of speech, and quickly made proclamation of her Christianity and abhorrence of evil-speaking and cards.
If there exist social and other grades of society among the descendants of the original occupants of this favoured land, and if the hint of such an idea may be carried to finality, then does Peter stand apart as the representative and exponent of the Oxford style and air towards his degenerate fellows. In his attitude to them the grace of humility is abandoned. In demeanour and utterance he is a class by himself — superior, convinced of his superiority, rather disdainful of those who are not such as he.
The last of the family to crawl out of a scanty blue blanket was a neatly-dressed boy of about eight, who came forward with assurance. Maude indicated him as “My little boy.” Peter referred to him not as Bill or Billy, or even Will or Willy, but as “Will-yam,” with lofty and dogmatic stress on the “yam.” Neither approved of the society at the settlement. It was rude. Besides, there was no school, and it was the purpose of his parents that Will-yam should have the advantages of a superior education. Maude emphasized the point. Willyam must be sent to a good school. Peter declared that Will-yam must learn to read the good book and be a Christian like himself, a very “releegious” boy, and a Church of England boy. He must never gamble or use bad language. To these terms Will-yam meekly assented. And there stood on the beach an elated, happy, self-satisfied family, though it possessed naught but two thin blankets, a fish-spear, the handle of a discarded umbrella. and a prayer book, soiled with grease and smoke!
Peter was no longer humble. He had been victorious; he was proud. Had he not rebuked the scornful, piously burnt the broken pack, and with a frail weapon scattered a hostile and hideous crowd?
Exhorted to refrain from violence, however earnest in the spread of Christian knowledge, and in the suppression of gambling, in concern for the purity of speech, Peter’s eyes flashed with the inflammable fervour of the fanatic. The coarse-tongued boys were right. He was in fact “Ba-bah;” but until he was under proper supervision the derisive word lapsed; the boys kept at a safe distance and there was not a giggle left in them!
This story had the chance of being quite true. It would have been so, but for the denial of certain surly facts. So much the worse for the story.
As half-forgotten incidents became fixed in mind and were associated with happenings of the recent past, righteous endeavours were made to discover corroborative evidence of doubtful points; but fact and fable had become so blended that little could be done in the way of sorting out.
Would it not have been satisfactory to all concerned if it could have been proved that the rusty rifle-barrel lying among odds and ends in the barn was ever in the possession of Billy Too-gal (otherwise “Billy of the Leg”) and that it had been a serviceable weapon with carefully polished stock and rather more of brave brass in its mountings than is the style of the day? History is silent on this important point, while tradition shouts confidently in the affirmative. Trust rather to the affirmative of tradition than to the cheerless negative!
Tradition said that Billy Too-gal had been directly acquainted with the rifle; that he had treasured it during his day, and that when he had passed into the land of shades one of the mystery-men of the time had flung it into the sea because he deemed it uncanny, dangerous, and like to transcend in direct effect the magic in which he himself dealt. Years afterwards, “Jack Walk About” found it — a shapeless mass of rust — protruding from the sand at low water, and having chipped away some of the corrosion, had taken it to a certain Isle, as evidence, perhaps, of a forgotten tragedy!
There be some who declare that Billy Too-gal’s affection for the weapon was a grim sort of sentiment, which had germinated in the idea that he had suffered strange martyrdom through it. They assert that the bullet fired by the hasty and aggravated white man struck him on the left knee, giving to his gait that singular lurch or strut — almost rollicking in style — that his phantom perpetuated. Others, with equal force, and on, perhaps, slightly sounder evidence, maintained that the bullet shattered his lower jaw, so that the vestiges thereof hung loose; that he was thereby deprived of the ability to masticate his food; that he presented a repulsive, yet affecting, sight when he strove to appease his hunger; for was he not driven to throw scraps and fragments into his cavernous mouth and gulp them?
Poor Billy Too-gal may have been cheeky to the nervous and suspicious white man who had invaded his country; but his punishment did not fit his fault. It was excessive. It was cruel. Not only did it inflict lifelong anguish, sentence him to insatiable hunger, but it also ruined his temper. Behold him, thenceforward, a fierce-eyed man, tall and very lean, with a strut that would have been ludicrous on the stage, a wide-open, slobbering mouth, with portions of a frayed and dangling jaw.
His ghost retained, as ghosts should, the disfigurements of life — so the wise old men proclaimed with voices of authority that brooked no question. Those who were coeval with him had good cause to recollect his singularities, his eccentricities, his passionate and explosive moments. Not an infant in many a camp who did not recognize his phantom when the sages gathered together to discuss affairs of moment, for prying piccaninnies were kept in check by threats of the return to life of Billy Too-gal, with his fearsome, mobile head and the strut that swung his body to the right at every step. Billy was a “bidg-eroo” (malignant “debil-debil”), that would still the squeakiest piccaninny, and make her hide her eyes against her mother’s side or on the mangy coat of the pup she happened to be cuddling.
Boys might assume a tremulous air of bravado; but did ever one of them venture out on to the beach after dark, where, their elders declared, Billy of the Leg was wont to spend impatient nights spearing Too-gan? No; the boys, defiant in a crowd in daylight, cowered in camp after dark, for Billy’s strut as he slid along the beach gave him the faculty of glaring sideways with paralysing potency. They knew, too, that from the bark band across his forehead was slung a dilly-bag big enough to hold a captured piccaninny for breakfast, if the sleepy Too-gan failed to waver within range of his spear. For these reasons, the bold-at-daylight boys kept in the background after dark, glad of the muffling blankets teeming with fleas.
Old, old men had often told of Billy’s pitiful destiny. It was his to strut tracklessly along the beach every dark night, from the lonesome camp on the edge of the mangroves at Wongaling Creek to the intrusive rocks, there to stand, in a furious temper, waiting the never-to-be-granted chance of spearing a sleepy fish, his body the while swinging to and fro, and the big dilly-bag swaying uneasily from shoulder to shoulder.
If, said they, he was ever lucky enough to snap up a plump piccaninny — girl preferred — he would cut her to pieces with a shell-knife and use her for bait. Then he would be certain to catch a sleepy fish, and when he had eaten it his hunger would be appeased, and he would walk the beach no more.
Never was any piccaninny bold enough to think of Billy Too-gal as other than a terrifying phantom with a yearning for bait of most distressing kind, until You-an-linga — a dreamy little girl — dreamt a strange dream.
All the kiddies of all the camps knew that even the long-legged, light-footed little birds that ran trippingly over the sand at the edge of the blue sea made distinct tracks. You-an-linga dreamt that she saw Billy Too-gal lurching along the beach, with swinging head and gaping mouth. So vivid was the dream that she did not regard it as one. She firmly believed that she had seen the piccaninny-scaring man in the very flesh, and being, as some dreamers are, quite practical, she thought of following his tracks under the assurance and protection of the morning’s sun.
Being intuitive by nature, she concluded that Billy Too-gal would be certain to make a distinctive track, though no one had ever seen the records in the sand of his passing to and fro. She knew the track of every one of the denizens of the camps, and read into each never-failing characteristics. Though she might not have seen a group straggle off aimlessly along the beach, she could tell by a glance at the tracks the individuals of the party, where they had gone, why, and make good guess at what they were doing at the fleeting moment.
You-an-linga was able so to do because she had a gift. All enjoyed it in varying degrees; but in her case it was developed so remarkably and applied so vividly — recollect that intuition was also hers — that some of the crude folks believed her to be “ba-bah” (cranky). Could she not track the big “Oo-boo-boo”— the long-legged wolf-spider — and tell where it would be found next day hugging its dilly-bag?
Being thus quite out of the ordinary, You-an-linga was looked upon despitefully by others of her age, so that she was often lonely and occupied herself with affairs that had but slight interest to the swarms of piccaninnies. She likened the dilly-bag (egg-capsule) of “Oo-boo-boo” to a “chillen,” and got one from an interested white man as a reward for the aptness of the similitude. It was then that she told the visitor of the passing the previous night along the beach of Billy Toogal, whose head was loose “all asame Yam-boo” (praying mantis). She had not seen Billy Too-gal after the sun came up, but last night she saw him, and he was no good:
“Me no lik’m that fella. Might be that fella kill’m piccaninny. Me look out proper. What for that fella no mak’m track?”
You-an-linga’s father and mother stood by and smiled. Their smiles were not quite honest. Did they not implicitly believe that Billy Too-gal was a snapper-up of such trifles as piccaninnies at large on the beach after dark? And since, in their way, they loved You-an-linga, they sought to terrify her with stories of the nocturnal savage with huge mouth, and were afraid when she did not betray the slightest apprehension, but rather was eager for investigation.
The wise-heads in the camps looked upon Billy Too-gal’s phantom as the best item of an excellent stock-in-trade of mysteries, and would not, without harsh forms of protest, submit to it being set at naught by a piccaninny. You-an-linga was beginning to talk about their pet ghost in a familiar strain, and they plotted to get rid of her, so that their reputation as sorcerers and their rights as custodians of the mysteries might be strengthened.
Secretly they debated a situation boding little good, and decided that for three nights in succession Billy Too-gal’s ghost should parade the beach, and that all the camps should have the chance of witnessing the coming and the passing of the apparition. On the third night You-an-linga would be picked up and disappear from the camp forever. Then in a quiet spot they would eat the piccaninny’s vital parts and so assimilate some of the rare qualities which she had displayed. They would thus confirm their renown, rid the camp of a disturbing element, and secure for themselves the singular powers which had been hers.
Too-bee (The Maggot), played the part of the restless phantom on the first night. More than one quaking individual saw the lop-sided head, the appalling mouth, the huge dilly-bag dancing from shoulder to shoulder. You-an-linga heard early of the nerve-shocking apparition, and sat and shivered, wrapped in her father’s blanket. When the sun rose, she scrambled out and raced with others to the beach. Never before had Billy Toogal made tracks. His footprints were plain to be seen, and the children huddled up and scampered back.
You-an-linga had seen enough. She knew Toobee’s tracks as surely as she knew her own father’s. and her gift of intuition caused her to conclude that he was making a fool. of them all; nor was she wise enough to keep her own counsel.
Naturally, the old men were vexed, and Too-bee indulged in demonstrations towards You-an-linga with a weighty waddy. Innocent enough of any thought of defiance, she boldly said that Too-bee had been “Play about, all asame gammon; me no ‘frait.”
Billy Too-gal was next represented by Oon-narra (The Cloud), and with such realistic effects that the camp buzzed for the rest of the night. None could now deny the existence of the ghost. Brave would be the man or woman or piccaninny who would trust to the beach when it had been announced by the mystery-men that it was reserved for the ghost. The envious crowd flattered the old men., renewed their demonstrations of deference, and contributed all sorts of fat things, from oysters to scrub-turkey eggs, to their fires.
Again You-an-linga satisfied herself from the best of all evidence that, light-footed as The Cloud might be, he had merely mimicked Billy Too-gal; but she kept her opinion to herself until the evening when she took her diffident father and mother into her confidence. She proposed that they should wait on the beach for Billy Too-gal, and that when he appeared her father should spear him, and then kill him alonga head with a tomahawk —“dead finis”— and take his dilly-bag and long fishing-line for his own. The proposal was decidedly obnoxious to Mur-juri (The Cicada), You-an-linga’s father, who being quite commonplace, had never questioned the authenticity of any ghost; but having only the fag-end of a fishing-line, and entirely lacking a dilly-bag, he was tempted. The mother’s repugnance was also overcome by the thought of the huge dilly-bag her husband had actually seen and described.
The trio stole quietly out and snuggled into depressions in the still warm sand.
Nor had they to wait long. The night was cloudy, with a fresh south-east breeze bearing in from the sea a mist that seemed to be luminous. The crests of the rustling breakers, blown ashore, mingled with the mist, making a thin margin of vapour, which blurred, yet exaggerated, the form of Kurran-doola (the Millepede), the wiliest and most resourceful of the mystery-men who imitated Billy Too-gal’s lurching gait on the third night.
You-an-linga’s mother screeched when the substantial phantom came abreast of the lair, but at the same moment Murjuri hurled his dugong spear. The range was short; the aim true. Down went the phantom with a grunt, and one blow of the tomahawk silenced him for ever.
Morning revealed naught. The undertow had taken charge of the bleeding body and the current conducted it out to sea — a feast for sharks.
But what had become of Kurran-doola, the oldest of the old men. the most mysterious of the mystics? No questions were asked. The other mystery-men knew that they had been trapped by a piccaninny, and were sage enough to keep silent.
Years afterwards, You-an-linga was wont to smile capaciously as she told that she really had seen Billy Too-gal, and that he made tracks “all asame” Too-bee, Oon-narra, and Kurran-doola!
In time the old men, taking up the cue, laid it down authoritatively that You-an-linga was quite right; and that her discovery proved that Billy Too-gal still walked the beach on cloudy nights. Mystery-men, of whatever complexion, are ever artful in explaining awkward complications by added mystification.
But what became of the hasty white man whose deed had provoked Billy Too-gal’s ghost hungrily to strut the wholesome beach? Billy Too-gal never actually said; but the old men had so vividly interpreted his gestures that the younger, in their love of movement and display, in time embodied them as one of the most frequent themes of their corroborees. What did this crudest of dramas, with its beggarly array of sticks and slips of barks as stage properties, reveal?
A solitary tent. Billy Too-gal, his wound still raw, creeps from a background of cycads, noiselessly as dew, tomahawk in hand. He enters. A pause. A thud. A grunt. Several groans. Silence. Billy Too-gal gropes his way out, carrying a rifle. He looks round. Putting down the rifle, he picks up two thin sticks and squats, and holding one with his toes, twirls the other between his palms. Presently a faint blue smoke arises. A glow appears like a ruby in a black setting, and is gently flicked on to a leaf. Tenderly he breathes on it, waves it to and fro, and it flames. With a torch of grass he fires the tent and watches, and gathers dry cycad fronds to ignite the smouldering blankets. He seizes the rifle nervously, carries it to the brink of the lagoon, and, leaning over so that his footsteps may not impair the muddy margin, drops it so gently that neither lily leaf nor bud wavers, and — without once looking back — slowly disappears. After an interval he reappears with wide-open, slobbering mouth and a hooked stick, fishes for the rifle, and with it — exit!
Thus, though Billy Too-gal does not nightly walk the beach in ungovernable, voiceless rage, the camp clatters and chuckles over the mimicry of his revengeful deed.
Sam was ever a masterful man. Big and strong, hasty, passionate to a direful degree when aroused; gentle to his chubby children; corrective to those whom he deemed to be wrongdoers, he had some of the essential qualities of the schoolmaster and no little of the persuasive eloquence of the preacher. It boots not to dwell on his defects, for Nature has claimed her final penalty; but it may not be possible to understand his character aright if the popularly-believed reason for his banishment from his native isle be not referred to.
He was born on one of the islands of Torres Straits which has benefited by Papuan influence in many respects. There the type is far more intelligent than that of the mainland of Australia. Men and women learn some of the advantages of civilization more readily, and under judicious training become in some cases quite worthy of exercising certain of the privileges of self-government. The late Sir William MacGregor testified to this, and has given instances of the wisdom and moderation with which the “Councillors” of the Straits Islands exercise their administrative and judicial functions.
Born of such a race, it was natural that a big, strong, lusty man should have opinions of his own, and should be given to expressing them. Though no positive statement has come to my ears, it is said that in a fit of justifiable wrath he inflicted punishment so violent on his wife that she died. He knew something of the scriptures, and perhaps interpreted all too dreadfully that injunction to pluck out the offending right eye and cast it away. Sam’s punishment for so wicked an offence against the laws of humanity was lifelong banishment from the island he called home.
He married again, and had a family of four round-eyed, happy children, and at the Settlement his was the first hut to show regard for the decencies, if not the niceties, of life. He began his garden with sweet potatoes and taro. The flowers and shrubs that followed bloom for others. Thanks to the good policy of the State in respect of the population of the Straits Islands, Sam was early able to read and write. Several of his pencilled notes prove that he spelled correctly and wrote neatly.
Being thus, generally, so much superior to the great majority at the Settlement in type and attainments, Sam became an unofficial leader — a tutor and a pastor. He established a night-school in which the children were taught their alphabet and rudimentary spelling. He delivered addresses, read the Bible, taught the singing of hymns, and in other matters endeavoured to persuade young and old to live decently and in order. His Sunday services became, for a time, an institution.
Under his directions, and with his thick-voiced., solemn words, the dead were buried at that spot where, as one epigrammatic native of the locality said, “Boy he sit down altogether!” They had been wont to strap their dead, knees to chin, and so to place them in a shallow grave, until Sam persuaded them to swathe the body in a blanket and to rest it in the sleeping posture in the sand, with head to east.
What was in his mind when he forbade the mourners to kill a death-adder which slowly twisted past an unfilled grave of one who had died suddenly? Did he look upon the deadly little snake as one of the emblems of immortality of which he had so often talked — living, yet the personification of evil and of death?
Sam’s intellectual qualities were in harmony with his physical capacity. Like one of Shakespeare’s characters, he was in the best sense “a good man of his hands;” he used edged tools so neatly and effectively that a professional carpenter regarded him as a useful and capable assistant.
Such a man among such a community of coloured folks as that of the Hull River Settlement stood out as an individuality whose influence tended in the right direction. With his death in his prime a good element was lost, for he at least was unchartered. He performed the offices of schoolmaster and of pastor — he was wont to call himself “a church worker”— unofficially and without money and without price. The unction with which he gave out a hymn and read the collects showed that in his own estimation he had a call for the work in which he most delighted. He was no slovenly pastor, vexing the dull ears of a sleepy and indifferent congregation; but full of vigour and dramatic gesture, so that those who gathered on Sundays at the accustomed spot were by his very earnestness compelled to harken.
It may be that among the more benighted of the community Sam’s untimely death may be attributed to the stings of bees. While taking honey from a “wild” hive he was stung on arms and chest severely, suffering considerable pain; while in retreat from such cause he caught cold, which settled on his lungs, and in a few days pneumonia developed. The medical officer who periodically visits the settlement happened to arrive while he lay ill, and prescribed for him; but Sam’s case became so serious that he was taken to Innisfail in the motor-boat for expert treatment in the hospital. Death claimed him before he could be landed, and four of his countrymen, an authorized minister, and one of the officials of the settlement followed him through the rain to his grave. He lies in alien soil.
His children watched the boat that carried him away as it disappeared in the North, and in that direction they look for his return. That “common theme, the death of fathers,” is to them, as it was to Hamlet, particular and poignant. As she sits on the sand beside her mother, his pet and fondling — the chubby, thumb-sucking “Elizabeth”— stretches fat and clutching hands across the sea as she cries “Dada! Dada!” and the disconsolate mother moans aloud and gives way to unavailing tears.
Not long since a black boy, for whom Sambo may pass as a name, found himself stranded at Cooktown. He had finished a long engagement on board a bêche-de-mer schooner, had been duly paid off, had spent his earnings in the off-handed and open-handed fashion of his race, had loafed until weary of the town camp, and then suddenly became sick — violently sick. It was only an attack of home-sickness, but it took complete possession of him.
His country was separated from the port by some sixty miles, and though it was conterminous with the beach, to reach it Sambo would have to pass through the territory of three or four tribes which, if not actually on unfriendly terms with his own people, certainly offered no guarantee for the safety of lone strangers within their gates. Strangers who came to them were absorbed, and no subsequent questions revealed trace of them. So Sambo did not care to face the perils of the journey by land, and of course, no means of reaching home by sea were within his personal grasp.
To the police authorities he made moan, claiming the right, most unjustifiably, of being transported thither at the country’s expense. Being scoffed at, he went away, sorrowful, and because of his sorrow and sickness, his memory became bright.
The day following his unsuccessful appeal for a cheap passage to his native shore, he mentioned casually to the chief of the police that during his recent bêche-de-mer engagement a wreck had been discovered. With due formality his statements were taken down in writing, and in effect were:— While in the neighbourhood of No. 1 Howick Group a lugger in distress had been seen; the weather was very stormy, and after vainly endeavouring to battle through into shelter, the vessel fell over on one side, and came up again and again and fell over on the other, and then sank. At low water the top of the main mast was visible, but high tide covered it up completely. None of the wreckage had been seen to float; all hands had been drowned. The lugger was a stranger, white, painted with a red mark, “very flash.”
Sambo mentioned casually that anybody might go to the wreck, for the top-mast at low water indicated it. An expert in the ways of the blacks was called in to discuss the matter, which was causing a sensation in police circles. Cross-examined by the expert, Sambo elaborated a still more realistic description of the wreck, minutely locating it in relation to landmarks familiar to the expert, and intimating his readiness to pilot a boat to the very spot. In reply to further questioning, Sambo frankly admitted that he was sick of the joys of town life, that he longed for home, and that his country was at Red Point, off which was No. 1 Howick Island. Thereupon the expert came to the conclusion that Sambo had invented the “wreck” for a sufficiently obvious purpose.
But the statements to the police were so explicit and circumstantial, and were so consistently supported by cross-examination, that the expert’s opinion was scouted. It was well known, remarked the chief of police, that Sambo’s country was opposite the scene of the “wreck,” and it was notorious that Sambo wanted to get home. Everybody knew that. The police were not such simpletons as to be taken in by a black boy, and one, moreover, who had nothing to gain by telling an ingenious and elaborate lie. An appeal for instructions from headquarters resulted in an order for the despatch of a vessel to search the scene of the wreck and the neighbouring islands. An officer of the police and Sambo took passage, the latter repeating his statements with a precision which convinced everyone save the expert, who in fact, was captain of the vessel.
Arrived at No. 1 Howick, Sambo was asked, “Where wreck sit down?”
He replied, “‘Nother side. Little bit outside, alonga point.”
The little ship sailed jauntily past the point, Sambo being at the captain’s elbow.
“Little bit more keep away,” said Sambo, and in a few minutes, looking over the side, exclaimed, “Wreck he sit down here!”
At the spot the depth of water was 14 fathoms, and Sambo excused the non-appearance of the top-mast by saying that it was then high water. The captain, who happened to be a more trustworthy authority on the constancy of the tides than Sambo, knew that the hour was that of low water, and moreover, that a lugger which would show her top-mast from a depth of eighty-four feet was quite out of place in Barrier Reef waters.
Sambo looked as wise as ever, extremely confident, and taking his bearing from close-at-hand points, persisted that the wreck was down below. His bargain thus having been fulfilled to the letter, he suggested that further search was not needed.
In the presence of the police officer, the captain then took the boy in hand.
“That your country, Sambo, over there, Red Point?”
“Yes,” said Sambo.
“You want to go your own country?” asked the captain.
“Yes,” replied Sambo. “more better you land me my country. You close up now!”
“Now,” said the captain. “Suppose you tell me true, I land you your own country. Suppose you humbug me, I take you back alonga Cooktown.”
“No,” said Sambo, “I no humbug you. I wan’ get alonga my country.”
“Well, what about this yarn you bin tell Sergeant, and tell ’em all the time?”
Sambo: “I bin humbug that fella proper!”
“What, you no bin see ’em wreck?”
“No, me no bin see ’em. All humbug. I wan’ get back my own country. You close up now. You put ’em boat alonga water, me go shore!”
“Yes,” said the cheerful captain. “You deserve to get home.”
And before dark Sambo, no doubt, chuckled over the success of his strategy among his comrades and friends.
Among those of the North Queensland blacks who, of self-choice, were consigned to Providence’s care on the transfer of the Aboriginal Settlement from the Hull River to the Palm Islands, was a boy known as “Jimmy.” A useless, superfluous creature, needing special consideration and care, from whom no sort of work might be exacted, who earned the compassion of his fellows, and, for a season, that of the then superintendent and his staff, Jimmy found his days dreary; for he was afflicted with progressive failure of sight. Sent to a hospital for treatment, he returned wearing tinted glasses, and that despairing mien which lovers of the light assume upon realization of their denial “ere half their days in this dark world and wide.”
Before the break-up of the Settlement blindness had come upon him; but he loved even clouded liberty too well to submit to the isolation of the distant island, and with others of like sentiments but unimpaired faculties, he took to the bush. For a time then, the bush kept them in strict seclusion, providing food and shelter. Most of the little band were old and feeble or maimed. They could profitably be disregarded and forgotten. Safe from official interference, they wandered in the dense jungle, timidly approaching the homes of white settlers under the compulsion of acquired habits and tastes. According to nature they loved freedom and their own land; but contact with whites had taught them to long for such artificialities as tobacco, tea and sugar, as well as better garments than rough cloaks of beaten bark, such as their ancestors wore when the weather was cool.
To obtain such things they began to visit settlers from whom they had been able to purchase them in former days at the cost of casual labour. Then it was that “Blind Jimmy” came into view again. It is said that he was the best conditioned of the camp, for, being unable to seek for food himself, he was accepted as a charge upon the rest, and they saw that he shared the common lot, with a trifle more out of sympathy. When camp was shifted he was conducted along the narrow tracks by a companion who indicated obstructions, roots and logs and hollows, and with that wonderful gift of perception that the blind acquire, he began to get about by himself in a trivial sort of way, tapping the track with a staff, as is the fashion of the blind.
Thus, Blind Jimmy became one of the notable characters of the locality, and whites as well as his own fellows expressed their commiseration with him so heartily that he assumed the air of prosperity and almost a cheerful cast of countenance. His tapping staff, the warnings of his guide, and his ready thanks for gifts in kind, made him popular in a certain sense, and, submissive to his fate, he found himself lacking nothing in the way of compensation.
Drifting with his friends into a strange locality, Blind Jimmy was brought under the notice of an aged black who had the reputation of being wise in many things — in medicine and magic especially.
Rough, dirty, crude, the “Old Man”— such was his familiar title — peered into Blind Jimmy’s sightless eyes, and declared it possible to make him “see good fellow,” with or without his consent, and forthwith sought out his operative accessories. He ground a rusty nail on a stone to a fairly sharp point, and so shattered a sea-shell that he had at service a scalpel, the edge of which was keener than a razor.
As far as information goes, for the story comes second-hand, Blind Jimmy was a consenting party; but the Old Man knew enough of animal physiology to realize that in the circumstances all strain on the patient’s part must be prevented. Blind Jimmy was spread-eagled on the bosom of Mother Earth; a friend knelt on his forehead; others sat on his chest and on the outlying parts of his body, as, with a sing-song, the Old Man began his benign work. What he actually did may never be ascertained, unless the Old Man’s work is verified by some one “who knows a subtler magic than his own.”
The blacks say that the Old Man cut each eye open, the lids being held apart by an assistant, scraped away some dirt, and poked out something with the sharp-pointed nail. As it was operated upon, each eye was blinked with dirty rag, and when all was over, both were quickly bandaged to obscure the light. For two days the patient was kept on his back by force, and when the bandages were removed he was Blind Jimmy no longer!
Many white folk are ready to affirm that before the operation the boy was stone blind, and many are just as certain that he now sees well enough to be able to dispense with his guide and to take part in the affairs of the camp.
Without assuming overmuch, it may be safe to hazard the opinion that Jimmy had been afflicted with cataract; but how many surgeons of the day would have ventured to operate with such crude appliances, and in the absence of all safeguards? The account of the feat thus related is vouched for by two friends who know the boy, and had frequently ministered to him during his sightless period, both of whom have since seen him walking about independently of aid.
Incredible as it may seem, one is not justified in expressing disbelief in the performance of the feat, in the execution of which the specialists of the day are said to demand weeks if not months of preparation, a germ-proof chamber, antiseptics and an anaesthetic, an assortment of instruments, and a period of passive convalescence. Given that the lens of each eye was removed, will it be credited that, in the absence of rectifying glasses, the boy is able to take more than a blurred outlook on life?
A report that might have been anticipated is current, to the effect that Jimmy’s blindness was due to a certain native fruit, to which whites as well as blacks are partial, known by the former as “the finger cherry,” or berry, and by the latter, locally, as “pool-boo-nong.” It is produced by a jungle scrub, one of the rose myrtles (RHODOMYRTUS MACROCARPA). In the jungle it is spindly, but on the edges thereof may branch out into a robust habit. When ripe the fruit is purple and of a pleasant, acidulous flavour. In the late F. Manson Bailey’s CATALOGUE OF QUEENSLAND PLANTS, are two notes concerning the alleged evil properties of the mouldy fruit: “The diseased fruit is supposed to cause blindness (myopia) and death.” “GLOEOSPORIUM PERICULOSUM” (scientific title of the fungus): “Very poisonous; it is this fungus, probably, which causes blindness, and often death, to persons eating fruit containing it in quantities.”
Among the pioneers of a North Queensland goldfield were three mates, whose prospecting experiences had been varied; but they had not hitherto touched anything like the present — the matted vegetation, the close steamy heat, the rank smells of decaying vegetation, the breathless humidity. Others had made some sort of a track to the foothills. Thence upwards the adventurers sought out an acceptable level for a camp.
Rough, hard, incessant work on hastily-prepared food told on them. Each knew and obeyed the lure which charms prospectors to the performance of incredible feats, and said naught. It was all in the game. Time was far too valuable to waste on domestic affairs, for the auriferous gravel was patchy.
One morning a family of blacks appeared — an old man, his gin, two piccaninnies, all shy and nervous, and a youth of sixteen, who, bubbling with confidence and self-assurance, announced that he was “Frank Edward.” They had come to “sit down” with the white men and help them, and incidentally to eat of their tucker. So said Frank Edward with a superior smirk, as he began forthwith to make a heap of firewood on the ledge close to the mildewed tent. The rest of the family huddled together, daring not to look straight at the white men.
Frank Edward told his hosts that he had been at Jerildoun. His hat and trousers, and his speech betrayed the frayed edges of civilization. Being hungry, he demanded flour for a damper. He made one, not such as would appeal even to a hungry prospector, but which to the father and the rest, eaten with tea profusely sugared, made a banquet of ambrosia and nectar. Was it not so written on their otherwise impassive faces? That family was a fixture as long as such delicacies were current.
It was nerve-destroying work high up, as the camp was on a terrace that looked over the broad ribbon of blue to the flounce of surf created by the Great Barrier Reef. Stifling during the dry infrequent clear days; vaporous, with the heat of a Turkish bath, when the mists settled on the roof of leaves. Land leeches took blood tax, transforming themselves from alert, waving threads to incapable blobs. The almost invisible mite that burrowed into the skin made scratching one of the most gratifying pleasures of existence. On the spot for a very definite purpose, the mates did not spare themselves. They scratched the terrace all day, and in retaliation Nature gave them the motive for indulgence in a similar, but purely personal delight at night.
Alec declared that the game was hardly worth the candle. The gold was good enough, but there was not quite enough of it. There was the chance of dropping on something good that might spell fortune. They must not expect a lottery ticket for nothing.
To Douglas’s taste the country was decidedly too damp, but otherwise not too bad. They were paying expenses. There was the chance of a big dividend.
Rube, as hard-headed as he was fisted, was not going to give the show away to the next comer. When the fluming across the big gully was finished they could turn on the water and bring down the wash dirt in big lumps.
Soon a steep face was cut into the slope of the terrace. Water gushed out from the lips of the sluice. The soil melted away, while the gully below ran red with extravagant but superficial wounds. Alec likened their activities to the scrub itch on themselves. They pestered the terrace until it bled and broke into sores which nature decently and promptly swathed with green. Tolerating no unseemly sights, lank, limp, succulent vegetation sprang up as if by magic on the mullock heaps, as did grey fluffy fungus on damp boots and dripping tucker-bags.
The old man and even the gin and piccaninnies had made themselves useful, Frank Edward bossing them, as a side-show, with consummate satisfaction to himself and no little advantage to the mates. Domineering, self-important, as unlike the typical black as a sunbird to a swamp pheasant, he bullied his father, scoffed at his mother, and held the piccaninnies in rigorous subjection.
The mates recognized that he was a personality, and were amused until he began to patronize them. Then they took to watching each other’s demeanour towards him, confident of an outbreak sooner or later.
Within a month, Frank Edward, in his own estimation, was running the camp. He had a say in everything, from the best way to stop a leak in the fluming to the fixing of the day for the trip to the port for tucker. He worked like a tiger himself, saw that the family did its full share, fed it to repletion on damper, and smiled on the mates with the air of an equal.
Splashed with red clay until he looked like a terra-cotta image restored to light after concealment under rubbish, steaming with sweat, fluttering with importance, Frank Edward stood still for a moment beside Alec, shovelling away some mullock. His sharp eyes detected a slug.
“No good to me, ole man. You flurry fool, Alec! You chuck’m away slug.”
Alec glared at the naked boy; few of his chums would have cared to address him as this cheeky savage had. He smiled as the boy handed him a half-ounce nugget; that smile was ominous, if the boy had but known. He was so genuine in all he did and unconscious of offence that Alec smiled another sort of smile.
A few muddy minutes passed, and again the boy found a spec in the mullock heap, and, full of the white man’s ways, shouted: “More better knock off, Alec. Leav’m job to me. You flurry fool. Look!”
“Good boy, Frank Edward,” soothed Alec. “You find plenty that fella alonga mullock.”
“Me fin’m. You lose’m first time. You flurry fool!”
The reiteration of the offensive phrase was almost insufferable. Still, Alec held his peace, and the work went on during the pelting rain, Frank Edward becoming streaky instead of patchy. Thanks in some measure to his unwearying activity and sharpness, the results were satisfactory.
“That boy’s got brain. He’s clever enough for a judge. Never saw a black that was half his match.”
“Yes,” said Douglas. “He’s a wonder. The way he’s got the old man by the throat is a treat. No; he isn’t the stuff for a judge. Let him loose in a Parliament of blacks, and he’d be Premier, Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Treasurer, and Chief Executioner in a fortnight, and until a wooden-headed rival silenced him with a waddy.”
Rube, being half asleep, did not say anything much to the point, and Alec took up his parable —
“The fact is, Frank Edward’s too big a name for the boy. It makes him gusty. I’ll have to take him down a peg or two.”
“If you’re going to be rough with him he’ll scoot, and the others with him. Leave him alone. He’s a good hand, and costs next to nothing. Didn’t he pick up more than a couple of months’ keep this morning, and a man ought to stiffer being called a fool when he’s entitled to it.”
“I know all about that,” snapped Alec, “but I can’t stand being called a —— one by a flash black boy. I suppose it’s a matter of complexion. He’ll have to take a hiding. I think I see how it’s going to be done. I’m not going to be what he calls me over it.”
Alec was cook. Damper, salt beef, jam, tea — what more did prospectors who carried all their provisions up from the port want? Cooking was not a strenuous job.
He pannicanned the flour for the blacks on to the bark dish held by Frank Edward, sprinkled in an extra allowance of salt, and made a show of adding soda and acid.
While the damper cooked in its bed of ashes the expectant family sat watching with avaricious eyes. Occasionally the old man flicked trifling embers on to it, for he was understudying. Frank Edward flared and frankly referred to his father as “a flurry ole fool,” and the old man fancied the term was not one of endearment. He sat back humiliated, but as eager for the dainty as a half-starved calf for its mother’s milk.
Hooked out from the fire, the acme of present hopes was as flat as a board, sodden, sticky, blistered on the outside, and studded with half buried cinders. Frank Edward gazed at it in dismay. Hitherto he had achieved unvarying success.
Anticipatory and now ravenous, the old man tasted and spat. Salt does not come to blacks naturally. The sharp foreign flavour excited suspicion of poison. The longed-for food was less palatable than the leathery mess made from the “koi-ie” nut. There it was, to be picked at and sampled at all points, and to be proved fearsome throughout.
The mates listened to the rumbles of disappointment, and to the confident explanations of Frank Edward, who bustled up to them.
“What for you mak’m flour belonga me no good. You flurry fool, Alec. Damper him no good. Ole man he mak’m row alonga me.”
“Clear out!” shouted Alec. “Suppose you spoil’m damper that way, me no give flour.”
“Me mak’m all asame. You bin mak’m flour no good. You flurry fool!”
Alec rose, gripping a pick handle.
Frank Edward side-stepped and retreated.
All day the family sat in camp, as sad and sodden as the damper, hungry yet unwilling to turn out and forage. Frank Edward’s zeal was tempered by sulkiness. He had eaten but little. Detestable proof of failure in the very highest art was torturing him, and the shrill scorn of his suffering kin poured contempt on his pride and distracted him from thinking out a solution of the humiliating mystery.
Next morning Alec dealt out the flour unsparingly, omitting none of the prescribed ingredients. The damper rose as a damper of high principles should, and being ceremoniously dusted by Frank Edward with his fragmentary hat, was broken with boastful display.
Smiles lit up the gloomy scene. Was ever food sweeter and more acceptable? Alec had been profuse. All were replete. The waistless piccaninnies strutted and frolicked, and slept in token of content.
It was a merry camp up on the misty ridge, for diplomatic Alec played upon Frank Edward’s pride and conceit until the youth’s fussiness and insolencies became comical. His scheme was working faster than he had anticipated.
He indulged in another of his curious smiles when Frank Edward presented the bark dish for the customary flour, and ostentatiously appeared to add the ingredients to complete the ration, which was borne off triumphantly. The dutiful family watched the preparations, while the boy savagely scolded whomsoever presented an interfering finger.
He patted the dough, dusted dry flour on it, slid it off his hands on to the ashes, covered it and sat back bloated with vainglory. Under his patronage the old man was permitted to poke cinders round it; but the old woman and the piccaninnies, fascinated though they were, had been schooled to look in another direction. It was big; it was going to be great.
When it was proclaimed to be cooked Frank Edward buffeted the ashes, blew upon it, and sat down.
Tough, leathery, sodden, and of alarming taste, the damper acted like magic. The old man stood up. For once his slow mind was stimulated to fury. Recalling the bullying of yesterday, he concluded that the repulsive and probably poisonous thing was the deliberate and intentional consolidation of the ridicule of his son.
Touched in his most susceptible quarter, he broke it over the boy’s head. The boy sat down, and before he could rise the old man was belabouring him with the fire-hardened cane with which he had been permitted to caress the ruined food.
Although officious, the boy was not a fighter. In his day the old man had been, and two uneatable dampers and the continual jeers roused the spirit of his prime. The piccaninnies took cover in the jungle. The gin shrieked, and true to motherhood, sought to shield, with her lean body, her offspring from the father’s wrath. Hitting when and where he could, the writhing, struggling forms, the old man’s war-cry, “Damper!” might have been mistaken for a curse — and peradventure Frank Edward would have better enjoyed the language unaccompanied.
Not until the boy had been chastened in spirit, as well as in body, did the mates intervene.
Subdued and stifled with mystery, he sat whimpering, while Alec, to commemorate peace, presented the material for another damper, which compounded and cooked under strict scrutiny of the old man, proved a masterpiece.
Then it was the old man who swaggered. He sat back and surveyed the scene. But that niggard Nature had scanted him in such respect he might have tilted his chin. A dominant feature stood to him — not his nose, for that, broadening and flattening, disappeared, leaving but dilated and cavernous nostrils. His bloodshot eyes bulged and brightened, while his snort, though like that of an apprehensive goat, proclaimed his triumph — that he was a man in his own right, a master in his own domain, a lord of creation. No more would he live under the domination of his son. He had resumed filched rights, and his flashing eyes asserted determination to maintain them.
The silence of the jungle bore witness that he alone was head of the family.
Frank Edward quailed.
Alec remarked casually next morning, as the meek boy hopped about under his father’s orders:
“You fellows can’t say that I put the acid on him, but it’s there all right.”
“No; but he’ll be off the first chance,” asserted Rube.
“Not he. He’ll not forsake damper, and he’s too frightened of the old man. He’s the best of this crowd. I don’t know,” continued Alec, musingly, “that I’d rather be called a ‘flurry fool’ by a boy of that stamp than have him say, ‘Beg, pardin, boss.’ That’s the beginning of servility. It was low to pay him out for being smart. What do you say if we send him to school? He’s got the brains.”
Douglas shouted dissent. “I’ll be no party to that. He’s a fine boy. Are you for spoiling him?”
“Spoil him!” jeered Alec. “My mean dodgery and the old man’s poker! Wait till he sees through the trick. He’ll spoil us!”
An old, lanky blackfellow who, in his short face and habit of reticence, tallied with Addison’s unflattering description of himself, is old Billy —“Lazy Billy,” as the hustling white folks call him.
Billy and two gins, two unnamed piccaninnies, and an alien from the Malay Peninsula occupied three modest dwellings formed of bushes and palm fronds, on the verge of the sea. Many dogs were of the family, grotesque caricatures of dogs, lean to emaciation, hairless, and sorrowful-eyed with mange, and absorbed in the never-ending pasttime of scratching. They had no more than just sufficient courage and concern for the sanctity of the camp to make a whimpering bark at the sudden appearance of a stranger, hours after dark; and the barking kept time to the scratching. They scratched till they squealed, and then moaned and whimpered again.
It was getting late. The occasion was urgent, and the track through the jungle, scarcely noticeable in broad daylight, was absolutely undiscernible in the dark. As the dogs whimpered, and the piccaninnies — wearing one hat between them, and nothing more — blinked at my lantern, I made a bargain with Billy (a shilling and a stick of tobacco) for his services as guide.
Dolly tells me the news of the camp. She proposes to name one of her piccaninnies “Tapus” (Topsy), and while Billy dresses and equips himself, suggests that I “put ’em name belonga little fella.” Uncanonical though the hour, the rite is performed, and the blinking, shrinking, naked piccaninny will henceforth answer to Dolly’s rendering of “Tawny.”
“You no tchul-eep (sleep) first time?” Lazy Billy asks, with a yawn. “More better first time tchul-eep.”
“No, Billy. We go.”
“All right. We go. Tchul-eep bime-by plenty.”
For a quarter of a mile the track is as wide as the flat beach at low water, and as compact and smooth and noiseless as only fine sand packed by the thuds of the sea can be.
Billy indicates the turn-off with a flourish of his flashing tomahawk. Many an old bushman refrains from taking precedence in a narrow track, believing that a black boy is subject to an irresistible impulse for slaughter when occasions so favour. Billy is docile, and while I am in the lead he is far too seriously engrossed in keeping me in the right direction to think of bloodshed. So we blunder along.
“Hello! Where track sit down? He go ‘nother way. He loss.”
The lantern confuses Billy; but directly the light is obscured he calls out, “Ooo! Track sit down. Me bin catch ’em.” And off he goes in advance, and at a pace that I find not easy to maintain.
As we enter the jungle, the moist air is heavy with the breathings of a night-flowering plant, almost too sweet and rich to be pleasant. Outside, the subdued roll of the sea fills the ears. Here the myriad leaves strain and filter the sound of the sea to a mere sediment — a soft, indeterminate minimum, with which the nocturnal voices of the jungle blend. A tree-frog squeaks and grunts; some alert insect chirps, loud and clear; another calls furtively, in a dismal tone, half whisper, half whistle; a wallaby thuds ahead; a lizard makes a scatter among the leaves; a bird in fright flutters, blundering, among the leaves high overhead; the flying-foxes squeak and gibber among the fig-trees, as they say the ghosts did in the streets of Rome when great Caesar died.
Billy, no longer bewildered by the light, is well in advance now. A sense of locality and direction, more acute than is given to white folks, enables him to walk quickly, even where the track is obscured with weeds shoulder-high, and where scrub trees and shrubs mingle unceremoniously with neglected mangoes and oranges. I keep pace, faithfully following Billy’s noiseless footsteps.
Suddenly he stops. “Ooo! Look out!” He cautiously turns up his frayed trousers beyond his knees, “Look out! Se-n-ake sit down!”
“Se-n-ake, he sit down!” Billy points among an entanglement of fig-tree roots, which the quivering flashes of the lantern convert into dozens of writhing serpents.
“Se-n-ake! He bin sit down. Dolly bin kill ’em alonga waddy. Two fella ki-ki that fella; no more!”
By the precautionary baring of his shrunk shanks, Billy had prepared for the happy chance of any of the relatives of the particular “se-n-ake” which Dolly and Rosy had eaten for supper, being about. He would have attacked the beast to better advantage bare-legged; but there was nothing worth eating among the roots as far as we could see, and Billy, grunting with disappointment, strode on.
Though old and lean, Billy is a high-stepper and quick of foot; he never trips nor stumbles. This is his country. He knows every fallen branch, every root athwart the track, the sky-line of every tree in the open. His small eyes, set in a short, screwed-up, wrinkled face, are telescopically keen, and seem equally effective by day or night. Many coastal blacks refuse to wander about after sundown. Darkness and light are both alike to Billy. There is nothing to terrify him in the jungle; he sneers at the hint of a “debil-debil.” His ears catch the faintest sound. On the edge of the mangroves a big water-rat, dazzled by the lantern, skips a few yards, and halts, dismayed. Billy had heard its first faint footfalls, and points where it crouches, paralysed momentarily by fear.
All these acres of garden through which we have passed, once flourishing and fruitful, are fast relapsing into primitive jungle. SIDA RETUSA, Bathurst burr, cobbler’s peg, and the infamous “billy-goat” plant, have their unmolested stronghold whence to invade the whole district. A bamboo — a dwarf, ornamental plant in its distant native land — runs wild in this congenial region, forming an almost impenetrable brake, a solid base whence it is striding over the land.
Billy never pauses.
The narrow track runs up among the rocks, fifty feet above the sea. Only once is there a spasm of excitement during the long, silent walk. Billy jumps upon a rock, yelling:
“Look out! Look out! Poi-jon! Poi-jon belonga dingo — belonga Jack!”
Right in the cleft of the rocks, roughly widened to form a footway, lies a poison bait. “Jack,” who lives in the little house that he built on the terrace by the sea, paid tribute in the shape of sixty fowls this season to the cunning of the yellow dingo whose remains soil the sand below. The brute would not take bait, and after long waiting Jack shot him. Billy is terrified of the little piece of meat spiced with strychnine; but a venomous and alert snake he gladly encounters, for snake is good to eat! Billy is ever hungry.
A faint movement in the tree-tops, a fainter sensation of coolness indicate the rising of the land breeze. The tepid silence of the night is past, though at the bases of these steep spurs jutting out into the sea little of the refreshment of the night air is perceptible. The salty odour of the ocean is supreme.
A quarter of an hour more, and the house on the red cliff is reached. Do you pampered denizens of the town, with such resources of civilization as medical men, ambulances, telegraphs, telephones and cabs at command, realize the stress involved in the conveyance of a few hapless words of urgent news across five miles of sea and through three miles of lonely bush? My experience, in itself, was at least instructive, for all went well, the sea, the night, fate and some benignant star all favouring. Under other conditions and without Billy, the duty might have been difficult and dangerous, if not impossible.
Billy thought only of his “schillin’,” and having fulfilled his contract, demanded summary payment. A new set of wrinkles score his face at the sight of the shilling and tobacco, and, to my astonishment — for the night is far spent — he elects to get back to his camp. To the suggestion that he should sleep till the morning, where he sits, he dissents emphatically.
“Too tired! Me go alonga camp tchul-eep plenty;” and off he starts in the dark on the three-mile return journey.
All that matters has not yet been said about the recent cyclone which thrilled the people of this coast, threatened more than it fulfilled, caused much discomfort, did a good deal of unrecorded mischief, and inflicted real loss and hardship.
Some of the oldest inhabitants of a certain district are well assured that the big wind and flood were brought about by human agency for what the majority of us conceive to be a very paltry purpose. However deplorable some of the results of the disturbance, students of meteorology are bound to take into consideration every incidental circumstance, even though it tends in the direction of what in drama is known as “comic relief.” In the spirit, then, of offering some out-of-the-way information illustrative of the subject from a standpoint different from that of the ordinary “weather-prophet” is this story penned.
Those who read newspapers, and who consult and have greater or less faith in forecasts, official and others, and who find themselves elated or otherwise in accordance with the slow-moving finger of the barometer, generally confirm or deny one another’s sage observations after the event. We are all grateful for the “special warnings,” which in some cases (where telegraphic communication does not exist) seem to embody the spice of irony, coming as they do in cheerless print a week too late to be sensational.
Thackeray tells us that yesterday’s unfinished champagne is but a feeble representation of the staleness of written records of transient hilarity. How “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable” the “special warnings” which arrive at remote localities many days after the cyclone has done its worst; and how greatly are those inhabiting such spots beholden to the individual who not only boldly foretells such visitations, but sees that they are not only in accordance with his passing whims, but up to time!
It happens that in this district there is more than one such important person. They are natives of the soil, whose accumulated knowledge, handed down from self-confident father to undoubting son, is certainly (as far as “the long results of time” may avouch) in advance of such upstarts as the Commonwealth prophet, who relies upon day to day information. They who will give, on occasion, practical proof of capability to push back overshadowing clouds, laugh indecorously at the pretensions of a “doctor” who acknowledged inability to make commonplace rain during a superabundant wet season.
Of such class is “Old Billy,” who believes in the existence of a very singular species of debil-debil known as “Bidgeroo,” and many other weird things utterly beyond the comprehension of unromantic white men. Old Billy’s connections with the recent meteorological disturbance is summed up in a very few words:
“Old Billy, he bin make ’em milgar.”
In our arrogant assumption, we may have thought that it was due to a monsoonal depression. If we had all known that a week beforehand, Old Billy had performed the rite in which the “milgar” is the most potent paraphernalia, we might have saved ourselves the trouble of watching the barometer, and just have sat back and calmly waited the inevitable.
Old Billy’s warning anticipated the cyclone by a week, and as there are scores of men along this part of the coast still able to trace connections between cause and effect, Old Billy’s reputation has been triumphantly applauded.
The milgar is simply a spoon-shaped piece of bark which is put in a waterhole, and generally attached to a convenient root by a yard or two of twine, made from the bark of a particular species of fig-tree. A week after Old Billy’s deliberate act, the cyclone swooped down, accompanied by rains which made Old Billy and others very uncomfortable.
Now, a “doctor” of Old Billy’s renown does not resort to such extremes unless to work off spite or vexation, and as he is a silent man given to mumbling, it is not always easy to understand his meaning, though at times his gestures are wonderfully eloquent. On this occasion, however, there is traceable a reason for the exercise of his vicarious anger, if not vengeance.
He has a son, Charley, who took as a child-wife a poor slip of a girl named Mungallo, with whom he lived for some time. Then his still-wavering fancy was captivated by a young woman, slightly more mature, known as Nelly, who lived some miles away, being employed as a domestic servant. These twain practically eloped; but, after the topsy-turvy fashion of their kind, took up their quarters at an old-time spot and induced the juvenile Mungallo to live with them.
Soon Charley wearied of Nelly, and again smiled on his child-wife. Unhappily, the smiles were reciprocated, and soon the uproar in Charley’s humpy almost crowded him out. He found that if marriage is on the path to bliss, with just an occasional swerve in the direction of purgatory, polygamy is right on the track to the place where the company, if not the climate, must be very objectionable.
In due time his marital distresses came to the ears of his sympathetic father, and Old Billy — never on the side of the angels, for has he not had three wives? — forthwith made a milgar and put it into a very deep hole in the creek, so that the wilful females who were “too flash belonga Charley” might have something else to think about for a few days. That the wind and the tempestuous rain likewise interfered with his own happiness, was of little concern to Old Billy, who is a philosopher who can bear more than the toothache philosophically. But he was guilty of thoughtlessness. He forgot that about the time when the potency of the milgar would be working up to a climax, the tides would attain the highest level of the year. The bumptious surges threatened destruction to his own home and estate; smashed several boats, destroyed the best part of a laboriously-built jetty; flooded houses and lands; performed riotous deeds of beachcombing; and everybody talked weather for a week.
If Nelly had not been quite so pleasing a jade, if Charley had been less susceptible to feminine charms; if the injured Mungallo had bestowed her face and fortune on some other boy; if Old Billy had chanced to remember the incidence of February’s spring tide (which he was not at all likely to do, for he detests the sea almost as heartily as he does the Bidgeroo) we had lacked all the recent excitement, and many would have been better off than they find themselves to-day.
Old Billy, thinking only of Charley and the brawling females, worked up a compensatory storm. At least, such is the steadfast belief of scores of serious-minded men who have had yet another demonstration of Old Billy’s success as a rainmaker, who are consequently assured of the wisdom of refraining from acts likely to make him peevish, and in whose eyes he is “a prophet and much more than a prophet.”
As a rule, the Australian aborigines do not get credit for exhibiting ingenuity, though they have shown by their weapons, their fire-sticks, nets and other contrivances that they are not destitute of ideas. Until within recent times the race had to depend for its existence on its capacity to adapt material fresh from the hands of Nature to the supplying of its wants; but there does not seem to have been any marked progress in regard to the development of its weapons and domestic appliances, the style of which varies in localities while preserving general characteristics.
One of the examples about to be described shows very decidedly the influence of white folks; indeed, it is merely an imitation, and is mainly worthy of note because of the skilful adaptation of a gift of nature to a strictly utilitarian purpose.
Being somewhat envious of a stock-whip in the possession of the “boss,” a boy, who had been accustomed to work among cattle and liked to be duly equipped, appeared with a substitute, which he cracked with evident pride and to the speeding-up of the home-returning cows. As the boy is rather shy, and, avoided inquiry, no particular notice was taken of the whip until it proved in his hands its practicability. On casual examination, it was found to be neatly plaited, well-balanced, though light, and finished quite in accordance with the recognized art of such things. The wonder was how it could have been made in the entire lack of prescribed material. The handle and lash were of one piece. The boy had taken a straight branch of the beach hibiscus, known in these parts as “manjar,” stripped the bark off nine feet of its length, and cut out the wood, retaining a f oot with bark attached. He had then split the bark into four sections, scraped away the outer and inner layers, graduated the width of each strand, and made a neat plait.
The whip does, for the time being, due service; but the maker thinks it a bit light, and fears it may not last long. It is a local product from the butt of the handle to the cracker, and the latter, under the boy’s expert use, makes a sound like a pistol shot. Effective, neat, cheap and the work of an idle hour, what more is wanted among tenderly brought up cows? The chief point about the whip is not, however, its practicability, but the evidence it affords of the plastic mind of its maker. From childhood, no doubt, he would be familiar with the use of hibiscus bark for all sorts of purposes in which white folks would use tough string. The necessity for a whip arising, good material for its making was ready at hand, and the imitation of the manufactured article must be pronounced to be first-class.
The boy owes much, it is certain, to those who brought him up, and it is further noticeable that the voice of his young wife — they do not talk “pidgin” English — in quality and intonation is that of a white girl. In each case association with white people of practical and cultured ways has directly told.
Another proof of the readiness to improvise effective devices off-hand was directly due to the presence of a bigger school of mullet than is commonly seen close inshore. No spears were available, but one of the boys who became excited by the almost insolent daring of the fish, had a rusty tomahawk. He raced along the beach until he found a dry branch of the beach oak, about an inch and a half in diameter. With all possible haste, he cut off six feet, split one end crosswise, tapered each of the four parts, roughly pointed them, spread them by the insertion of two chips, rushed back to the water-line, and secured a couple of the mullet before the school were flurried into deep water. The fashion of the crude spear was true to that in general use, but its weight was much greater, and in the hands of any but a skilful man would have been quite impracticable. As usual in such circumstances, the boy took no credit to himself for having obtained at such slight cost a supplementary meal for three companions and himself. With a couple of pieces of driftwood one of them made a fire-stick, and within a few minutes the unlucky fish were broiling.
It had been intended to secure the primitive fish-spear, as a specimen to illustrate the skill with which blacks are in the habit of seizing ready-to-hand material to meet the urgency of the occasion, but it was found that it had been used as part of the fuel to cook the fish. The fire-stick, which had been carelessly tossed aside, was found days after and is still preserved — a finer example of the appliance than is usually sent, bedaubed with ochres, to museums.
While on the subject of the ways and means of the original owners of the land, it is worth while to recollect that there is reason to believe they were subject to restraints which prevented any advancement towards civilization. According to one authority, the country of each clan, or tribe, was subdivided into areas restricted to families, and weak families were literally eaten out by the stronger. There was no interchange of ideas, not the slightest attempt at the cultivation of the soil, and therefore no possibility of social progress. In one locality in North Queensland the most admirable and eagerly sought-after food was human flesh, and perhaps the next best dainty was a python, or the egg of a scrub-fowl containing a forward chick. It is suggested that even in districts where food was comparatively plentiful the race, before the advent of the white usurpers, was gradually dying out, and that epidemics raged through the continent occasionally, with direful results.
There are grounds for the belief that the blacks even suffered from an infectious disease similar to influenza, which they described as sickness of the mouth and nose. It caused the death of a great number.
Human knowledge will be struck off the world’s records before we know all that is to be said about a gnat. — FABRE.
When the smoke of the belated steamer was a mere smudge in still air far to the south-west, and there was naught to do but to wait for tidings, good or bad, from the sick and discomforted world — the din of which actually reaches these placid scenes — was it not meet to study the sand, a field of intense though noiseless industry, of edifying determination, of competitive forces working undesignedly to a common purpose, of exemplary utility?
In treacherous dimples the ferocious ant-lion, with mandibles one-third the length of its body, lies in wait for its prey — no king of the beasts more alert or more sudden or sure. Let a wandering ant venture beyond the verge of the trap, and the loose, fine sand slips under its tread; it slides to the bottom of the pit; there is a heave of the sand, and the ant disappears. But ants and their enemies are not the only intelligences in the raw sand. If that plume of smoke the steamer wears but keeps its distance, another and more primitive creature may make itself known.
If you believe that Nature’s restorative operations are performed unceasingly, with never-failing design and often with the exhibition of wonderful power, you may not be altogether astounded at the antics of seemingly inanimate things. On this flat a year ago was a thick sward of grass, perpetually mulched by millions of needles from the beach oaks. The cyclone buried both the grass and the mulching, so that the new surface was unprotected from shifting winds. To encourage the growth of plant-life retentive of sand, Nature employs certain advance agents, the successive office of each of which is to create ever so meagre an amelioration of the harsh conditions. Behold how one of these agents works.
Ordinarily the fallen needle — or branchlet — of a beach oak (CASUARINA EQUISETIFOLIA) is absolutely passive. Like the tree of the Bible, “In the place that it falleth there shall it be.” But here is one with its terminal spike of withered flowers that moves, though lacking apparent impulse, with a succession of jerks. It may be ten inches long, light of course, yet unaccountably mysterious in its actions. The terminal plume lifts and sways, as if some unfortunate creature were semaphoring signals of distress. May these dry things live and brave the light of day with frolicsome waverings?
Look at the other end, and for a moment the mystery deepens. It is slowly settling upright in the sand. Was ever conjurer’s trick more entertaining! Take hold of the plume; you will find a weak resistance to the strain you exert, and then the needle may be withdrawn. Let it lie for a moment, and again it apparently becomes invested with life. The plume lifts from the sand, wavers, and begins to heave itself upright, the frequent pauses in the operation proving that the task is a mighty one, demanding rests. Carry investigations a trifle further, and you will discover a sand-coloured grub, a trifle more robust of figure than the needle, holding the end with mandibles backed by definite purpose. Not one-tenth the length of the needle, the insect exerts almost magical strength, and is, moreover, endowed with determination to obey the dictates of Nature. Though apparently disliking exposure to the sunlight, yet, should the needle be withdrawn from its grip, the insect after an interval slowly and cautiously emerges, hastens to it, drags it once more to the entrance of its shaft, and withdraws, the waving plume registering each tug.
It is as if a six-foot man were to take hold of a flagstaff about a third the circumference of his own body and ten times his length, and retreat into the sand, dragging the staff with him. There is a circumstance, however, in favour of the herculean grub. Its shaft has been dug beforehand, though the entrance closes automatically and is not discoverable on the surface; further, it has a casing of web, reinforced with minute grains of sand. The shaft may be traced down six and eight inches. When you look about, you will find similar operations in progress by the dozen over every square yard of the sandy area. Indeed, in some places the casings of the shafts are so close together that there may be three or four in the space of a square inch. Some occupants are working on needles, or portions thereof, three and four inches long. The higher-minded grubs, those that tend to improve the conditions of the multitude, try to get ten-inch needles down eight-inch shafts, and not only try but succeed; for do they not nibble away the superfluous length, and as they nibble does not the plume tell of gigantic concentration of effort, crowned with the flourish of success? Thus do these sober-tinted, scarcely discernible grubs check the mobility of sand and make loam upon which plants may feed and be vigorous!
On the brief and hasty excursions of the insect above ground in search of food in the bulk, the mouth of the shaft closes automatically, as if controlled by a sphincter muscle. It seems quite safe to conjecture that it lays an invisible thread of gossamer thence as far as its quest lies, and that it is provided with terminal appendages for the opening of the entrance; for, on seizing the end of a needle, it retreats, with never a glance behind, as briskly as it advanced and with unhesitating precision to the spot whence it emerged. Tail first it descends; the mouth of the shaft closes round the needle, which gradually disappears, leaving not a trace.
By carefully clawing the sand a section of a shaft may be exposed, the casing being so frail that it falls away on the vertical face. The thrifty creature may have stored as many as twelve pieces of its food, varying in length from a quarter of an inch to an inch and a half. Here it is revealed, bolt upright, and so preoccupied with its nibbling that it does not on the instant seem to be aware of the disturbance of its quarters. When it does, it slightly curves itself and becomes passive. The bottom of the shaft is distended into a pocket by the weight of accumulated pellets of excrement. In some cases the quantity is about half a thimbleful. However alluring it may be to elaborate this point, with Darwin’s classic chronicles of the operations of earth-worms in mind, any such attempt would savour of parody. It would appear that the office of the tender caterpillar is that of a maker of manure; and it may have to be more highly organized than an earth-worm so as to perform its special duties in unpromising circumstances. The loose, recently-driven sand, from which all salinity can scarcely yet be leached, the dry, harsh needles, the enormous appetite of the insect — such are the materials and such the impulse with which Nature fulfils a magnificent purpose.
Swift declared that whoever makes two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before does essential service to his country. The sand-caterpillar and other living instruments of Nature that prepare hostile soil for the first single blade of grass, are they not entitled, also, to some sort of recognition?
To deal particularly with the spinner of sand, let it be said that the few caterpillars sent in spirits to a Museum did not reveal anything upon which to establish the identity of the perfect insect. It therefore became necessary to study the history of the insect throughout its transformations. First attempts to domesticate the caterpillars were successful beyond expectations. They were found to be tractable, or indifferent, under restraint, content and healthful under novel conditions, and submissive to frequent disturbances.
Disappointment having attended many attempts to discover the sand-spinner in the pupal state, it was necessary to confine the larvae and await developments. To this end a dozen were housed in a capacious tin half filled with damp sand, well supplied with casuarina needles strewn on the surface, and enclosed with wire gauze.
The period of the larval stage was not definitely ascertained; but it is safe to assume that it is limited to a month. In the course of a fortnight four had passed into pupae, having converted sections of their silk-lined shafts into cocoons. These were transferred to a glass jar containing damp sand, over the mouth of which linen was stretched and secured.
In its early stages the pupa fidgets on the slightest disturbance; but presently becomes insensible to the lightest touch. The chrysalis is three-eighths of an inch long and dark brown in colour.
On the fourteenth day the perfect insect emerged — a plump moth, silvery grey with pale brown smears, and apparently more comfortable in the dark than in daylight. With nothing to commend it in appearance, the moth is far less engaging than the active, eager, ever-hungry caterpillar; but it displays one quality that excites pity — almost furious resentment of the restraint upon its liberty. With one exception, the moths emerged from the cocoon during hours of darkness.
These specimens and observations were duly communicated to Dr. A. Jefferis Turner, of Brisbane, and from him came an assurance of new knowledge having been added to entomology.
Since it seemed possible to obtain more intimate knowledge of the life-story of the humble little stranger which conceals its doings in the sand, and under the veil of night, further efforts were made. Two full-grown caterpillars being confined in a glass jar half filled with sand and rationed with casuarina needles, both, as fortune would have it, afforded opportunities for the observation of their secretive ways. For two days each seemed to be content to lie passive, just covered with sand. Then both excavated shafts from the surface to the bottom of the jar, one following the inner surface, and thereby exposing the full depth of the shaft. In the making of the shaft the sand was displaced, not removed. the side being compacted until it was firm and smooth.
Food was drawn to the bottom in about half inch lengths. The insect emerged from the shaft, seized the end of a needle, backed to the trap-door mouth, descended tail first, bit off a convenient portion and drew it to the bottom; reascended, drew down a further length, retired with another convenient piece, and so on, to eat and repose.
Four days elapsed before the next process towards security and comfort was undertaken — the silken lining of the shaft, a slow work, apparently pursued with that economy of material in which Nature often rejoices. On the sand-face the shaft in section was delicately cased, but the glass side was not blurred with a single thread.
In his first letter on the subject, after receiving specimens of the moths, Dr. Jefferis Turner remarks that they represent a very interesting discovery. “Not only is this a new observation, but the moth is unknown to science, and its larval habits are most unexpected in the group to which it belongs.” He adds that it belongs to a very large and cosmopolitan family and to the sub-family of CRAMBIDAE, and that he thinks “it is one of the large genus CRAMBUS, though I will not commit myself to this absolutely until I have made more detailed examination. The species of CRAMBUS are mostly grass-feeders, and I believe none of them has habits anything like those you have discovered. Perhaps we may name the species CRAMBUS AMMONTHES— that is to say, ‘A Spinner of Sand.’”
Though the sand-spit is riddled with silk-lined shafts, each caterpillar lives a solitary, independent existence. The whole scheme may be said to represent an organized plan for the conversion of a waste material into a fertilizer, with but little loss, as it would seem, either in bulk or weight. So evident is its singleness of purpose that each humble insect might be deemed to be capable of realizing that its period of activity is far too brief for slackness — that waste of time and opportunities is not to be tolerated.
It is a beneficial work silently performed, and unostentatiously, too, save for the flickering here and there of the disappearing standards; performed, too, without fumbling or blundering by creatures that most of us regard as composed of little else than disagreeable “squash.”
Under natural conditions, a blank exists in the life-story of the insect. Though it is quite easy to obtain specimens of the larvae during a period of six months of the year, and to get them to pupate in confinement, so far not a single specimen of the pupae has been found in the sand or elsewhere. Larvae are to be found in all conditions of size and age, even to the state when they appear to be on the verge of transformation, the grey tint of the body changing to ivory yellow; but, though the pupae of other insects are frequently noticed, this stage is at present a problem except under artificial conditions.
Judging from the alacrity with which metallic starlings begin building their nests on their advent in August of each year, and the earnestness of family duties during their sojourn of seven months, it is conceivable that but for the positive check of the wet season they might maintain the vigorous fulfilment of these duties the year round. Early and persistent rain sends them off with evident reluctance. When a preliminary downpour has rendered the nests uninhabitable, a fine interval has so far deluded them that they have started to demolish and rebuild, only to be driven away by the recurrence of inclement weather. Governed by its incidence, they seem to detest the rain.
With rare exceptions, the starlings come to this island during the first ten days of August. Seldom do they shriek and glitter in forest and jungle after 20th March. In a typical year they appeared on 5th August, whereas at a locality on the mainland, only seven miles away, they were noticed a fortnight earlier. A colony which had established itself, time out of mind, on a slim Moreton Bay ash-tree (EUCALYPTUS TESSELLARIS) in the heart of the forest, hatched out three, if not four, distinct broods during the season, which lasted until 30th March following. Originally the colony was sixty nests strong, and the first brood was hatched out within twenty-six days, evidence of the fact being given by portions of stained egg-shells on the ground beneath. In six weeks the number had been increased by thirty. The second hatching took place early in December; the third about the middle of January; and there are indications of a fourth late in February. Rain during January and February was not sufficient to annoy or embarrass the birds.
On 30th December three nests were found beneath the overladen tree. In each were three slightly incubated eggs. Each nest was carpeted with fragments of fresh green leaves of Moreton Bay ash, torn and nibbled at the edges. What office do the green leaves perform? Possibly the pungency, agreeable to the human sense of smell, may be obnoxious to the insects which fidget adults and chicks — in which case the adults may wittingly provide, and, in a degree, macerate, the leaves for the annoyance of the lice.
On 4th February the colony numbered 125 nests, and on that date two more overweighted branches came down. In several of the nests were fledgelings, all save two of which were killed by the fall or were worried to death by green ants. One of the survivors died shortly after discovery of the disaster. The other — an independent, self-assertive, ill-mannered imp — lived in and about the house for a couple of months.
The adult metallic starling is remarkable for the colour and lustre of its eyes, which are ruby-red and glitter gem-like. The eyes of the castaway were deep brown in infancy. Not until a month after it had become the most noisy, impatient, and impertinent member of the household did the eyes begin to change; nor was the reddish tint primarily permanent. In quiet moods the eyes were washy-red. Excitement and anger deeply tinged them. In fact, the tints of the iris varied with almost every pulsation, the emotions of the excitable sprite being expressed in more or less richness of red.
At the age of six weeks it was estimated that this small orphan bird, in the care of interested mortals, consumed daily food sufficient for a human infant. Its menu included oatmeal porridge and milk, rice, mango, papaw, bread, cake, large white grubs, caterpillars, mosquitoes bloated with human blood, March and other flies, grasshoppers and samples of every other edible unprotected from its raids. It would feast on the scrag end of a neck of a decapitated fowl with as much apparent relish as on the skin of a mango!
Having early in life acquired a taste for milk, it declined to spoil its thirst with water; since, moreover, it was free and was alert, quick and questioning, it made itself understood, and generally got that which it wanted at the moment, if not with goodwill then by force, persistency, or fraud. It took baths regularly, being especially fond of the “blue” tub of the laundry, on the edge of which it would perch, to duck and sprawl therein; and there it would stand to be well soused, screaming with glee.
Young birds from the same colony were wont to visit chilli bushes in the garden, but with them the pet did not, for several weeks, make friends. It soon learned to take chillies, though the first knowledge of that diverting fruit was disastrous. Instead of being swallowed whole, it was broken up and deliberately tasted, and with a shriek of dismay and flooded eyes, sparkling like embers, it flew to the kitchen, imploring the consolation of milk. Ever after, chillies were bolted.
Occasionally the orphan would camp on a mango-tree; but its accustomed bed was in a small basket under cover, the lid of which was kept open to the extent of half an inch by a chip of wood at one corner. At dusk the bird would dash across the kitchen, to disappear beneath the lid like a jack-in-the-box, and if, an instant later, the lid was lifted, the intruder would be warned off with an admonitory hiss.
In no sense affectionate or lovable, its departure was at least consistent with its character. From a convenient mango-tree it darted on to the edge of a dish being borne to the fowl-yard, tasted of its quality, and danced on to the shoulder of its mistress, just as a flock of its own race dashed past. With a shriek it followed — never to return.
The history of the little bird was instructive, affording information as to the variety and quantity of food it consumed. Perpetual hunger was a marked condition, and the digestive processes, being very imperfect, demonstrated the value of such an agent in the distribution of seeds. Millions of seeds with unaffected germination must be transported hither and thither by various colonies of starlings every season, to the advantage of the vegetable kingdom.
A contributor to an English review is inclined to wonder whether the starlings of the Old Country “do not possess some strange occult sense of organization which in the long process of evolution may carry them higher and higher in the scale of creation.” That Australia’s native starlings do benefit by the laws of community there can be little doubt; but their socialistic habits appear to invite the raids of snakes and hawks. It is not uncommon to find a grey goshawk in possession of the tree in which a colony is established, and all the adult birds crowded on another close by, whence they timidly watch the enemy. The hawk does not appear to have wit enough to raid the domed nests; but it awaits a chance of dashing among the alert birds that have exercised themselves in manoeuvres of evasion.
Late each season the flocks assemble for the performance of these tactics, in which they act as though the separate entities had but a single brain. Not only in times of peace, but in the presence of a baffled and exasperated enemy, they cleave the air in acute angles with almost instantaneous changes of direction, shrieking in unison.
The assurance with which snakes raid the nests was illustrated a few years ago, when notes were being taken of the habits of the birds. Goshawks had harried the colony so frequently that visits were made at intervals with the gun, and on one occasion, while I was waiting for a shot, a big black snake shuffled slowly towards the trunk of the tree. By its demeanour its very thoughts might have been read. Cruel, crafty, arrogant, it seemed to assert its dominion over other beasts of the field and the fowl of the air; nor did it turn aside though passing within a foot of the watcher. It wriggled its own length up the smooth trunk — and fell back headless on the report of the gun.
Sired by a sunbeam, born of a flower, gaiety its badge, might be said in fable of the sunbird, as in temperament and tint it parades its right to such parentage. Sprightly, sudden in many shifts, not disposed to be over-trustful — yet for its diminutiveness, gay colours, habits and inconsequence it is likeable if not lovable, a gem to be thankful for and to admire. An ornament in the garden, a shy, fragile habitant of the bush, artificial rather than a work of unassisted nature, it seems to understand its frailty and to take, perhaps, unnecessary precautions against the assaults of enemies, especially during the nesting-season.
Occasionally the nest is built under the verandah. A pair, bolder than the others, selected the boatshed, where both building and incubation were subject to many interruptions and yet successfully concluded. Generally independence is preferred, and in forest or on the fringe of the jungle or on a branch overhanging the beach the nest will be found; and always it is so artfully draped as rarely to be detected, apart from the presence of the builders. An example may be described.
As it passes from maturity to decay the spathe of the commonest of the pandanus palms becomes brown and mildewed, and, caught by the prickle-edged leaves in tufts and shreds, the flowers may hang loosely in the air. One such dangling plume became a source of trivial annoyance, for it was suspended over a frequently traversed path just high enough to flap the face of the heedless passerby. Other leaves of the palm were similarly decorated all showing the processes of change and decay more or less conspicuously. In course of time that which had occasioned many an unconscious swerve littered the path, still clinging to the sword-shaped leaf, and in the midst was an unsuspected nest in which a brood had been reared.
Different in its concealment was a nest woven on the frayed end of a strip of bark still attached to the trunk of a massive tea-tree. Threads of the bark were interwoven with the body of the nest, and a graduated strand was the customary pendant. But for a chance visit from the male bird, with his yellow chest and blue bib, the gently swaying nest would never have been noticed.
Do such birds consciously conceal their nests? Are not their only enemies snakes, which depend on the sense of smell, not of sight, and are accordingly not subject to illusions which the elaborate deceptions seem designed to create? As far as outside show goes, the completed nest is a tattered, tapering remnant of inanimate nature, with an entrance so secret and downcast that the parent bird seems to enter from below, while within it is cosy and softly lined, befitting the occupation of chicks with an inborn leaning towards comfort and safety.
Though the nest may have no delusive effect on a marauding snake, its lightness, insecure situation, and the obscurity of the entrance may in combination afford a fair measure of protection. So, with or without design, the frivolous sunbird outwits the reptile which was wont to be emblematic of subtlety and craft.
Nests under the surveillance of human beings are simpler exteriorly than those of the bush, no trouble being taken to adjust them in appearance to their surroundings; and not a single local instance can be cited of an attempt to blur such nests other than by a trivial tail-piece. Those who scoff at the suggestion that birds are capable of apprehending the object to be accomplished may be able to explain why the sunbirds do not blindly obey the laws of instinct and efface nests under artificial cover with oddments, making them as usual, things of shreds and patches. Whether they were aware of the needlessness of concealment, or whether in the lack of suitable material they abandoned the habit, are questions for others to discuss. Here is one who, like Rosa Dartle, “wants to be put right, if wrong” in believing that birds and other creatures of less mental equipment than ourselves have, at least, the faculty of varying the habitual performance of an intelligent action in accordance with necessities and circumstances.
The shrill, small voice of the sunbird is almost indistinguishable from the stridulation of one of the leaf insects, which makes its amorous noises in the evening as well as during the sunny hours. Frequently both sounds are heard in confusing blend. Many times have the red hibiscus bushes been searched for the fitful, flittering sunbird in vain, while the red-eyed insect which hides under the mimicry of a pair of green leaves has proclaimed its passion with impatient fervour.
The insects were plentiful, but the birds had been rare during a considerable interval, the cyclone of March, 1918, having destroyed so many that for a time it was feared they must be counted among the losses due to one devastating night. During this year (1921) the birds have shown signs of recovering the lost ground, so far as numbers are concerned. A family of six on the crown of an umbrella-tree gave welcome proof of increase; and, though without appeal to the sensual ear, were not the hasty twitters of the sprites sounds of triumph over the storm which, having ravaged beaches, scarred hills, maimed every food-providing plant and driven strong-winged birds across the sea, had merely checked for a season the well-being of the weak?
Science does not recognize distinct association between the sunbird and the humming-bird of America, yet in habits and in certain poses resemblance may be traced. Both live on minute flower-frequenting insects, and refresh themselves with nectar. Both poise over the flowers they visit, though the accomplishments of the sunbird in the feat are less assured, less frequently displayed, and of less duration than those of the “miniature miracle of nature which delights to revel among the honeysuckle bowers.” The ancient Mexicans believed that the humming-bird suspended its animation and its body during the cold season of the year; that it drove its long bill into the bark of a tree and thus spent the rigorous winter, waking at the coming of spring, to feast on spiders and quaff honey. True to their familiar name, our sunbirds are silent during the rains of the wet season; but on the first gleam of sunshine they bustle among the flowers, performing pretty feats of agility and joining in a musical competition with their neighbours of the leaf.
Boldly located, but so shaded that it blends with the scene, the nest of the North Queensland sunbird is artless compared with those of two relatives native to North Borneo, in which concealment is exemplified on altogether different principles. Three singular nests are referred to in A NATURALIST IN BORNEO, by the late Robert W. C. Shelford. A brief quotation may be pardoned on the plea of the value of comparisions. One is described as a hemispherical cup of interwoven fibres covered with skeleton leaves, slung by silken threads to the under surface of a large leaf. The suspensory threads (obtained from spiders’ webs) “are passed through holes made in the leaf by the bird’s bill, and the ends are twisted up into knots to prevent slipping.” This one is said to be not only fairly secure from observation but well protected from snakes. Another, composed of skeleton leaves and fibres and bast, is placed between two growing leaves pegged together with bits of stick. A third bears some resemblance of that of the North Queensland species, being a pear-shaped structure of bark fibres and cocoons of silk-weaving caterpillars, with entrance at the side under an overhanging eave. It dangles from the end of a bough.
In the selection of sites for nests, in style, material and manipulation, sunbirds must be credited with exceptional skill. These are external matters from which each species benefits in accordance with its lights. In proof of regard for general welfare — for the preservation of the type — it may be pointed out that they adhere to one principle. Though the breasts of males are vivid, the backs of all conform to the tints of vegetation, so that during moments of stillness the gift of invisibility is theirs. They do homage to the sun, glory in its patronage, mimic its rays as they gleam and flicker among reflecting leaves, and while at rest simulate shadowed ones.
But what is this? One of the sweet creatures, discovering a tiny spider lurking in a corner of the window, flutters against the incomprehensible glass, taps it with pointed bill, and, baffled, flits off, tittering with vexation. Better its company in the sunshine than these shady studies of its architectural skill.
Strange ministrant of undescribed sounds. — KEATS.
Australian, truly; but, unlike the emu, the black swan, the lyre-bird, the kookaburra, and others, the swamp pheasant is not exclusively so. Familiarly known as a pheasant, and having one feature at least in common with the family, it makes no claim to direct relationship. Science seems somewhat bewildered by its contrarieties; it is placed among the cuckoos, its formal title being CENTROPUS PHASIANINUS— pheasant-like spur-foot — while the approved vernacular name is a combination, pheasant-coucal.
In common with most birds, the swamp pheasant has its exclamatory season. During the cool months it seldom breaks the silence; when the leaves of the purple-fruited terminalias begin to redden and fall, when the native nutmegs are soft, furry and brown, and before the calophyllums blossom, the pheasants, responding to the universal thrill, assume their status as the loudest (save the harsh-voiced channel-billed cuckoos) and most persistent singers of the forest Perhaps the term “singer,” applied to sweet-voiced birds generally, should not be associated with one of such original and powerful style. Mellow and fluent though they be, the utterances are not indicative of gladsomeness nor of a sprightly disposition; nor are they songs.
Melodious recitatives rather than harmonic themes, such as are sung by some honey-eaters or by metallic starlings in their rare intervals of restfulness and communication, the fluencies of this lover of the moist earth seem to typify favourite resorts — to be earthly, not aerial; assertions of the joys of this world rather than compliments to the skies. And when bird follows bird in varying keys in the transmission of its sentiments, until the voice in the distance sounds like a far-away bell, the listener will, if in harmony, give thanks for a psalm that proclaims happiness, peace and lively hope.
Has any poet attempted to rhyme its moods and music, any artist shown it save as a staid creature incapable of frolic and destitute of fun? Ideally at home on the peaty margins of pandanus swamps, revelling in seclusion, rejoicing triumphantly in otherwise silent places, a lover of sunshine as well as of cool shades, the long, dusky bird, when accustomed to the presence and the ways of man, surely reveals its gift of humour; else why those pranks, swinging its tail, ducking its head, ruffling itself to twice its natural bulk while chortling impertinences? Why, otherwise, does it squat on the frond of a coco-nut palm, spread out like a remnant of frayed bark, and, peering down, parody the terrier below?
The mimicry of the lyre-bird, the tinkle of the bell-bird, the songs of the lark, the warblings of the magpies, the strangulated paean of the butcher-bird, the melodies of the thrush, the hearty glee of some honey-eaters, the call of the whip-bird — all these find rendering in verse; but the swamp pheasant’s melodies, the richest, the purest, the loudest of all, have they been immortalized? The bird’s most prosperous sphere, the warm, moist coast, has yet to produce its poet, and southern versifiers may have ignored it for the reason that few have had the privilege of listening to it — also, perhaps, because it is not quite at home anywhere save in the tropics, and does not give of its best where least at ease.
This earthly psalmist of rare felicity in the expression of its emotions seems proud of its gifts and fond of exercising them. Harken now to the succession of full-sounding, slow, booming notes, accentuated by balanced rests, as if the vocalist were conscious of a flawless performance and studied it with the air of a libant, pausing between sips of the exquisite. Listen again to the quick, crisp, trippingly airy outbursts of merriment. Are they improvisations of a thoughtless moment, tossed into space? And how delicately do a pair in concord harmonize as, perched on a dead limb, they make musical a square mile of attentive forest!
What is richer, more inspiring to serene and lofty thought, more soothing, less worldly than the bubbling chant heard on a September midnight, when the winds are still? Wakened from innocent and happy dreams, the bird seems to assure its fellows that all is well — not boisterously or in loud and authoritative terms, but in tones bespeaking sympathy and love. It might be repeating that chiming phrase
He, watching over Israel,
Slumbers not nor sleeps.
A few seconds of thrilling silence, and another organ-voiced dreamer of all that is consoling takes up the theme, in the same subdued, hushing, almost apprehensive cadence. It is the warranty of mutual confidence and hope, blended with supplication for preservation from the perils of the night. A distant sleeper responds cautiously, each note distinct and mellow; and so the sound is borne away until lost in musical throbs, and the whole Isle has heard the pheasants reassuring each other against the powers of darkness.
Grand in their solemnity and comfort, the night notes are in sharp contrast with the varied exclamations and happy calls of the day. Surely there are but few birds gifted with such a range of vocabulary. Its undertones, its purlings of satisfaction, confidences to its mate, harsh protests against the presence of an enemy, sneers at those of whom it has no fear, joyful performance of its scales in unison with a lighter-voiced companion, defiant hoots, each and all explicit and characteristic, provide never-ceasing entertainment.
Among the many Australian songsters is there one more accomplished, one that more eloquently extols the sweetness of freedom, that croons to itself so like a flute in tone with a zephyr, that scolds a hawk in the sky or a snake in the grass with such fervour and decision, or unconsciously repeats the echoes from a belfry in elf-land?
Besides being a chanter of the pleasures of life in the fervent regions, the good bird is a gallant defender of its home, an attentive spouse, an industrious provider, a bully, a bombastic sort of knave, a fighter for its rights; no tremulous socialist too weak to whisper, but a hearty individualist making the best of opportunities, with a good and playful word for everyone, no fear of anyone and some sort of greeting for all.
Careless, happy-go-lucky, unreflective as it may seem, surely in obedience to the first law of Nature the swamp pheasant displays high intelligence. Generally the rough, loosely-built nest is hidden in tall, blady grass a foot or so above the ground, the grass stems being bent to meet above it in the form of an arch. Occasionally the site is a low bush, and the grass structure is then interwoven with twigs and faded leaves. Wherever situated, it looks like a crude basket with a disproportionate and impracticable handle; but its design does the builder credit. While the arch covers the back, neck and head of the brooding bird, the tail extends beyond, and the greys and browns of the upper feathers blend with the neutral tints of the withered vegetation, so that concealment is complete. When the bird is absent, the arch screens the conspicuous white eggs, and, in due course hides ugly, black, almost repulsive-looking chicks, each sparsely clad with long, white, hairlike feathers.
The eggs of most ground birds are, of course, tinted in accordance with the environment of the nest. White eggs demand protection, hence the artfulness of the swamp pheasant. Can there be any doubt that the scheme of disguise is the result of conscious purpose, and accordingly different from the primal gift of green backs to gorgeous-breasted fruit-pigeons, birds destitute of outstanding characteristics and pitifully crude in nest-building?
An authority on protective coloration says that, in consequence of all wild creatures being lighted from above, a gradation of shades from dark on the upper side to light on the lower is the one great principle running through organic life, and is “exactly what is needed to render solid objects inconspicuous under descending light.” Aberrant in other respects, the swamp pheasant disobeys this law, and justifies its disobedience by inconspicuousness. In a notable habit the bird does seem conscious of the wisdom of nullifying its appearance. Settling in an exposed position, such as the top of a stump, the tail is drooped and slightly expanded, and the wings held loosely and languidly, the effect being that the black underparts are more or less effectively screened by brown and neutral tints, so that the bird becomes, though not invisible, an unattractive item, a blank in the scene not at all likely to arrest the eye. It is not to be assumed that the listless, helpless attitude is designed to lure an intruder from the nest, for it is practised at all seasons.
Except the universal foe — snakes — the swamp pheasant has few, if any enemies. Why then the need of caution during sunlight, which snakes do not court? There are grounds for the belief that the bird, confident of general security, braves possible foes, for as often as not on becoming a blur it repeats a singularly harsh cry, to the accompaniment of a trick of the body that flouts the theory of self-protection. At each jeering exclamation the tail, spread like an open fan, jerks over the back, and the head ducks, note and action combining in bombastic self-advertisement.
However vain speculations on the reflective powers of birds in general may be, the swamp pheasant, possessing original qualifications as well as oddities, may be studied as a superior to “lesser breeds without the law;” and if it has also the virtue of being able to enjoy its own antics, then grant it all possible goodwill, and interpret its actions in flattering terms.
Few wild birds are less skilled on the wing. Speed and grace in the air were not considered when its form was in the making; since most of its living is earned on or close to the ground, little more than the rudiments of flight have been acquired. Although able to rise from the ground, its angle of ascent is low, its speed slow and anxious, if the bird be under the influence of excitement.
Alighting on the branch of a tree it generally loses balance, almost toppling over; the long, loose-jointed tail then comes into action as a counterpoise. Having secured foothold, it jumps and scrambles higher and higher, more like a timid cat than a winged creature, and from due elevation labours to another and loftier tree. Even the great gift of effortless descent to Mother Earth is not exercised with boldness or skill, being undertaken as a thrilling, adventuresome feat not wholly free from risk; and the landing is often both awkward and ungraceful.
Neither truly of the ground nor of the trees, the realm of this exceptional bird is among the shrubs and tall grass, where insects are abundant and cover convenient. However entangled the undergrowth, it moves with ease and considerable speed, with shuffling, almost reptilian wriggle, secreting itself suddenly and cunningly, and bursting into flustering flight to avert capture by hand.
On this Isle, where birds are on terms of equality and are encouraged to exercise their rights, the swamp pheasant has become a familiar. Does it realize that it may be impudent and scoffing without forfeiting goodwill? With an air of defiance and bravado it may sweep along the path to the beach, chuckling and sneering, head tucked between hunched shoulders, or retreat into the maze of blady grass, side-glancing invitations to a game of hide and seek in which it is bound to win. And when, on occasion, one with more than common effrontery sits on the gate-post as you pass through, is it not polite to make obeisance, since it represents the community which had charter of the Isle ages before the intruder made free of it?
To such a friend you may bow with genuine respect. It has flattered you with trustfulness; has killed off innumerable plant-destroying insects; has saluted your ears day and night for the best part of the year; has exasperated you by the persistent din of a far-sounding plaint; has taught you that a bird of clumsy and laggard flight may be the embodiment of good-humour. With organ voice it has gloated over the joys of the moment, and its intoned monody on passing woes
Sounds ever as a sullen bell
Remembered knolling a departing friend.
More than a mere bird, it has come to be loved as the good genius of the Isle, for it typifies many of its features besides its liberties, humid shades and babble of running water.
Early on the morning of Sunday, 16th January 1921, for — as far as observation goes — the second time during close on a quarter of a century, a flock of swifts passed over Dunk Island.
The species was not definitely ascertained; but it may have been the spine-tailed, the conspicuous feature of the “white-rumped” not attracting notice. Some flew so high as scarcely to be visible, while others hawked, close to the bosom of Mother Earth, in company with the ever-present swiftlet, in pursuit of termites then issuing from their dark, moist quarters with agitated haste. For over four hours the birds partook of the hospitality of the Isle, but when a gentle north-east breeze sprang up the call of the South became irresistible; still wheeling lingeringly, they responded, the only motes in the transparent blueness of the sky.
Whensoever during daylight flying termites emerge from the soil, they are subject to many perils. Lizards and ants seize them at their very doors, the former gobbling on the spot, the latter carrying them off. Among the birds none seems to appreciate the trifles as keenly as the swiftlets, which become, in so far as such mild and gentle creatures may, bold and fierce in their raids. Though showing no fear of human beings, even when the home cave is visited, swiftlets cannot be considered among the familiars of man. A bird that rarely rests during daylight, except when brooding, and is as free as the air, neither fears nor favours its admirers; but when the wings of ants and termites glitter in the light of the newly-risen sun they disdain the presence of onlookers.
Shall we stand for a while to watch the varied behaviour of banqueting birds this steamy morning, when the passing of the wet season is denoted by the mingling of the fragrance of the last blossoms of the tea-trees with the sweetness of the first of the wattles?
Wood-swallows swoop down on the swarms, cut through them time and again with quick alternations of soaring and fluttering, and resume their perch on the maimed bloodwood tree, there to vaunt tense white vests. Always prim and clean, always loving kinship, there they sit as close together as peas in a pod, and when one darts out for another mouthful, its relations, complacently twittering, shuffle away the empty space.
Confident in every movement, beautiful in every aspect, the rainbow-birds (MEROPS) circle with sunlit wings among the small fry in the unruffled style of the adept; but bees and other prey of like size must be borne to a convenient roost, there to be battered and swallowed gluttonously, with effort and exertion. Though the birds journey in companies in open order, meals are taken independently, each selecting a convenient resting-place and enjoying its pleasure somewhat sadly.
Clinking and clattering, the spangled drongo, solitary when family duties are over, scuffles among the crowd in brief raids, fidgeting and fussing meanwhile, an impatient spectator of more accomplished fliers, though an alarmist, a scoffer and a bully if a hawk intrudes.
Meek of voice as well as of demeanour, the leaden fly-catcher takes toll from the insects that drift nearest its lowly perch, where, apparently far away in spirit from any sort of adventure, it twists and turns in agitated expectation.
The rhythmic evolutions of the bolder of the feasters — a bewildering succession of curves and undulations — might be an unstudied ballet; or they might represent a throng of fairies weaving, with gossamer imperceptible to mortals, a complicated design on the blueness of the sky and the greenness of the foliage. For all the fervency and haste, no jostlings or conflict of claims to the best share of a profuse gift disturbs the harmony of the pattern.
On foot a hopeless cripple, on wing the picture of ease and grace, the swiftlet wheels in circles of varying radii, interrupted by turns of excelling certainty. Audaciously fearless, it often passes silently within arm’s reach; when on the instant it swerves within a few inches of your head, then and only then a wisp of sound may be heard.
Splendid are the gifts bestowed upon the little bird in compensation for degenerate legs, which, to vary Shakespeare’s phrase, nothing can but cling — eager, defiant, persistent flight, as swift almost as light, as silent as dawn, and sight marvellous in acuteness and adaptability. At one moment it flies as effortless as the drift of wind-blown thistledown, the next as unwaveringly as an arrow. Does it not often race the fast-fleeting light? In company with semi-blind bats it scours the dusk, taking toll of insects that sport boldly in the dark, and in an instant shoots over the hill and down through the gloomy jungle to its quarters, there to thread its way along crevices a hand’s breadth wide, and to alight without hesitation at the edge of its nest among hundreds of others on the roof of an obscure dormitory.
Swiftlets’ nests are unique among those of Australian birds. Restricted by reason of aerial life in the choice of material, the bird makes a framework of vegetable substances consolidated with saliva. In one cave all the birds had used as a base a grey-green moss, which hangs from trees in specially damp situations and can be seized during flight. Another and considerably larger colony favoured what appeared to be the stems of a thin, wiry grass, and on the only occasion on which they were caught in the act of nest-building all were filching dried “needles” from beach oaks (CASUARINA EQUISETIFOLIA), picking and choosing without slackening speed, each carrying off a single strand.
On a dull day the single white egg seems to glow as if it were slightly phosphorescent; perhaps that effect is produced by a slight reflection from the grey gelatine which forms a considerable part of the nest.
Delicately formed, sober in tint, with a fluff of grey at the base of the tail, short of beak and woefully lacking in leg, the swiftlet is well proportioned and planned for its part in the scheme of Nature; this is to keep in check certain winged insects of destructive character, that otherwise might make the life of man miserable and defeat his efforts to become a habitant of lonely places. What quantity does a single colony dispose of between dawn and dusk? When the local supply runs short, the daily range for forage must be considerable; but what is distance to a creature whose speed may be safely estimated at over a mile a minute? The rivers of the mainland, the mangrove swamps, the lily lagoons are pleasant and profitable resorts, and the open spaces miles further inland are available at the cost of a trifle of time. It is safe to assume, too, that a bird of such high power must exhaust its vital force rapidly, and that there must be constant renewal. Two or three colonies represent, therefore, free agencies operating for the benefit of man to an extent and worth beyond estimation.
When the homing birds appear at dusk there is no slackening of wing. They have flown and feasted, probably without cessation, all the hours of light, and now for rest. Daylight abroad is not for chatter either; but do they ever shuffle each into a tiny nest or cling beside a brooding mate, without greeting associates with a gritty sort of twitter? — just the sort of sound appropriate to a home in the hollow heart of a granite boulder, bewilderingly dim on the brightest noon.
Deprived as it is of the impulse of legs, how does a frail, light bird, submissive to all the functions of life on the wing, rest and incubation excepted, rise from a flat surface on the rare occasions when it alights? Fly-like, it clings to the slanting roof of its home, thence drops, and is away. That is easy enough. But it has been seen to rise from unlittered, level sand, and the feat is performed so quickly that the effect is as if it were tossed upward by a force foreign to itself. No doubt the instantaneous impact of both wings against the sand gives the initial impetus. Scores brooding breast deep, and one after another popping into the air, present a sight that few have had the privilege of witnessing, and for that reason a recital of some of the features of the scene in which the feat is performed may be acceptable.
A few miles from its mouth one of the rivers of the mainland is constricted by an encroachment of sand which has edged its course against the opposing side; there a high, muddy bank, reinforced by the matted roots of water-loving plants and trees, resists erosion. The swirling stream runs in a sharp curve round the tail of a bank whereon crocodiles drowse in the sun. If they themselves do not happen to be apparent, the furrows of hasty launchings are there as evidence of the presence of ill things in these lovely waters. There, too, on the sand squat swiftlets, easy of conscience and not to be flustered by a passing boat. With a flicker, as each wills and wishes, it is on the wing, to gorge in the teeming air. You listen for the sound which should accompany so explosive a movement, and catch merely the melodious calls, the whimpers and twittering of birds of but trumpery skill in flight; and you wonder which gets the best out of life — the pampered dwellers in the paradise of slim-shanked palms, where swamps and sludge belch clouds of delicious insects, or the adventurous wanderers that set distance at naught, that are silent, that share with crocodiles the comfort of warm sand and rejoice in the liberties of the upper air with eagles!
Since the swiftlet is among those birds of Australia whose habits and manners have not yet been studied closely, it is incumbent on the part of an individual who has opportunities for observation denied to expert ornithologists, to record trivial and homely facts illustrative of its life-history, as well as its conspicuous qualities. In this consideration a cloistered virtue ought not to be ignored.
From early infancy the chicks observe the most primitive of sanitary laws, being at pains to avoid the fouling of their own nests. Though it would, perhaps, be absurd to suggest that they may be endowed with a special sense of delicacy because of the singular fabrication of the nests, it may not be beyond reason to assume that the offspring of creatures that delight in the cleanly air may manifest instinctive dislike to dirt and discomfort.
Of what are known as “true swifts,” four are attributed to Australia. Two of them breed in Siberia and Japan, and travel as far south as Tasmania; another, the builder of the edible nest, is said to be an occasional visitor to the extreme North of our country. The swiftlet, herein referred to, is the only one of the family known to breed here; moreover, its breeding-places are confined to the coastal tracts of the North. It is the duty, and should be the pleasure, of North Queenslanders to see that so useful and distinct a bird for ever escapes the penalties of rarity.
Wild birds play, and in their pastimes show all their beauty and gracefulness to advantage; the airs often assumed in their ecstasy are evidence almost of pride in the effect that their antics and feats produce on the mind of the beholder. In many parts of the coastal tract of North Queensland a singularly important little bird — a member of the crow family — is fairly plentiful. To him I would appeal as witness in support of the opinion that birds gloat over their superiority to man in respect of flight.
The spangled drongo is black, but not so black that a shade of greenish purple is absent from his shoulders. He has a decidedly crowish head and bill, brownish-red eyes, and a long, fish-like, forked tail, which he has the habit of twitching or flicking to emphasize the meek, clinking tones of his staid and sober moments. Though a bird of the forest, the drongo chooses resorts adjacent to the jungle, and, (in my experience) invariably selects the Moreton Bay ash for nesting. Among the thin, grey-green leaves, far towards the end of a branch, the nest is fairly safe, though conspicuous. But if the nest were not easily seen, the drongo is not of a disposition to allow anyone to pass without noticing his demure spouse, whose long tail sticks out with matronly pride over the edge of the nest of twigs in defiance of all conventions. He “cheeps” and she answers, for she is just as fussy over the business as he is vain. Most birds are secretive in respect of the serious occupation of their lives. The drongo and his consort make as much of it as possible, advertising it far and wide, and they follow and feed their young, making much noise, long after the nest has been deserted.
In many ways and attributes the drongo is a character. Conspicuous, noisy, self-assertive, fussy, and inconsequent, it might be thought that his duties in the harmony of nature were of little concern to others. But, as a fact, he is so useful and so brave that the lives of many others would be attended with greater risks and be less comfortable and happy if his species were exterminated. Many other birds he bullies most impudently, for he has a voice “like Mars, to threaten and command;” but his office is peaceful; for he is head of the detective department. He owns no deputy. He glories in his work, which he performs with the utmost vigilance. The chief enemy of other birds — domestic as well as wild — in this locality is the grey falcon. Whensoever the falcon comes, the drongo makes proclamation and follows him, using language calculated to provoke a breach of the peace. Domestic fowls understand enough of the drongo’s dialect to take up the alarm when he sounds it, and my dogs, well acquainted with the language of the fowls, fuss in response, so that I am almost instantly informed of the presence of the falcon. Of the ruddy-backed sea-eagle, and of the osprey, neither the drongo nor the much-petted fowls take the slightest notice; but a falcon cannot escape detection, and, when three or four drongos make common cause against him, flies away with a sulky air, followed by volleys of such wrathful, feather-ruffling language that two or three days may elapse ere the black detective has another case on his hands.
Shrewd and observant as is the drongo, he does not devote all his leisure moments to the office he so well fills. When he takes his pleasure, he throws his whole soul into it. His delight is triumphant, his ecstasy transcendent. Yet one is inclined to the belief that he “shows off,” conscious of the admiration that is his due. Since few of the antics of wild creatures so vividly express frenzied joy and gladness in life, such utter abandonment to the blissful passion of the moment, an attempt to describe an aerial feat performed almost daily for my special edification cannot be foregone.
All birds save the bloodthirsty, sneaking falcon are privileged, but none understands the rights he enjoys as acutely as the drongo, and none takes such liberties. So when my ears are assailed by a hopelessly discordant jangle, I know that my friend the drongo is ringing his bell as a preliminary advertisement to his superb act. As he jangles, “out of tune and harsh,” he impels himself with all his might up into the air almost perpendicularly. At the extreme limit of flight his utterances change, and with stiffened wings, distended to the utmost vertically over his back, he casts himself headlong towards the ground, to the accompaniment of a torrent of twittering, too sharp and rapid and violent for distinct enunciation.
Has the wilful bird gone mad that he should deliriously dash himself to death?
Can he possibly check himself?
Just as one feels constrained to rouse him to a sense of the danger from his giddy feat by a sharp exclamation, the drongo spreads his wings, and, with an impudent whistle, flies off to a tree, to “chink” and “clink” as he flirts his tail with self-satisfaction over the neat performance of an exciting and incomparable trick.
In the evening, at this season, the drongo makes himself quite at home. In the soil, in the cleared space about the house, are thousands of ivory-white grubs which, when they develop into chubby brown beetles, are regarded as dainties by birds. But the beetles, realizing in a dim, earth-encumbered, lumbering style that it is fatal to emerge either in broad daylight, when many enemies are about, or when night has fallen and the wailing stone curlew and the sedate mopoke and the noisy “chop chop” (nightjar) are prowling, choose the few minutes of dusk for their exit from the moist soil. Then the drongo comes, and, apologizing for his intrusion with a few meek “cheeps,” makes the best use of his time. Sport being exciting and the game delicious, he swoops and darts until he is bewildered by the darkness. How intensely human is the drongo! In his distress he sets up a loud and appealing “jangle;” this plaint is immediately answered by his home-keeping consort; off he flutters, guided by her continuous calls, and the upbraidings and the explanations and consolations continue for fully five minutes.
A few cute old domestic hens, taught by the drongo, wait up after the others have gone to roost and hunt the booming beetles in terrible earnest — but they sneak off to their perches without exciting comment. Note the unconcern of the polygamist!
Lest in time to come statements of the past concerning the plenitude of bird-life on this island should be discredited, and the author of them declared to be untrustworthy, it is due that fairly recent observations, the drift of which is anything but pleasing, should be placed on record.
When the sanctity of a scene unsoiled by the faintest smear of civilization was violated by the establishment of a human’s home, the number and variety of its birds formed one of several most attractive features; and it was resolved to protect them in so far as the power of a single admirer might be effective. This ordinance was followed by a suggestion to the Government of the State that the whole of the group of which Dunk Island is the largest should be created a sanctuary. The proposal was confirmed forthwith, and for more than two decades all birds, save two predatory species, have been unmolested.
It was natural to expect that the result of the policy indicated would be a progressive increase in species and individuals, until these islands became the resort of an innumerable concord of happy birds — indeed, that as the years passed there would be few native to North Queensland unrepresented in an undisturbed community. These anticipations have not only been unrealized, but hard facts show that, instead of increase, there have been, with few exceptions, serious decreases in species, and in some instances absolute loss.
Students of bird-life, while sympathizing with the failure of an experiment in which Nature was to work her own will in her own way, may be interested in a brief review of the circumstances. They are sure to be concerned over the results, for do they not indicate general as well as local conditions from which it is not possible to draw consoling conclusions?
Early in the occupation of the island an attempt was made to compile a list of its birds; and eventually, with the co-operation of friends possessing exact knowledge, a census was made without the sacrifice of a single life. It was never expected that a list so arranged would have the least scientific value. Such a result was not contemplated, the only objects in view being the welfare of the birds, a tribute to them, and the presentation of a plea for those of Australia generally.
To one who disclaims expert knowledge, who regards birds from the standpoint of aestheticism and sentiment blended with utility, who fears that Australia as a whole has not yet learned the worth of many species peculiar to the land, and who cons the steadily-growing “extinct list” with dismay, local experience might seem to prove the futility of preservative plans. Though countenanced officially, the moral influence of individuals is sure to fail. Moreover in some instances even the authority of the State is powerless to arrest conditions destructive to birds of restricted range and secluded habits. Material progress is not to be checked by a shy bird fluttering across the path; but the stern reproof, “Too late,” may yet be averted in respect of many species if the community as a whole makes demand.
These reflections, however, stand apart from the present purpose, which designs to tell in what manner and why a project that promised much personal satisfaction failed in so many details.
The bird census of the island comprised every species observed, even casual and rare visitors, and mere wanderers resting, perhaps for an hour or so, during continental flights. In one instance a bird never known to alight was included — the spine-tailed swift, which occasionally tarries for a meal in the air. In the list of disappearances those that came shyly and departed with haste will find no place; but it will include those whose sojourn was wont to last for a few days and to be deemed recurrent.
Comparison between the census and the depreciated numbers of recent years show that from the birds of prey the sparrow-hawk, kestrel, black-shouldered kite and black-checked falcon have disappeared.
Out of forty perchers eleven are missing — yellow oriole, yellow fig-bird (SPHECOTHERES), black-backed magpie, black-headed diamond-bird, helmeted friar-bird, silver-eye, and the blue, pied, shining, white-eared and spectacled flycatchers.
The purple-breasted and white-headed fruit-pigeons, pied oyster-catcher, masked and golden plover and the plumed egret have not been seen for years, and among the sea-birds the lesser crested, sooty and bridled terns find no place at date. (1921)
With the exception of swiftlets, scrub-fowls, swamp pheasants, brown-winged terns and pied cormorants, an all-round decrease in numbers has to be recorded, and no species save the brown-winged tern has the credit of increase.
Among the more notable species showing decrease are:— Nutmeg, red-crowned and little green pigeons, metallic starlings, rainbow-birds, rainbow lorikeets, white cockatoos and mistletoe-birds.
Inquiry into the causes for the disappearance of birds from this sanctuary discloses several interesting facts. Easy as it will be to demonstrate that destructive agencies range from cyclones directly to orange-pips indirectly, to specify all will be impossible; but an undoubted truth emerges upon even a superficial glance at the subject — that birds of gregarious habits which happen to be endowed with the gift of beauty, or are in any way associated with what is known as sport, are the first to be doomed.
In the latter category is the nutmeg pigeon, than which no bird on the coast of North Queensland is better known, more talked about, or more conspicuous. Because these pigeons congregate in communities on the smaller islands for breeding purposes, the casual observer is apt to over-estimate their numbers and imagine that it would be impossible to exterminate what seems to be one of the superfluities of nature. The big white birds, hanging in clusters on low trees bowed and bent by their weight, offer seductive targets, and on the morning after a raid the sand may be white with rejected dead, while chicks mumble in hundreds of nests and the white eggs (one in each nest) begin to decay. Unless patiently cooked, the birds have no attractive qualities on the table. Those who shoot them, therefore, cannot reflect with an easy conscience on their achievement. Neither the “sport” nor the table has afforded gratification, and the deserted nests and the fate of the orphan chicks stand to the “sportsmen’s” discredit if not disgrace.
The absolute disappearance of nutmeg pigeons from the more accessible islands seems as inevitable as the passing of the blacks, and it may be stupidly sentimental to make lament; but the process brings into light an unworthy national trait against which no opportunity of railing should be lost. If it were realized that it is not only unsportsmanlike to kill nesting birds, but stupid also and inhumane, clean-minded men would scorn the deed. There are others who scoff at any appeal to manliness and sense, since they possess neither, and cannot appreciate those qualities in others, and that class, mischievous and beyond the reproach of words, ought to be dealt with roughly.
Pretty to look at, right glorious in the enjoyment of freedom, harmless in every sense, and without doubt useful and necessary in the scheme of Nature, cannot such birds, even if otherwise undesirable, be preserved for all time? Or are we to assent to the charge of being uncouthly selfish, viciously cruel?
Positive as the causes for the decimation of nutmeg pigeons may be, it is difficult to account for the like disaster to another gregarious, migratory bird. Metallic starlings come every season from regions nearer the equator, arriving with the pigeons. They are more plentiful on the mainland than on the islands, and generation after generation nests in the same tree, hatching out three or four broods between August and March. It is well to confine consideration of the evil times that have befallen these handsome and useful birds to circumstances and conditions on this island.
Twenty years ago there were four populous colonies here, and in time two others were established. One had existed from time whereof the memory of man went not to the contrary. It lasted until overthrown by the cyclone of March, 1918. Another colony, in a gigantic milk-wood tree, must have had an annual output of over a thousand birds each season. A summary decrease in population was noticed, and in two seasons the tree was deserted. Similar conditions apply to two other colonies in milk-wood trees, and at date of writing not a single colony exists here, though a small one is established on an islet a mile away. During the period mentioned the birds were free from interference. Why the loss?
Birds living in crowded communities may be more susceptible to epidemics than those that favour isolation; but no sign or evidence of disease has been noticed. Each succeeding year representatives of the several colonies returned in fewer numbers until occupation lapsed, and this fact indicates that the loss is not due to local causes. Is the ubiquitous collector of bird skins responsible?
White cockatoos, strictly protected here, pay penalty for having acquired a taste for citrus fruits, especially oranges and mandarins; they are shot by fruit-growers of the mainland, exasperated by the slovenly ravages of flying foxes and the indecencies of fruit-flies. The Dunk Island contingent, which was wont to fly to and fro daily, suffers with degenerate mates. Since the temptation is of recent date, the liking of the birds for the forbidden fruit could not have been in obedience to original sin. It can be traced to the corruption of good manners by evil communications. In a district about fifty miles to the south, where natural food is less abundant, cockatoos began to eat the seeds of the commonest of the guavas (an introduced shrubby tree which, having overrun considerable tracts, is now treated as a pest), and thence to orange-pips was an easy step in wickedness. Gradually the habit spread north, but it was twelve years ere the innocent birds of this neighbourhood fell from grace and came under the ban of outlawry. Now they have passed to another stage of sin. Surfeited with the superabundance of the orange groves, they nip off the ripe fruit, apparently for the pleasure of watching it fall, and thus waste more than they destroy in satisfaction of hunger. Punishment is off-hand and severe; but the cockatoo is a sly bird, and often the fury of the fruit-grower expends itself in merely verbal explosions.
The deplorable scarcity of other species, such as the noisy pitta, the sunbird and the flycatchers (with one exception to be referred to), is to be debited to the great cyclone. No sunbird, one of the daintiest, liveliest and prettiest of the residents, was seen for about a year after the disaster. White-eared flycatchers disappeared mysteriously, although they had been strong in numbers, and had been regarded as one of the permanencies. They ranged from the tops of the highest trees to the lowest bushes, and during the flowering season of the tea-trees were particularly conspicuous and active. Then they could be seen at any hour of the day enjoying themselves among the bottlebrush flowers, where the buzz of insects never ceases from dawn to dark. This bird had been first seen by MacGillivray on this island in the year 1848, being described by its discoverer as “a new and handsome flycatcher.” Neither nest nor eggs have been found, but no attempt at systematic search therefor was made here, because our interest in bird-life does not lie in that direction. If the secret had been casually revealed, well and good. If not, it was enough that the bluish-grey-and-white bird, which was wont to choose the topmost twig of a garden shrub whence to announce its friendly calls and, with fluffy ruffle extended, to tell of its gladness in fluty chuckles, was one of the special features of this domain. The chief regret is not that it failed to give a clue to the solution of an ornithological secret, but that it departed from the Isle without any apparent cause. Hope of its return, however, has not been abandoned.
Another and very different class, the terns or sea-swallows, owes its serious losses to conditions as bold and as inexorable as fate, and it would be unwise to conclude that the present scarcity is anything but temporary, while accepting the facts as illustrative of events that may happen elsewhere. The terns did not assemble in great numbers until several years after the establishment of the sanctuary, their coming being attributed to its existence. Disturbed elsewhere, they had found security within its borders — such was the flattering conclusion derived from the ever-increasing population of Purtaboi, the islet in the bay. For many seasons it teemed with busy and sportful birds, living and breeding in such conglomeration of species that, were it not for extraordinary cuteness, blunders of parentage must have occasioned riots. The noisy, fussy, smelly community was accepted as a happy augury of a future when other birds would come to place themselves under protection.
Then a series of absolute checks was imposed, the final disaster occurring on 3rd February, 1920. Has it not been common knowledge from the days of the earliest observers of weather that “the sea without winde swelleth of himself sometime before the coming of the tempest,” and that, though presaging birds often give to human beings timely warning of a coming storm in advance of men of science, they on occasion fail to save themselves from the effects of an impressive combination of natural phenomena, however frequently repeated?
It may be presumptuous to assume that birds familiar with all the moods of the ocean might have anticipated the results of a heavy swell coincident with high-water spring tides — full moon occurred on the 4th — especially when generation after generation had suffered under like conditions. Be that as it may, four species of terns, absorbed in the rearing of the third brood of the tides, were overwhelmed and practically exterminated.
Above the limit of ordinary high tide half an acre of coral strand had been strewn with eggs in such profusion as to create the impression of lavishness and waste. The fledgelings, on the slightest disturbance, would crowd together like frightened lambs — they were, too, lamb-like in colour, in muteness and obedience to the herd instinct — while anxious parents directed them from above with continual cries. Then, in darkness, the surges swept the strand which had been the birthplace, the feeding and playground of successive broods, young and old being destroyed by thousands.
Next morning the beach of this island was strewn with the dead bodies of chicks. Some few had battled successfully against the waves, and now, disturbed by a sympathetic observer, waddled to the “still vex’d” water’s edge and, gazing in the direction of their native islet, made unceasing lamentation. In the mass the tones of terns are thin and shrill, but the individual voices of the derelicts — plaintive, pure and vibrant — sounded sweet and touched a tender spot. Not one whimpered, though many staggered with weakness. Each uttered its grievance against fate vigorously and with a thrill of passion, as if protesting that it had been treated callously and against the ethics of Nature. The strong, insistent, expressive plaints of the birds in their distress and weakness, and the individuality thereby betokened, contrasted strongly with common impulses of the crowd in the enjoyment of comfort at home and its silence.
Now for the effect of this harshest of lessons on the part of Nature. This year but three species of terns visited the islet. A few black-naped terns, and fewer ternlets, laid eggs on the strand, and the brown-winged — which incubates in miniature caves and grottoes and under shelving rocks, and is therefore unaffected by tidal inconstancies — had a most prosperous season, the colony dispersing stronger in numbers than ever.
During September, the flowery month, and the early part of October many parts of the coast of North Queensland are decorated with a plant of remarkable beauty, which seems to have escaped general notice, though well deserving the admiration of all who take pleasure in purity, in simplicity of form, and in rich perfume.
It is the fate of most flowers that grow in deserts, where no man abides, to die uncommended; but this delightful shrub, sometimes developing into a small tree, is a denizen of country which is desert only in the poetic sense, for the soil is fertile, the rains frequent and abundant, and (as a consequence of stimulating natural conditions) given over to glorious vegetation, varied in character, refreshing to behold in the mass, and teeming with novelties which make appeal to all lovers of plants; and not without rarities to those who make even casual study of the science of botany. Though conspicuous by reason both of flowers and fruit, this desirable plant has no common or pet name. Botanists have termed it RANDIA FITZALANA. It belongs to the same family as the gardenias, and in common with several of its relatives is endowed with strong and pleasant perfume.
F. M. Bailey describes eight species of RANDIA native to Queensland, five of which are confined to the tropical North, ranging from Cape Upstart to the Gulf of Carpentaria, three being especially heavily scented. One of these three seems to prefer dry and barren hills. The word “seems” is used deliberately, for the stunted tree with its scant, creamy-white flowers has not the habit of a plant with a real love for soil and sun, though it bestows a blessing on its surroundings when refreshed with dew. Except in a botanical sense, there are no features of resemblance between this hairy-leaved endurer of the drought and the habitant of the jungle under notice, other than in its perfume.
Just now on this Isle are scores of specimens of the glossy-foliaged shrub on the very margin of the sea, flowering profusely. Many of the leaves are about six inches long, smooth and shining, the flowers of the purest white, and the scent that of the family in its quality of pervasiveness.
RANDIA FITZALANA seldom flourishes when fully exposed to the sun. Its place is rather under the shade of taller and sturdier vegetation, and it finds ideal conditions alike at the mouths of shrub-obstructed creeks and among boulders overhung with trees and screening vines, where the struggle for existence always seems tense and unnecessary. Is it a sort of conscious vanity which impels the graceful plant to occupy deeply-shadowed, if not gloomy, spots? There, at least, are its intensely-white starry flowers set off to the best advantage, and there they last longer and breathe out becoming odours which for the time being monopolize the attention of the passerby. Simple in form, the flowers are produced in loose, irregular groups, and are proportionately thick and leathery, with less tendency than others of the family to become brown when fading. Posies of the white flowers appear scattered among the glossy leaves, looking like patches of enamel, precisely cut; since there are few winds to disturb such sheltered, well-embowered scenes, the effect is that of formality and primness contrasted with the unkempt, disorderly luxuriance of the jungle.
Large, rotund fruit follows the flowers as a rule, but this season has been so gracious that some plants are displaying flowers and fruit simultaneously. The latter, however, may not ripen for months, and when it does so, though attractive by reason of its size — that of an average orange — and yellowish colour, it is inedible, being hot, insipid and astringent. Blacks confess that at times hunger has driven them to it, but many other vegetable products of repugnant appearance are preferred to this seductive-looking fruit. One cannot with easy mind complain against the laws of nature when a plant which gives pleasure to the eye with its big leaves and white flowers, and ravishes the sense of smell, yet fails in respect of edible fruit; but it may be quite within reason, and in no spirit of fault-finding, easy to imagine that in time to come some ingenious and patient horticulturist will set to work to improve the fruit — and so, peradventure, bestow on the world a novelty which, like the orange, will produce fine foliage, deliciously perfumed flowers and a something excellent to eat. When the crude forerunner of the orange is compared with one or other of the fine species of the day, evolved by restrictions upon natural laws, it does not seem to be impossible so to develop the fruit of RANDIA FITZALANA that the edible qualities not now easily recognized may become dominant.
The plant produces seeds abundantly, so that experiments might at least be made on an extensive scale. It belongs to the same family as the mangosteen, and that relationship is at least in its favour, though indefinite enough, when its possibilities are pondered. In the meantime, its fascinating qualities are conspicuous, and naught but gratitude is herein expressed for its presence under delightful conditions and under no restraint from the hand of man.
Though the plant affords abundant evidence of its preference for shade and comparative coolness, occasionally it is found among huge granite boulders scorching to the touch on blazing days, and within reach of sea-spray; but in such situations — with roots matted in the coarse crevices — it may be hardly recognizable. The leaves are small, scattered and dull, and the solitary flowers make appeal not for admiration but for pity. Stunted, burnt and scalded, the plant strives to fulfil the exacting laws of Nature, and in its extremity solicits sympathy and proffers a mere whiff of attenuated perfume.
It is a gracious plant, under all conditions and circumstances
. . . . nor loved the less
For flowering in the wilderness.
Low tides occur during July, August and September, and lay bare to the sun considerable areas of the reefs within the Barrier, which at the opposing period are revealed only to the gleams of the moon. Then is it wise to make opportunity and, equipped with a fish-spear and a canister to contain delicate specimens of marine fauna, use the two hours of the afternoon in pursuit of novelties. In the degenerate condition of the corals of the shallows in the vicinity of this island it is also wise to restrain expectations, for the marvels of fertile reefs, though represented, are not common. In the flurry of the receding tide, however, all sorts of strange creatures are heaped, and, taking refuge under blocks of dead coral and in isolated pools, may be accepted as typical of the fauna secure from scrutiny on the deep-water reefs.
Lately three or four species of what are known as mantis-shrimps have been found and sent to one or other of the museums. These crustaceans have a range extending throughout the warm waters of the Pacific, but being of necessity shy and secretive — for they have many enemies — are not often seen, at least in these parts, where time for investigation is limited. It is found on inquiry that others who have a much wider range know little or nothing of a most interesting animal. As the familiar name implies, the mantis-shrimp has a feature in common with a popular insect — the praying mantis, flycatcher and voracious feeder, which has been known to seize and eat a small frog.
One of the specimens submitted to the Australian Museum at Sydney is thus described by an expert on the staff:
“The specimen presented is most acceptable, since it is new to the museum collection. It is a representative of a group of mantis-shrimps, the members of which possess peculiar claw appendages in which the last segment shuts down like the blade of a pocket-knife. These claws form very efficient weapons, and it is because of their position that the resemblance to the common praying mantis gives them the popular name applied to the insect. Mantis-shrimps are generally found in shallow water, burrowing in the sand or hiding in the crevices in rocks and corals. They are described as lying in wait at the mouths of their burrows, darting out on fish and other animals, which are seized with their great claws, and retreating with great rapidity to the bottom of the burrow with their prey. They have a long series of larval stages, and the larvae are all distinguished by the large size of the carapace (the shield covering the back) which in some cases envelops the greater portion of the body. In the warm seas some larvae attain a relatively large size, sometimes exceeding two inches in length, and the glass-like, transparency gives them a striking appearance. During the larval stages they swim at the surface, and the influences of the ocean currents account for their wide distribution.”
Differences in size, appearance and colouring are noticeable among the representatives of the family, even in a limited area. One, the most formidable, attains a length of ten inches. It is a weak, almost broken-backed creature, with a most resentful and sudden temper. Although its wonderful weapon has been frequently found on the beach, only one living specimen has been secured, for its habits appear to be nocturnal. The burrow is in the centre of a low, flat-topped mound in unctuous mud fortified with sand, and generally its inhabitant is not at home. One came up on the bait of a fishing-line at night, and presented such a dazzling effect, as it was lifted into the boat, absorbed with its prey, that it was handled rashly. With lightning-like rapidity it struck, and the biggest and sharpest tooth of its scythe pierced the tip of my finger. The deed was so sudden that, although the blow was felt, there was no immediate pain, but blood flowed as from a far bigger wound.
The weapon resembles a scythe in shape, but is unlike that implement in that it is fitted with a series of comb-like teeth, exceedingly sharp and graduated in length. At first glance the limb supporting it appears to be malformed, for it bulges at the elbow joint into a “dumb-bell,” weighty compared with the size of the animal. The purpose of this development is obvious. Does it not correspond to the biceps of human beings, putting wonderful force into the blow? The creature, trained by nature to defend its life and secure its prey, uses its weapon with precision and skill. It kills and at the same time clutches.
One of the family, developing along different lines, is even better of its hands; remarkable to tell, it carries a cestus of hardened shell as a means of protection and enforcing its rights. From the structure of the limbs it is safe to assume that neither of the species delivers a forward, but rather a descending, hammer-like blow, and the mimic pugilist’s design is, no doubt, exactly the same as that of the prize-fighter. The twinkling blow stuns the victim, which probably never has time to come to. As far as local knowledge goes at present, the boxer is found in these waters only in a small form, which can deliver but a feeble, almost affectionate tap; but it seems that its “dumb-bell” elbow joint is bigger relatively than that of its cousin with the slender-toothed scythe. Some one has said that nature seems everywhere in advance of those inventions of which we, as men, are so proud. The mantis-shrimps, afford two examples of the truth of the saying.
In that fine book, A NATURALIST IN BORNEO, the late Robert W. C. Shelford describes a giant of the boxer kind, which when dropped into a glass tube full of spirit shattered it with a blow. He concludes a detailed description of the animal thus:—“The action is as rapid as that of a strong spring, and the force of the blow has to be felt to be appreciated; I am quite certain that it is sufficient to stun any small fish or crustacean. It is conceivable that a stunned animal could be held and quietly devoured.”
No available reference to the mantis-shrimps mentions a most attractive feature, the lovely and fanciful colouring. Some are honey-yellow, some moss-green, some drab, some decked out with all sorts of fringes and finery in delicate and living tints. In the sunlight the hues change and sparkle with intensity. No jewel polished by the skill of man flashes forth more vivid and more varied splendour. Nor is any human acrobat more supple or more agile, as an incident connected with the preservation of a specimen for expert examination demonstrated.
Dropped into limpid fluid in a tube so narrow that reversal seemed impossible, one of the lovely creatures performed a series of somersaults with rapidity bewildering to sight. For a few seconds the tube seemed to contain an agitated tumbling mosaic, compact of all the gems of the world. Was ever a fight for life so fierce and so futile? Was ever a death scene so gorgeous? It was glorious. It was shocking. From such another spectacle of death-agony and brilliancy may the fates protect us! Unlike the powerful representative of the family in Borneo, it was unable to shatter its prison walls. There was no possible escape in the circumstances, and deliverance would have been but added cruelty. When, at last, it was still, upright in the transparent cell, its fore-limbs in the posture of supplication, it was not a museum specimen, but an unspeakably pathetic object appealing for a vow of abstinence from all investigations involving the sacrifice of life. Worth such a gallant struggle, its little life seemed too precious to waste deliberately, even in the cause of science — and be sure, had not the experience been exceptional, some drowsy drug would have eased its pangs. The lesson of that scene, illuminated in tints unstainable, unfading, will live as long as memory.
In some countries blessed by the living waters of the Pacific certain species of mantis-shrimps are eaten by the natives, six making a good meal. Here they do not appear to be plentiful enough to afford a change of diet. Besides, whose is the haughty stomach that demands a meal of delicate jewellery? Better perhaps to souse them in formalin, after a preparatory whiff of chloroform, for the edification of the learned folks of the museum.
Among the many living things that contribute to the never-ceasing attractions of a coral-reef are those which depend for their existence on association with others remarkably different in appearance, character and habit. Observers of skill and experience have proved that the association is for mutual benefit; but in some cases, and those of the more obvious nature, the advantages may appear one-sided.
What gain is it to certain species of fish to have a rotund crab in a cell in close proximity to the eyes — a phenomenon, it should be said, by no means confined to the warm waters of the tropics? And what advantage is it to the shark and turtle and dugong to have the company of sucker-fish? The latter, of course, is spared the exertion of self-propulsion through the water, and the host may not be seriously inconvenienced by the slight additional tax on its energy; but when, as sometimes, the blacks use the sucker-fish as a means for the capture of its erstwhile host, the end is tragedy.
It is easy to appreciate the reasons for association between the huge, bright-blue anemone, common in tropical waters, and a tiny fish of wonderfully brilliant tints. The latter hides from its enemies in the folds of its host, and seems distraught with anxiety if, as it flits above and around, it is by a sudden manoeuvre driven a few inches therefrom, to be easily captured. In addition to a tenant which is believed to be welcome, the blue anemone has been shown to be troubled by multitudes of small crustaceans, the colour of which exactly matches that of their host. Authorities assert that some such crustaceans form the food of the herring, which is popularly believed to live on water.
Just as terrestrial animals have their parasites and hyperparasites, so the denizens of the reef may support other creatures of diverse habits and mode of living. The fleas of the seas have lesser fleas; but such insignificances are beyond the notice of the individual who is looking for living jewellery in the warm waters. Here is something more attractive. Upon a dead bailer shell stands an anemone about four inches high — a neutral-coloured stem surmounted by a head of pink and purple waving filaments. From the shell is obtruded the head and legs of a hermit crab, deep red in colour and bristling with repellant points. The anemone — delicate feeder — thrives on the scraps and shreds scattered by the clumsy and greedy crab. The body of the crab is soft, and no doubt appetizing to fish that could draw it from its refuge; but the anemone is armed with irritating weapons which fish dread. Independently, neither crab nor anemone would lead a contented life. Together they are fairly safe, and the picture they present is particularly rich in tint.
In other species the anemone is attached to the back of the crab, and in the case of a nervous, soft-bodied crab lodging with a living sponge a third associate is invariably present — a worm which acts as scavenger and keeps the hermit’s quarters clean. The reason for the presence of the third and most humble partner is obvious. Ordinarily, the hermit crab moves to a larger refuge in accordance with its growth. The elasticity of the sponge renders the change unnecessary, and the sanitary worker becomes essential. The provider, the protector and the domestic thus establish an ordered if unenterprising community, each contributing to the maintenance according to its aptitudes, each obtaining the gratification of its needs.
If the brighter and prettier examples of associated lives among marine creatures are to be contemplated, one must visit the coral-reefs; even then, if he be untrained and inexpert, he will see only the more public exponents of a phase of existence of most varied nature, in some instances edifying, in others bewildering. There is a slim mollusc never found except in association with a particular species of sponge. The shells are of social habit, dozens living in a community, each buried to the extremity of its valves in the compact mass of the sponge. Some of the living sponges have the gift of being able to warn off enemies by, it would seem, the discharge of an irritating fluid. The host of the present example has no weapon of offence appreciable in its effects by human beings, whilst the shells are not nearly as frail as others that lead independent lives.
One of the marvels connected with the jewellike prawns associated with sea anemones is the power they possess of controlling their colours to match those of their hosts. Indeed, it is possible to watch certain degrees of the changes. The phenomena has been thus described by an expert, Mr. R A. Potts, who studied the life of the reefs in Torres Straits:—
“The prawn has the power of forming red, yellow and blue pigments, and by altering their relative proportions in the chromatophores it can acquire a green, brown, blue or red ground-colour, and is thus able to adapt itself to the varied colours of seaweeds and hydroids. The pigment may be laid down in longitudinal strips or horizontal bars, and in this way a colour-scheme can be formed matching whatever seaweed the prawn shelters in.”
Proof of the accuracy of this observation was given when the tides favoured an investigation of a portion of the reef. As the tide rose a small anemone emerged from the sand and began to wave its singular filaments — dull-yellow in tint and in form not unlike a cauliflower run to seed. There was nothing out of the common about the animal; but, the habit of watching such things having been established, its ordinary movements served for entertainment. Presently a shadowy form passed slowly over a portion of the moving filaments, and on close inspection a slender, almost transparent, prawn was seen. It glided hither and thither with almost imperceptible motion, now and again being, as it were, absorbed by its host. Alert, almost, as a sunbeam when aroused, the little creature would have been safe from capture but for its attachment to its home.
The general tint was that of the host — yellowish-green with white blotches, the main part of the body transparent, the pattern of the host being duplicated in miniature. The opaque white spots on each side were not of uniform size nor were they arranged according to uniform design. Each of the scales at the end of the tail was ornamented with a circular purple spot, and these spots not only varied in intensity of tint, but in size and position, showing that they were under the control of the animal.
Some species sting with more than the intensity of the nettle. This host did not in any way molest an interfering finger, and its tender associate seemed to depend for its safety on the fact of close resemblance. On restoring the prawn, it was noticed that it had become darker in colour, the transparent parts being slightly clouded and the purple spots of the tail almost black. In a few minutes the ordinary tints were resumed and the little creature moved, spectre-like, over the filaments of its host — a living jewel.
About fourteen miles north from Dunk Island, and three miles off the coast of North Queensland, lie the Barnard Islands, so named in 1819 by Captain (afterwards Admiral) Phillip P. King, in honour of his friend Edward Barnard.
Though condemned to spend most of the time as two isolated, jungle-covered knolls, the southernmost portion of the group (generally known as the South Barnards), is a single formation. A shallow sea separates the detached parts, but low-water spring tides expose a broad bond of union, an irrefragable proof of their oneness and indivisibility. The alliance may be secret, but is very secure. It frets the intemperate sea, and makes it froth and roar with rage. Outlasting all the blustering fury, it is stolidly irresponsive, too, when the coiling coquette gently slaps its face with the softest of white flounces. This rustic bond, defiant to all the moods of the unstable sea, confirms the legitimacy of the union of the Isle, and forms an interesting feature in a pretty scene.
Another reef, or ridge, or causeway, true as a surveyor’s line, juts out from the western point, almost parallel with the main and complete connecting-link. This smaller spur acts as a break-water, and the terminus is furnished with a rough T, which, though rather jumbled and broken seems to indicate that Nature designed, in her off-hand way, a plan worthy the imitation of man.
The smaller of the ridges is basaltic, and in its ruggedness resembles the jaw of “some pre-Adamite beast setting its teeth against the sky;” yet the larger portion of the Isle is coarse sandstone, or rather conglomerate, with basaltic blocks and boulders. A miniature bluff, sixty or eighty feet high, accentuates the south-western aspect, and at the base of it are strewn huge blocks which the vortices of the sea have torn down. Rather a rich brown in general tone, the exposed surfaces of the bluff display an attractive collection of geological fragments, rough and angular pebbles and sharp chips of speckled granite quartz of the purity of alabaster, reddish-grey porphyry, with occasional pieces of brick-red sandstone, nodules of greenish-black basalt, etc.
Under the attacks of the sea, the bluff is being rapidly broken down. Ledges, niches and hollows have been worn on the precipitous face. Just out of the reach of the salt surges, the rock is fretted with the fibrous roots of fig and umbrella-trees, pandanus palm and hibiscus bushes. The better half of the Isle may be best described as a mass of conglomerate and basalt resting upon a platform of basalt of extreme density. At a rough estimate it is less than twenty acres in area.
Originally, save for two or three of the steeper individual slopes, the whole surface was covered with jungle. A great part still remains, the luxuriousness of which seems extraordinary when one regards the thinness of the soil and apparent sterility of the rough conglomerate. The vegetation is there, glorious in its profuseness and healthiness. Very many years ago the islet was the headquarters of a béche-de-mer fisherman. He began the clearing of the western aspect, where the soil is red and very fertile. Then another took up his abode, extended the clearing, planted coco-nut palms, several kinds of fruit trees, sugar-cane, sweet potatoes, taro, etc., etc., and went his way. The last-comer revels in the fruits of former industry, for the man who demonstrated the resources of the soil now resides at Murdering Point, three miles to the west, and the islet smiles complacently to itself, except when sportsmen come to do violence to its birds.
The chief vegetable feature of the islet nowadays is the marvellous robustness of its papaws. Upon this ideal spot the plant has set its foot, and is at home. No one who admires the papaw could, without breach of courtesy, attribute to it the vulgar habit of crowding upon and elbowing away other vegetation possessing equal rights to a common plot. But if the papaw is not in this particular republic of vegetation becoming tyranically rude, it is at least very boldly asserting its rights. On the slopes, on the edges of the jungle, among basalt boulders, on the highest elevation, on rocky terraces, where there is no soil save in cracks and crevices, deep in the heart of the jungle are self-centred groves of papaws. At the base of a romantic cliff of basalt reposes a forest of papaws — not spindly weaklings, but sturdy plants, thirty feet high, fruitful and odorous. Up and over the verge of this little basaltic precipice the facile wind blows from a befittingly narrow ravine, heavily freighted with perfume of a whole grove, down upon the lusty heads of which we admiringly gaze.
It is the very paradise of papaws. They flourish in places, and situations, and under conditions hitherto considered impossible or unseemly in such a discreet and orderly plant. They have abandoned all reserve, submitting to the touch and strong embraces of the aboriginal plants of the isle, and even stamping them underfoot or shoving them away from accustomed places.
In genial air, and soil to its liking, the natural habit of the papaw finds true expression. With its tap-root squeezed and flattened in the crevice of a rock, it sends its feeders over the surface, gripping like a parasite, and gathering sustenance from uncompromising conglomerate. The gale may uproot a seemingly ambitious plant, but it will not die. It grows as it lies recumbent, with a kink in its neck, gamely contending for its share of sunlight, and offering abundant and easily gathered tribute — fruit large and without spot or blemish. Tons of papaws might be gathered where, according to accepted tradition, the plant could hardly be expected to grow. Is there a satisfactory reason for the wonderful vigour of the desirable plant among basalt and conglomerate?
Yes, plainly so.
Possibly for thousands of years this islet has been one of the “rookeries” of the white nutmeg pigeon. Millions have mated and reared families here, and thousands do so to this day. On the 11th August we saw the first flight of the season of nesting birds. So vast are the flocks that the very rocks must have become saturated with manure; for the birds breed during the first part of the wet season, and the average annual rainfall is about 140 inches.
A gardener will tell you that, if you place a quarry at his disposal and provide him with manure and water, he will convert it into a garden. Nature on this spot provides an apt illustration, and this sumptuous display of fruitfulness reacts on the birds. In spite of the raids of sportsmen, nutmeg pigeons come in thousands, and are not without company. During a morning’s all-too-hasty exploration I noted also the tranquil dove, rose-crowned fruit-pigeon, scrub-fowl, brown quail, leaden flycatcher, black-and-white flycatcher; varied honey-eater, eastern swallow, white-rumped wood-swallow, silver-eye, black-and-white caterpillar-eater, nightjar, sacred kingfisher, sordid kingfisher, black-cheeked falcon, osprey, brown kite, and the shrill tern whose call has been described as a blending of a cat’s mieow with the squeak of a rusty key.
The bird season is yet at its beginning. No doubt this informal census might be triplicated if the observation extended over a week. Of course, it is inevitable that I should urge upon those who are in closer association with the Isle than myself to strive to have it proclaimed a sanctuary for birds. Shooting in such a spot is not sport, and might be described as sacrilege.
Between the South Barnards and the mainland extend King’s Reefs, miles of coral-rock and sandy shallows. There is a passage through the reefs; but it is so intricate that in default of exact local knowledge its navigation is dangerous, though at high tides the smaller coastal steamers may pass in almost any direction without concern. Though not as fruitful as many a similar area adjacent to the coast, King’s Reefs are decidedly interesting to the observer of marine fauna. Varied and fantastic forms of coral are not plentiful, but huge blocks standing on sturdy pedestals, tipsy toadstools, and irregular mushrooms are common enough. Narrow fjords, sparkling clear, wind through and intersect the masses of coral, and fish, bright as butterflies and far more alert, flash in and out of mazes more bewildering than that in which Rosamund’s bower was secluded.
On the sandy flats, and among corals of less robust habit, starfish are plentiful, the commonest variety being about a foot in width, red, with black bosses. Though bright red seemed to be most fashionable, the colour occurred in all shades, the lowest tone being a creamy pink. One fish obtained on the main reef was about eight inches long and, though belonging to the gaily decorated parrot species, struck quite a superior note, its colours being alternate bands of vivid vermillion and the boldest blue, the eyes flame-hued with sapphire-blue pupils, and the prominent teeth like flawless turquoise.
Two days were spent in exploring the islet and its surroundings, the last being devoted to the outlying detached portion of the reef lying to the south about a mile and a half distant from it. This was found to consist of basalt boulders, of no great size, and coral, the patch being narrow and about a mile long. Deep water “docks” occur, and at low tide — the very lowest of the year had been availed of — there are several lagoons more or less partaking of the nature of coral gardens. Here and there, in the confusion of oyster-covered basalt, are slight depressions, in several of which were accumulations of basalt pebbles, oval or rounded, and about the size of a hen’s egg. Many were covered with a thin scale of lime, and the regularity in size and shape — due to attrition, no doubt — attracted attention. Strips of muntz metal, three pieces of round iron encrusted with oysters, and several pieces of thick plate-glass jammed together between two boulders, provided evidence of the portions of some forgotten wreck.
From one mass of coral seven varieties of fish were poked, and the whole lagoon teemed with small and alert creatures with rare ability for concealing themselves in coral puzzles. Shells — clams, cones and cowries — were plentiful, many being handsome, if not uncommon. Time did not permit a careful examination of all parts of the reef, but sufficient was seen to cause continual pleasure and to excite the wish that just for once the tide would cease to flow, so that all the hours of daylight might be spent in observation. Not that the reef is over-rich in novel forms of life, but the circumstances were exceptionally favourable for minute investigation. While one admires without constraint the lustre of living shells, and the remarkable garments of invisibility which certain species throw over their shoulders, for richness of colour and diversity of design some of the lowly corals and sponges, and those inanimate “growths” which fixedly adhere to the under-surface of stones and blocks of coral, are not to be surpassed.
These dull stones, partially buried in sand, reveal in blotches, in daubs and in patches all the extravagancies of a painter’s palate. Are such brilliant colours and tints — unimaginably profuse and delicate — necessary features for animals of such crude organism, when they appear to be mere disembodied splashes and drips from the brush of the Great Artist?
Look at this fantastic patchwork brightening the obscurity of an up-turned stone with glowing orange! In perfectly regular, minute dots a pattern of squares cut into right-angles by intersecting lines, and slightly raised in the centre, is being worked out; but the fabric is ragged on the edges. With miraculous precision the design is being followed, each stitch the counterpart of the other. Unless this other formless blotch of sage-green interferes, and by more robust habit crowds it out, the whole under-surface of the stone may be covered with a quilt of orange. Why is this particular miniature dome of coral of so rich a mauve? Why is it bespangled with millions of snow-white crystals? And why — where no appreciative eye sees them — should parti-coloured algae flaunt such graceful plumes?
What marvellous fertility of imagination in form and hue is exhibited in every quiet pool! For the greater part of the year all this reef is under water, inaccessible to man — and man alone, probably, is the one product of Nature gifted with qualities which enable him to find disinterested pleasure in the parade of colour.
Until the flowing tide bade us begone we lingered, and as the lagoons gurglingly filled, we saw ripples from shoals of fish scurrying back to accustomed haunts as sheep along familiar tracks to their folds.
And so, up with the little lug-sail. Vagabonds that we were, we knew not (and the day was far spent) where we should rest that night. We had slept on a dissolute isle — the empty bottles and defilement of battered meat-tins told the tale — and whither, on this superb evening, would the breeze condescend to waft us? Back to the dissolute isle or over the empurpled sea, on to some clean Australian beach? It mattered not. Ours was a state of absolute indifference, and as for the zephyrs, they were sweet with indecision for many minutes.
Then, under indolent easterly airs, across to Nee Morna, and beneath shady calophyllums, with the harvest moon illuminating the gloomy headland, to spread our rugs. It would not be seemly to record how many fish, sniggled from coral recesses and baked on the embers, were eaten. This, with apologies for its lack of romance, is not a fish story.
It seems to me that the man who walks through the wilderness of this world unaccompanied by dogs, who has not understood the mind of the dog, and who has not been the object of the self-denying devotion of a dog, misses a good deal of the art of living.
Does that “equal sky” exist wherein we shall have the company of all our dogs? It will be a great pleasure and also a great embarrassment. With what a composite pack shall I be surrounded! Indeed, it will be a pack, not a procession, for who would decree and insist upon any order of precedence among such a multitude of clamorous pets? Bull-terriers, retrievers, nondescripts — the dog-lover abhors the term mongrel — sheep dogs and cattle dogs, pointers, and, most beloved of all, Irish terriers. The pack would include two or three rather uncommon and somewhat foreign elements — a red chow from Canton and a dingo from the silent places of the Star River. But Irish terriers would be the most conspicuous of the pack.
Everyone knew “Paddy,” who came from Melbourne, whose one lop ear and one erect ear gave him such a leery, devil-may-care air, who died at an honourable age with a sigh on the verandah here, and was buried on the bank; and though the bush rats may scamper over his head “he lies fast asleep.”
There was one episode in Paddy’s career which has never been told. His comic aspect and “rakehelly” demeanour belied his lofty lineage, bestowing the fictitious air of a vagabond and a swaggerer upon a dandy and a gentleman. In his cunning, courage and perseverance he not only out-matched rats, lizards and the echidna, but took his part when the tide ebbed in turning out fish from coral recesses, or coursing them with great success in the shallows, and was equally impetuous in the vain attempt to retrieve a shark, or turtle, or stingray which showed on the surface as we sailed.
In the days prior to the fall which my haughty spirit merited, I was vain in the handling of a boat, and my little knowledge proved most dangersome to Paddy and others. In holiday humour, with another and two black boys (Willie and Charlie) we drifted out of Brammo Bay on the ebb with idle sails, all serene and bright. Mischance surely was never further away as we conferred, saying that the current and not the breeze was to be depended on this preoccupied morning. Yet a vagrant and wanton puff skipped on the hill-top, snoodled between two steep ridges, whisked coyly out of a bottle-necked gorge, impudently slapped the big jib, and in a trice the skimming dish-boat had made an unbecoming exhibition. Half a mile from land — and not a soul within many miles to send us aid; clinging to the up-turned boat while contemplating the fact that the intense calm of the morning was giving way before a stiff north-easterly breeze — how grim a transformation to the gay little scene of a few moments past! The pursuit of pleasure had led us into dismaying difficulties.
Persuasions, backed by threats of personal violence — for in my hand was the ornamental tiller, hard as iron, to which I had clung while I swam, supporting the passenger who could not swim — started Willie for the shore; and as he swam away there was leisure for a few moments, and we thought of Paddy. Charlie had not seen him.
“That fella drown — finish! Him tie up alonga rigging. No come up one time. My word, poor pfella Paddy; good-bye. Me plenty sorry.”
I argued that the dog must have swam for the shore ahead of Willie, but Charlie persisted in his theory.
I could not squat idly on the slippery bottom of the boat with the knowledge that an old and faithful friend was dead as a result of my vanity and carelessness. So I dived among the tangled cordage, but found him not. Then Charlie, forcibly persuaded by the dog-headed tiller, perfunctorily followed my example, also without result. Perhaps the poor dog was floating in the forepart of the boat, where she was decked.
Grasping the chaffing-piece and allowing my body to float away under the boat, I explored with my feet as far as my legs could stretch. By the same plan other parts of the boat were investigated, until my toes touched Paddy’s feet, working as though a treadmill. With a shout of joy I dived, seized the dog, drew him down and past the combing, and in a moment had him safe in the free air.
Fully a quarter of an hour had elapsed since the mishap, and how had Paddy escaped? The sudden and complete capsize had imprisoned a small volume of air against the bottom of the boat. In his game struggles for liberty Paddy had found the gracious bubble, and had kept his shrewd nose in it in the dark all those long minutes.
In the meantime Willie had gained the shore, and in due course paddled out to the scene of the wreck in a frail punt. And the nerves of one individual of the party have thrilled at the thought of a sailing-boat ever since!
When Paddy died lamented, there came others.
Among them was “Whirra,” excitable, hysterical Whirra, whose hasty, impetuous career had to be compassionately ended with a bullet, because of the distressfulness of prolonged attacks of heat apoplexy. And to Whirra, “Barry” succeeded — another of the little red devils of the famous “Towers Lad” strain, and who in name and voice, a rich baritone, gave perpetual refreshment to much-prized friendship. Barry, like the Turk, could bear no brother near the throne of his affections, and yet bore himself independently, and was for ever vigilant in the protection of his rights and vociferous concerning them. When we went alongside the Lass o’ Gowrie, good Captain Kerr so often had a plateful of scraps for Barry that the masterful little dog soon became convinced that the steamer called in for the special purpose of giving him an extra meal of tit-bits. One day brought disappointment, however, and Barry, no great whimperer, proclaimed his wrong and demanded his right so undeniably that the steamer service was for the moment thrown out of gear.
It was during the wet season, when the commingled floods from the Murray and Tully Rivers race past the sand-spit at the rate of about four miles an hour. Barry stood expectant in the bows of the boat without remark until the line was cast loose, and the boat shot astern. Then, lifting his voice in complaint and remonstrance, he reminded the captain of his presence and rights. And the captain, shouting impossible instructions to come back, manoeuvred the Gowrie until the drifting boat was alongside, and the beseeched-for bones thrown down, and apologized thus: “I’m sorry I forgot Barry’s bones!” But, you see, Captain Kerr (who never forgot afterwards, whatever hour of night or day the Gowrie came) is a dog-lover, as well as a large-hearted, unselfish, fond-of-giving-pleasure-to-others sort of man.
And after Barry came his son “Scoot,” who died in his prime after a week’s illness, attributed rightly or wrongly to tick-fever. There never was a more faithful companion; from his waddling days until the last he never left me, and the tokens of his affections were superabundantly manifested. He, too, was melodiously voiced, and never a steamer nor sailing boat went by night or day that he did not see and salute tunefully from uplifted muzzle. The last departed of one’s pets is naturally the more tenderly regarded; yet I am inclined to think that none of my pack will be more glad to see me in that “equal sky” than Scoot. Though he had a trace of melancholy in his disposition, on occasion his joy was exuberant. He knew more of the geography of adjacent coral reefs than I did, for he covered in his hunting more generous spaces, and I would not like to confess how many species of fish he turned out and killed. He has joined the expectant pack, and
I will not think those good brown eyes
Have spent their light of truth so soon,
But in some canine Paradise
Your wraith, I know, rebukes the moon,
And quarters every plain and hill
Seeking its master . . . As for me
This prayer at least the gods fulfil;
That when I pass the flood, and see
Old Charon of the Stigian coast
Take toll of all the shades who land.
Your little, faithful barking ghost
May leap to lick my phantom hand.
[The accompanying article, written for the North Queensland Newspaper Company by the late E. J. Banfield, was found on his office table at Dunk Island, awaiting despatch. It is a characteristic sketch, embodying the charm of style, the sweet charity, the playful humour, and the merriment of the man, his innate diffidence and rare modesty. It is just one of the Beachcomber’s delightful “Homilies,” the last from his clever pen, and in all appreciation and sadness we, with his many readers, must accept it as his valedictory. — Editor, Townsville DAILY BULLETIN, 25th June, 1923.]
Students of natural history will have read with varying sentiments two contributions published in the NORTH QUEENSLAND REGISTER of 9th April —“Marsupial Tiger” and “Nature Studies”— each of which contains statements in need of explanation. The self-imposed duty of correcting misconceptions therein is undertaken not in a carping or superior spirit, nor with the idea of showing off a trifle of acquired knowledge; but in order to put certain matters of general interest on a sound footing.
As preliminary, a recent incident illustrative of the desirableness of exact knowledge on the part of those who describe the wonders of Nature may be told. One of the writer’s correspondents is an expert on the staff of an Australian museum. A specimen was submitted to him with a somewhat vaunting suggestion as to its due place in the list of beach curiosities, and with an invitation to laugh at the pretensions of an amateur in thus encroaching on the realms of the specialist. He put the lovely relic in an order quite apart, saying:—“I don’t dare to laugh at anybody’s misidentifications; I make so many myself.”
There speaks the knowledgeable man — the one who knows so much that he realizes how little he knows. It is not the part of a mere dabbler to endeavour to take other observers to task; but it does seem a duty to indicate good-naturedly, and as promptly as possible, obvious blunders. One likes to repeat a dictum of one of Old England’s greatest statesmen:—“Don’t be too damned surly about your facts.” That may be sound advice in the game of politics, and surely it is too often put into practice; but natural history demands of its followers a higher standard, for Mother Nature is inexorable in demonstrating her truths, to the confusion of those who take half-views of her everyday mysteries.
About the “marsupial tiger,”— that blood-thirsty beast which is said to patrol “the mysterious fastnesses of the Palmerville Ranges.” In the face of evidence of those who have declared its existence on the strength of actual observation, it would be silly to assert dogmatically that there is no such animal in any part of North Queensland. Many a time stories have been told of the existence of a so-called tiger-cat in the wilds of North Queensland. In this neighbourhood some “alarming incidents” have occurred in the vicinity of fowl roosts; and invariably the blood-thirsty animal has proved to be an overgrown native cat, which men of science term the North Australian native cat. Not so very long ago the bones of a cassowary were found on the slope of a range quite close to the sea, which were declared by the blacks to be those of a victim of a cat which was wont to pounce on the shoulders of the great bird as it passed beneath the low-growing branches of a tree.
It is quite possible that a subtle beast like the native cat could master a cassowary from such a point of vantage; but the blacks seem to have had no knowledge of any carnivorous animal of larger size. They, however, made pets of domesticated cats, the progeny of which occasionally ran wild, and there are two incidents on record of the terrifying effects that the animal “that walks by itself” may assume.
On one occasion a lonesome settler, in broad daylight, came across the lair of one such “stray,” and approaching in a friendly way, was greeted with such hostility — blazing eyes, backward-laid ears and hissing — that he retired, without risk of a scratch, feeling sure that, unarmed, he was no match for a furious beast.
Again, an overgrown “Tom” strolled into a camp with such show of humility and friendliness that it was welcomed as a possible pet for a little girl. In a few days it attached itself to the child with every token of affection, and soon became familiar with all the members of the temporary home, and an overpowering bully to two or three masterful dogs. One evening the father of the child saw her walking away from the cat, which followed in her footsteps. Suddenly the cat crouched, and springing on to the child’s shoulders, dashed her to the ground, clawing and biting at her throat. The man ran to the rescue, felled the cat as it fled, and found the girl so badly mauled and bitten that he believes she would have been killed but for his intervention. Possibly the “marsupial tiger” may prove to be a tame cat, improved in ferocity and size by the climate and fare of North Queensland.
The writer of “Nature Studies” goes slightly astray with reference to the walking and jumping fish of the mangroves, which, of course, is quite different from the Queensland lung-fish, termed by men of science, NEOCERATODUS FORSTERI. The latter belongs to a singularly interesting group, forming a connecting link between fishes and frogs, and has been referred to as a living fossil. Two species of the walking fish are known in Queensland waters, that which is referred to being, probably, PERIOPTHALMUS KOLREUTERI. Experts tell us that it has gills at the base of the tail as well as in the ordinary region, which enable it to breathe moist air when the head is above water — a common attitude. Is it true that these creatures feed on crustaceans, sea-slugs and the like? Perhaps so, in the very early stages of development.
During recent years a newcomer in the way of ants has been observed on this Isle, and according to rather indefinite observations, seems to represent a radical cure for the so-called “white ants” The majority of the “new” insect in each community are very small and frail, the colour being a pale watery brown. When the foragers have found something good to eat — flesh food preferred — within a few minutes a crowd gathers, and if the object is bulky a few compatriots, more than double in size and weight of the scouts, and fitted with massive head and jaws to match, come to the help of the feeble folk.
Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and sweets of all kinds attract the busy insects, whose sense of discrimination between animal and vegetable food is so keen that there is reason to believe they are able to detect animal matter in the smear of a not unclean finger. When other diets fail they fall back on decayed wood, or rather, perhaps, the minute forms of life therein, and it has been noticed that phenomenal activity is aroused when the galleries of white ants are disturbed, raids of extermination taking place. Several situations which white ants have been known to retain for years, the raider now occupies; but it is not an unmixed blessing in a house, for its bite is hot and continuous. It does not know when to let go once the tiny mandibles have a good grip.
Bold beyond all reason, the tiny insect does not hesitate to join issue with interfering man, and occasionally it is prudent for the flower of creation to retreat.
The other day a bulky rhinoceros beetle, slightly injured by a bump against a wall, fell on the verandah and lay stunned. The following morning, near the spot where it lodged stood a mound of fluff and grains of sand and rubbish, beneath which a horde of ants worked. In two days all that remained was the shell of the beetle, which collapsed at the touch! A disabled centipede has no chance against the hosts of the rovers, and a dog-discarded bone is whitened in a very brief period.
Such an industrious and thorough scavenger is entitled to some consideration, though it must be confessed that one would be better pleased if the little allies in the defence of sweetness kept to the defence of their wellnigh impregnable native quarters — the bush.
Is not life, however, a patchwork of compromises?
And is not the insect that is typical of organized industry entitled to sufferance, even when it unconsciously mingles pain with its benefits?
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005