Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

The Little Brown Man

“Care, that troubles all the world, was forgotten in his composition.”— CHARLES LAMB.

If you chance to visit the Chief Protector of Aborigines on board his yacht the MELBIDIR, one of the first to greet you, be you an old acquaintance or a stranger, may be “Jimmy,” the cook.

He is a little brown man who wears blue shoes, which are also socks, and a perpetual smile. The shoes, which are of some soft material, have a separate compartment for the great-toe, and hook down the heel. The Chief Protector has a similar pair of combination shoes — a gift from “Jimmy”— and is given to smiling; but he does not pretend to compete with his cook in that quality. “Jimmy’s” smile is almost a fixture. It is set, yet not professional. It is the smile of a happy man, and of one who is a diplomat as well as a ship’s cook. His customary costume is of holland. When on duty he wears an exaggerated bib, and “Jimmy” without his bib would be as little conceivable as “Jimmy” without his smile. He may discard it when he puts on his sky-blue pyjamas for the night, but that he smiles in his sleep is sure. The honourable wrinkles on his mahogany-hued face forbid him to relax the appearance of unceasing good-humour, and who would suggest that his serenity is artificial?

When he takes a hand with the whole of the ship’s company to get up sail or hoist the dinghy on board, he whistles as well as smiles, and then the black boys laugh, and life on the trim ship is more buoyant than ever. He goes down into the doll’s-house galley backwards, smiling. Now, it is no smiling matter to be jambed up against a hot stove on a hot day when the seas run high and the yacht digs her crescent nose into the blue and washes her own decks with Neptune’s suds. But “Jimmy” will bob up again in due season with a plate of hot cakes or, perhaps, even cool cakes — and the smile. He has been smiling to the oven, which is inclined to gymnastics, only it is restrained by effectual bolts. “Jimmy” is a gymnast, and his free great-toes enable him to cook under circumstances and conditions which others not so equipped would profane.

Smiles are his antidote for all injurious mental ferments, and how many diseases of the mind are there which are not to be alleviated by such apt physic?

It has been said that “Jimmy” is a diplomat. He certainly is. The MELBIDIR had run within hailing distance of another yacht, the owner and commander of which is an old friend of the Protector and “Jimmy.” When we did hail, a silvery head and a sunburnt pair of shoulders popped up from below, and with a comprehensive wave of sunburnt arms — the red type — vanished. Soon the same head and the same shoulders, decently but loosely clad in blue and followed by the rest of the hearty body, emerged, and in a few minutes friends were gripping each other’s hands and talking furiously about a particular island, pilots, pearls, and Torres Straits “Jimmy” passed, and the florid man in blue said, nudging his friend, “I seem to know that boy.”

“Of course you do,” replied the Protector; “that’s ‘Jimmy’ from T. I.”

When “Jimmy” next appeared he had a jug of water in his hand and a bigger smile than ever.

“Well, ‘Jimmy,’ you haven’t forgotten me?” suggested the big man in blue.

“No. You capitain! My word, you young fellow now!”

And we all laughed, for though the years had been tender to the man in blue, still, they had come and gone by the decade since the previous meeting. “Jimmy’s” smiles became vocal. Professional diplomats use the great gift of speech, it is said, to delude the enemies of their country. “Jimmy’s” adroit compliment was the more delicate in that it was not official and he cannot possess an enemy.

When he puckers his lips to whistle, “Jimmy’s” smiles are singularly infectious. The Protector’s yacht is not a missionary, but merely, as her name signifies, a messenger; but the Protector does not forbid the hymnal. “Jimmy” has one, and as he studies the pious poems, for he reads fluently, whistles appropriately. While we lolled on deck, familiar tunes wooed my wandering thoughts. “Jesu, Lover of my Soul,” came line after line, verse after verse, precisely, though the tone was soft. Was the black boy thus accompanying his work at the pump? No; for the strokes were not in time, and the boy occasionally chatted with his chum. I asked, and was told that “‘Jimmy’ mak’m good fellow corroboree.” Presently he came up — smiling, and with the last notes of “Abide with Me” on his lips. Then I questioned him, and for a space we discussed our favourite hymns and hummed them, or rather I did, for “Jimmy” was too shy to do more than nod in time before a stranger. He confided, almost in a whisper, that when he was alone he learned the words of the hymns, and afterwards picked up the tunes. Is it not pretty to think of the wrinkled Japanese in bunk beside the hot and clamorous engine conning hymnal — a trifle blotched with grease here and there — and whistling softly those endearing tunes on which so many of us were brought up?

Long may “Jimmy” cook and wear blue shoes a modestly supplicate “For those in Peril on the Sea”! That he may smile to the last would be a superfluous prayer. He cannot do else.

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