Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

“Passeth All Understanding”

“Whence has the man the balm that brightens all?”


Though not popular, perhaps Tsing Hi was the best known of his contemporaries on the tableland through which the Palmer River wanders a hundred miles from the Gulf of Carpentaria. Short, slimly made as a fourteen-year-old boy, nimble, fussy, plausible, he stood out from among his countrymen as one having authority, while he posed among the Europeans as a kind of diplomatic agent, explaining away misunderstandings, conciliating grievances, and generally comporting himself as the chartered representative of the horde of yellow new-chums which invaded the most sensational of all Australian goldfields. He appeared to have cousins among every fresh shipload from China, as well as among the hundreds who ferreted in the gullies. There was not a white man, from the Police Magistrate to Frank Deester’s off-sider, with whom he was not on terms of easy familiarity.

Had he not often confidentially consulted the Warden when a cousin had blundered into the hands of the police, embarrassing that flustered official with torrents of half intelligible speech, the purport of which generally was to flout the proceedings with evidence of indubitable alibi? All this he translated to his countrymen as proof of personal influence with court authorities, and, what was more to the point, made them pay for it.

No case in which a Chinaman was concerned as the accused, or plaintiff, or disinterested witness, but Tsing Hi took, if not an official, an officious part. Every new-comer from the Flowery Land passed through his hands. He knew what personal property each possessed, and the value of the gold of the lucky departing ones. That he prospered exceedingly was evident. The fact was expressed in his costume. Beyond the court fees as interpreter, the merry, chirping little fellow had really no lawful, visible means of support. Yet he glistened and gleamed with emblems of riches. He was a dandy from the soles of his shiny elastic-side boots to the crown of his jaunty hard-hitter. Across a yellow waistcoat hung a very aggressive chain, from which dangled a huge masonic jewel in gold-and-blue enamel, and the frequently consulted watch — a big, bold-faced lever — ticked with snappy determination. Tsing Hi had much more to live up to than the huge watch, the chain, and the emblem; but they seemed to constitute special and peculiar insignia. They were always to the front. He was one of the men of his day and scene — to be admired, feared, and to be conciliated by his fellow-countrymen all along the traffic-torn road.

The dust from that tortuous road rose in an earth adhering cloud from out which honest, clean-souled men came like pain-distorted spectres, wearing grey tear stained masks with pink-rimmed eyeholes and mud edged mouths. But the dust was less distressing than that which Tsing Hi threw in the eyes of bewildered mankind by this burst and gusts of speech.

In the heyday of his fame and prosperity Tsing Hi disappeared. His absences were customary, for did he not flit here, there, and everywhere? The police were not troubled to make inquiries. They knew where he was, and the reason for his sudden retirement from accustomed scenes. The next day all Byerstown knew also.

Tsing Hi, within the rough-hewn walls of the lock-up, was sad and silent. He had been arrested for gold-stealing.

It was a clear case. Hundreds of complaints had been made. Dozens of suspects had been shadowed, until a quick-witted detective intuitively fastened the responsibility on the court interpreter, who, on the instant of arrest, had become dumb.

The ransacking of his hut revealed a magazine of riches, the earthen floor beneath the bunk being honeycombed with pits containing easily portable but valuable property. In a jam-tin were several nuggets, among them the very specimen which Bill Haddon had given to Mrs. Sinclair, landlady of the Carriers’ Arms — a plane of crystal from which rose a wonderfully true pyramid of gold. It had been admired by hundreds, and could be sworn to by everyone who had seen it. There was the white sapphire, with a tell-tale flaw running down the middle, which had been found in the hopperings at Revolver Point (where fighting Cameron made his pile) by Sam Kickford, and likewise bestowed on Mrs. Sinclair as a “curio,” and because that bounteous lady had mothered the unlucky Sam and nursed him through the fever which took him to the very gates of a filthy hell. Dozens could swear to it, but ever so many more were capable of bearing witness against Tsing Hi on account of the specimen which Sam’s mate, who had died of the fever, had given to Mrs. Sinclair, having picked it out from the face of his drive. It was a slug of rough gold in the shape of a tiny canoe, with an upright splinter of white quartz at each end. Sam’s mate had intended it for a girl down at Ballarat, and she eventually got it — an emblem of what might have been. Dozens of fancy slugs were brought to light, in addition to two hundred ounces of fine gold against which no one could make good claim.

Another tin held six rings, two of decidedly suspicious metal, the others genuine and with good stones. A fine pearl was wrapped in a fragment of silk. A pale green jade amulet, with three sets of. Chinese toilet contrivances — ear-cleaners, tongue-scrapers, back-scratchers — in ivory, were in a box with two rolls of gold-embroidered silk illustrated with weirdly indecent scenes. Three gold watches wrapped in silk handkerchiefs were stuffed into a ginger-jar. The sordid hut was a mine of wealth, and the buzzing town became furious. It had accepted Tsing Hi as a character, but not as a bad one. Being deceived, it swerved from tolerance to righteous indignation and absolute wrath. The quaking thief, not too comfortable, for the bloodwood slabs seemed too frail a partition against the virtuous anger of the crowd, was condemned forthwith.

All the identifiable gold and other property was handed over to those who successfully established claims, and Tsing Hi, limp and dejected, passed into the custody of Tim Mullane for escort to Cooktown.

Tim was rough and raw, teeming with good-nature and blessed with a brogue as thick as the soles of the massive boots made for him by his cousin Terence at misty Ballinrobe. The once perky Tsing Hi slunk alongside the far-striding Tim, and Tim looked down at him and was half ashamed of such a “wee scrap of a Chinkee” as his first prisoner.

“Come away wid ye, me little fella — come away. Doan give me trouble, and ye’ll fin’ me gintle wid ye. Thry to maake a fool af me, and be the Holy Saints ye’ll have occasion to be sorrowful.” And he picked Tsing Hi up with one hand and set him down again with as big a jolt as such a fag-end of humanity could expect to produce. Tsing Hi remained meek. The crowd was unanimously against him. Big Tim might jolt him again and again rather than he would take the risk of venturing among his recent friends, for tales of his thieving, his acceptance of bribes, and imposition of levies, were coming in so fast and thick that the crowd would have relished adding something on its own account.

Before daylight next morning Tim left with his disconsolate captive, who wore handcuffs and was manacled to the “D’s” in the saddle of the horse which he bestrode manifestly ill at case. In front of him was a huge swag containing the unidentifiable gold, three watches, three rings, silk stuffs, three pairs of elastic-side boots., several pairs of puce-coloured socks, flash neckties, four hats, three suits of clothes, and other clothing., All this was his own, to be handed over at the expiration of the sentence. Tim merely held the inventory. There was some sort of gratification for ill-doing, for the swag contained a fortune. He savagely reflected that six months would soon pass. He would then vanish from “Qee’lan,” to enjoy himself for the rest of his days. The sadness which had stagnated during the past week began to dissolve. He sought to make a friend of his escort.

“I tink we cam’ harp way to-ni’, Tim.”

“Shut up, you implicating tadpole! Wasn’t I ordhered to hold convarse wid me prisoner? Spake win Ye’re spoke ter and be civil, Or I’ll jolt the teeth troo your hat!”

Tim jogged on, and the led horse bearing Tsing Hi jogged after. Tsing Hi bumped until he was fain to lean heavily on his precious swag, trying to discover by sensation an’ unbruised part of his body on which to jolt.

“Hi! hi!” he shouted. “Horsey, him no goo’! You l’me walk!”

Tim whistled and jogged. Tsing Hi jolted and whimpered. The hot miles wriggled slowly past. Dust lay a foot deep on the track. It was a windless day. Tsing Hi, gripping with fearful intensity his swag, could not lift a finger to wipe the stains which stood for many tears and coursed down his cheeks in tiny rivulets, making puddles on his cramped hands. He, the dandy, smothered in dust, weeping, sore in every bone, blistered and scalded, pondered over his petty sins, moaned continuously, and longed for the hard floor of the gaol.

He, a disciple of Confucius, found no present relief in the tags of the master’s philosophy that he could call to mind. Tears made him a grim spectacle. The beautiful yellow waistcoat was indistinguishable beneath dirt and dust. His carefully tended queue shook out in disordered loops, and finally dangled, dust-soiled, behind. His trousers worked and wrinkled up to the knees, chafed his unaccustomed skin, and still Tim in a cloud of dust jogged on singing:

“Until that day, plase God, I’ll shtick

To the wearin’ o’ the green.”

It was a poor little prisoner, but his first and his own, and Tim was elated, and when a true Irishman is happy he becomes poetically patriotic. But happy though he undoubtedly was, even Tim was not sorry when the chance came of stretching his legs and incidentally sluicing down the dust. The halfway house looked cool and clean to him. In fact it was neither. It must have appeared a celestial scene to moaning Tsing Hi. The rough upright slabs (once rich yellow, now dingy) promised some sort of refuge from the dust, and the narrow strip of verandah a thin slice of shade. The mound of broken bottles at the rear betokened the drinks of the past, while the mind dwelt lovingly on those of the present. Three panting goats, all aslant, but tressed themselves determinedly against the end of the house, and two boys, long since dust immune, occasionally hunted the goats into the sun and away among the ant-hills. But when Tsing Hi slid from the horse and into the shade, he felt like a saint in bliss. They gave him water, and he wailed until Tim silenced him with threats of jolts and locked the manacles round the middle post.

Tim sighed profoundly as he scented beer. “I do belave I’m dhry, Jerry. Give’s a long un. I’ve swallowed mud by the bucket. Give the wee little divil outside a pannikin o’ tay. Maybe it’ll revoive, him!”

Tim drank long and well.

“I’ve heard about the case,” Jerry said, as he filled the thick glass a third time. “Fancy the little beggar, an’ him commin’ and goin’ as flash as ye make ‘ern, and pickin’ and thavin’ all the time. Maybe he got the ear-rings the missis is after missin’.”

“Nawthin’ o’ the sort’s in the swag we took with the raskil.”

A bit of dinner in the back room waited, for Jerry believed in keeping well in with the force. Tim fed heartily, and, in spite of dust, heat, and the chatter of the children, dozed, to wake with a start.

“Me sowl to glory! It’s aslape I’ve bin! Let’s hav’ a look at the little fella and be off.”

The horses stood limply, as much out of the shade as in, the big swag leaned against the wall, the handcuffs lay half buried in the dust, but Tsing Hi had vanished.

“Me sowl to glory! The little divil’s scooted! It’s a ruined man I am! In the name of the Saints, why is blasted Chinkees made with han’s an’ ’em like a ‘possum? Look at the wee han’s on ’em to slip out of darbies like the same. He’s slipped out as aisily as meself out of a horse-collar, and the face a’ him as bould and as big as the hill o’ hope! I’m the ruined man, I am!”

“Off after him,” advised Jerry. “There’s his tracks.”

“Just none o’ your blasted interfarances! Lave ‘m to me. He’s away back to hell, an’ I’ll folly him! How much does I owe yer, Jerry!”

“Nothing at all, sure, Tim. ’Tis little ye’ve had, and yer welcome as posies in May, though it’s little we see of ’em here. And good luck. Shall I tell him away, back to look out V’

“Say nothing and be damned to yer! Keep your mout closed and lave me to do the bizinis me own road,” shouted Tim as he disappeared in the dust, led horse, swag and all.

A mile and a half back and a bit off the road lay the narrow, sheltered flat between two forbiddingly barren ridges which Hu Dra, the gardener, had converted into an oasis. Thin-leaved tea-trees fringed the little dam whence the industrious fellow hauled water for his vegetables. Drought-stricken, broad, blue-leaved, scented ironbarks stood in envious array on the steep sides of the ridges, and grass-trees, blackened at the butts, struggled with loose boulders for foothold. The muddy water which the forethought of Hu Dra had conserved created the green patch which insulted the aridity of the ridge. He was a proud and happy man, a follower of the healing Buddha, a new-churn with scarce a word of English, and a gardener. He had a way with vegetables. They prospered under his hands, and he also prospered, for next to gold, vegetables were highly prized in that dry, almost verdureless country. Just now he swayed along with a pair of heavy baskets slung on a bamboo all the way from Wu Shu, as the pilgrim under his load of sin, and as he swayed he sang in a weak falsetto a ditty which sounded like —

“Nam mo pen shih shih chia

Man tan lai lei tsun fo;

Hu fa chu t’ien p’u sa,

An fu ssu, Li she tzn.”

His baskets, each screened with languid gum-leaves, held the week’s output of his garden, representing in money value at least two pounds. It wag not likely to yield half as much, for, being a new-chum, he was fair game, and it was considered smart to impose on his good-nature. He also paid through an agent a weekly levy to Tsing Hi, which he understood purchased the tolerance, if not goodwill, under all and every circumstance of the dreaded police and the populace generally. It was a tax; but Hu Dra was patient under such exactions, as all his ancestors had been. They were unavoidable, inevitable, a part of the mystery of life, and consequently to be endured, if not with complacency, at least without murmur. His profits for the week might total one pound, a princely sum considering the scene and circumstances of his birth and upbringing in far Li-Chiang, where his father had reared a large family in a shed over a sewer, and had never possessed property or estate worth more than five shillings. Soon, if this money-making business continued to thrive, he would return thither. He might — for had he not been reared to the art of living in such places? — resume the sewer habit; but with three hundred pounds in good English gold what sewer in Li-Chiang could not be transformed into Paradise?

One basket contained a huge fruit which he understood his white customers to term “plonkn”; with it was a broad-bladed knife, with which he would slice off slabs according to demand. That one item might bring him in more money than his revered father’s fortune. Wrapped in day-dreams, he hummed again his chant, dwelling on the refrain with lyrical gladness —

“Li she tzu.”

Perhaps it was the name of the maiden he proposed to ask to share his fortune and his portion of the sewer, and so he repeated —

—-“Li she t ——!”

A big, strong, authoritative hand had gripped him by the shoulder.

He screamed. The baskets sat down plump.

“Come away wid ye! I’ve cotched yer! I’ll tache ye to escape from lawful custody!”

“No savee! No savee!” screamed Hu Dra.

“I’ll tache ye, thin V’ shouted Tim, and Hu Dra reeled under the severity of the first lesson — a back-hander across the face.

“Wha’ for?” asked Hu Dra, still staggering.

“Come on! You know wha’ for! I’ll stan’ none o’ yer wha’ for’s!”

Hu Dra clung to the basket-stick threateningly.

“Fwhat! Resisting the pollis in the execution of dooty. Me bhoy, ye’re a new-chum or yer niver wad be so bould. It is sarious bizinis.” The stick flew out of Hu Dra’s hands, and, as if by magic, he found his hands clamped in iron bands, which pinched his wrists excruciatingly.

He yelled with vexation, fear, and pain.

“Ye can holler as much as ye have the moind ter. Be jabers, the next haythen Chinkee that gits out of the darbies I clap on’m ‘ll be a slippery, slathery eel, and meself after fergittin’ to maake a knot in his taale! Come quiet, me good haythen, and I’ll dale aisy wid yer.”

Hu Dra securely manacled to a scented gum, Tim dealt with the baskets, capsizing the contents and belabouring them with the bamboo until they looked as if they had been the playthings of a baboon. Hu Dra watched the foundation of his fortune vanish. He wailed.

“Come away, me bhoy! I arrest ye, Tsing Hi, fer escaping from lawful custody. Ye may be charged also with resisting the pollis in the execution of dooty. It’s a sarious charge. If ye come quiet I’ll maake it aisy fer ye. If ye maake it a haard job for me, be gorra I’ll inuake ye sorryful!”

Hu Dra gathered that it was a case of mistaken identity. He endeavoured to explain that he was Hu Dra, and not Tsing Hi. Tim curtly informed him that he was none other than Tsing Hi, that he had been convicted of stealing gold, and while on the way to Cooktown had wilfully and with malice aforethought escaped from legal custody. He would be taken to Cooktown at once. Hu Dra understood but little of the harangue, but being a pious Buddhist, having once climbed the Holy Mountain to gain merit, and being in the hands of a strong man armed, he accepted the fate of the moment. Meekly he followed Tim to the spot where the horses had been left, and was hoisted into the saddle and manacled. It was all a dreadful mystery, but he was sage enough to accept hard facts.

“Me Hu Dra,” he explained over and over again, in vain repetition.

“Ye’re Tsing Hi, I tell yer. Ye’re Tsing Hi in the name of Her Majesty. Haven’t I arrested ye as sich?”

“Me Hu Dra,” reiterated the captive as they jogged on. “Me come Coo’tow’ one yar.”

“Shut yer mout! Didn’t I tell yer before that ye’re Tsing Hi? Didn’t yer wilfully and knowingly escaape from me whin I was having a bite to ate, and I had yer tied to the post at the shanty back beyant there! Naw, I’ll hear no more of yer Hu Rahin’. Kape a civil tongue betune yer taath, or, be gorra, worse ‘ll happen yer.”

Hu Dra was patient. He thought of his pilgrimage long ago to the top of Mount Omei. Was this the reward he had gained?

He solaced his soul by murmuring the pious invocation which all pilgrims to the Sacred Mount have perpetually on their lips —“Om mane padme om!”

Torn from his secluded garden and happy and profitable toil, bruised and manacled, bundled on to a fear-provoking horse, hurried off he knew not whither, through a drought-stricken land under a searing sun, the road reeking with dust — what a plight for a devout Buddhist, who had sought to avert calamity and prolong life by the ascent of the chill mount where, alone in all the world, is revealed the “Glory of Buddha.”

Mystic that he was, he found sure comfort in pious meditations. Present pains of body and mind vanished as with half-shut eyes he drifted into the chill realm where he hearkened to chants of priests, the tinkling of the temple bells, the fervent response of hundreds of pilgrims as meek as himself —“Om mane padme om!”

Such was the potency of the mechanical repetition of the all-healing words that Tim presently found himself echoing them, and brought himself up with a jerk.

“It’s all haythen rubbish and cussing. The pore fule’s daft wid the hate and the dust and the welt I give him. Shure it’s the way I have to be sorry for the crature.”

Like the refrain of an infectious song, the musical phrase would not be banished from Tim’s mind and lips, and so the tough, rough Irishman and the gentle exile from the Flowery Land went on their way, scarce conscious of the grimy miles, both dreamingly hailing the jewel in the lotus.

Three days later the travel-stained pair arrived at Cooktown, where Hu Dra — henceforth to be known officially and authoritatively, and in spite of all protest, as Tsing Hi — was duly consigned to the custody of the lock-up keeper, to await escort to the town where his sentence was to be served.

“He’s that quare in his hid,” Tim informed Jock Egan, who now had charge. “He’s bin Tsing Hi-in and Hu Rah-in’ and Paddy Om-in’ (d’ye know the maan, Jock?) all along the thrack till it’s fair fascinated I am. And barrin’ him bein’ the very thafe o’ the wurrld, it’s a poor honest body he be. Shure it’s little enough truble he give me, and me all alone be meself. An! the swag of him! Glory be to God, I dunno but it’s wort five hundred pounds if it’s wort a sint! Yirra! but it’s weery I am. It’s little slape I’ve had. Shure the whole beesely thrack be lousy wid shnaakes; and show me the man as cud slape shweet wid maybe four of the varmint all ascroodging and squaaking nath his blanket!”

“It’s quare in yer head yerself,” ye’re exclaimed Jock. “Be off to bed wid ye. If the sargint gets ye a-talkin’ like that, he’ll be afther thinkin’ ye’re in dhrink.”

“Then, me sowl to glory; he’ll jist be thinkin’ fwhat I’m wishful for. It’s that farefull dhry up there on the Palmer I could dhrain a bucket.”

“Get to bed, yer fool! Ye’re talkin’ that wild, ye’ll have no care for yerself. It’s meself that’ll git the good woman beyant there to git ye a cup o’ biling hot tay.”

With that Jock got him out, with papers all in order.

Hu Dra had disappeared from the tableland as suddenly but not as’ tracklessly as a phantom. Lonely men in their tents and three or four mothers of families in their slab humpies looked out vainly for him for three days, anticipating necessary vegetables, and, being disappointed, slandered him courageously, while they found consolation in the reflection that if he ever came his round again they would distress and vex him by withholding payments for the vegetables of the past. Not a customer but owed him something. His country men gave notice of his disappearance to the police, and black-trackers off-hand told a graphic and obvious story. Hu Dra had begun his weekly round when he had been attacked by myalls. They had capsized his baskets and wantonly battered them to pieces. For him had been reserved the customary fate. He had been hustled off to the gorges contiguous to Hell’s Gates, to be killed and eaten in peace and comfort. His hut, his cherished garden were forthwith occupied and tended by another of the race-claiming cousinship. The newcomer even demanded payment of debts owing to his unfortunate relation, but the whole population sniffed with such vigour that the claim was not persisted in. Once a Chinaman had left the district unceremoniously, more especially at the forcible persuasion of flesh-hungry blacks, his dues lapsed by unanimous consent. He became merely a fragrant remembrance. It is so still, and the virtue is as virile as the odour of musk.

To himself Hu Dra was always so. Be his official and authoritative title for the time being what it might, he was determined not to sacrifice his identity.

The gaoler found him a docile and obedient creature with an abiding affection for plants, which sprang up under his hands like magic. Within two months corners of the desert yard began to blossom, to bear cucumbers and radishes, and to be fragrant with shallots.

The pride of the gentle gardener lay in a few plants of zinnias close to a dripping tap. In bright red, gold, and white, he accepted them as substitutes for the sacred lotus, and prison flowers never flaunted more freely. As innocent as they, he deftly, tirelessly trained each plant, caressed each opening bud, cherished it as if it were a jewel, and found surcease of the pangs of exile, easement for the restraints upon liberty, and blissful consolation. Tendance upon the garden under the strait shadow of wall was to him, not a duty, not a pastime, but a ritual. The captive was happy, for here was the end of his pilgrimage.

Exemplary conduct, combined with the art with which he forced salads from the boorish soils, found him favour and earned privileges and concessions.

Hu Dra kept no count of the passing months. What was time to a contemplative Buddhist whose being was permeated with the hope of release from delusions and sorrow and of attaining final sanctification?

One morning he was summarily marched into the presence of the big loud-voiced man whose orders were obeyed with instant smartness, who told him, to his amazement and despair, that he must depart with his property. the seals of a sack were broken before him, and its contents displayed and duly accounted for — a sleeping-mat, a small red blanket, the elastic-side boots, two scrolls of sinfully painted silk, a hard round hat stuffed with gaudy handkerchiefs, three watches and varied jewellery in a ginger-jar, the quaintly carved toilet devices, the jam-tin full of nuggets, and a chamois-leather bag delusively heavy with fine gold.

The same authority which had ordered his affairs ever since he had been torn from the burnt hills now commanded him to begone.

For nigh upon two years he had dwelt passively in dream-land. This was but another wonderment entrancingly agreeable. Without endeavouring to elucidate the incomprehensible, he accepted the gifts of the gods, and asked for a yellow zinnia. It was a reality, a guarantee, an assurance.

Good, though gruff, the gaoler was wont to say that his departing guest gazed on the flower with almost religious fervour and mumbled over it a prayer; and the gaoler’s insight was true, for in comparison with a flower, the masonic emblem, the pride of Tsing Hi’s life was to Hu Dra but tinsel.

It passed all understanding.,

Hastening to escape from the land of bewilderment and easily gotten riches, Hu Dra-the quietest, the happiest, the wealthiest of a great company of his fellows boarded a steamer for Hong-Kong.

Many a long year after, Tim, who had blossomed into a sub-inspector, had retired on pension, and had lost most of his brogue in the process, confided in me the whole story.

“You see, my friend, it was either the sack or Chinkee for me. I got the Chinkee. There were plenty of ’em!”

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