My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter I

In the Beginning

Had I a plantation of this Isle, my lord —

* * *

I’ the Commonwealth I would by contraries

Execute all things; for no kind of traffic

Would I admit . . . riches, poverty

And use of service, none.


How quaint seems the demand for details of life on this Isle of Scent and Silence! Lolling in shade and quietude, was I guilty of indiscretion when I babbled of my serene affairs, and is the penalty so soon enforced? Can the record of such a narrow, compressed existence be anything but dull? Can one who is indifferent to the decrees of constituted society; who is aloof from popular prejudices; who cares not for the gaieties of the crowd or the vagaries of fashion; who does not dance or sing, or drink to toasts, or habitually make any loud noise, or play cards or billiards, or attend garden parties; who has no political ambitions; who is not a painter, or a musician, or a man of science; whose palate is as averse from ardent spirits as from physic; who is denied the all-redeeming vice of teetotalism; who cannot smoke even a pipe of peace; who is a casual, a nonentity a scout on the van of civilisation dallying with the universal enemy, time — can such a one, so forlorn of popular attributes, so weak and watery in his tastes, have aught to recite harmonious to the, ear of the world?

Yet, since my life — and in the use, of the possessive pronoun here and elsewhere, let it signify also the life of my life-partner — is beyond the range of ordinary experience, since it is immune from the ferments which seethe and muddle the lives of the many, I am assured that a familiar record will not be deemed egotistical, I am scolded because I did not confess with greater zeal, I am bidden to my pen again.

An attempt to fulfil the wishes of critics is confronted with risk. Cosy in my security, distance an adequate defence, why should I rush into the glare of perilous publicity? Here is an unpolluted Isle, without history, without any sort of fame. There come to it ordinary folk of sober understanding and well-disciplined ideas and tastes, who pass their lives without disturbing primeval silences or insulting the free air with the flapping of any ostentatious flag. Their doings are not romantic, or comic, or tragic, or heroic; they have no formula for the solution of social problems, no sour vexations to be sweetened, no grievance against society, no pet creed to dandle. What is to be said of the doings of such prosaic folk — folk who have merely set themselves free from restraint that they might follow their own fancies without hurry and without hindrance?

Moreover, if anything be more tedious than a twice-told tale, is it not the repetition of one half told? Since a demand is made for more complete details than were given in my “Confessions,” either I must recapitulate, or, smiling, put the question by. It is simplicity itself to smile, and can there be anything more gracious or becoming? Who would not rather do so than attempt with perplexed brow a delicate, if not difficult, duty?

I propose, therefore, to hastily fill in a few blanks in my previous sketch of our island career and to pass on to features of novelty and interest — vignettes of certain natural and unobtrusive features of the locality, first-hand and artless.

This, then, is for candour. Studiously I had evaded whensoever possible the intrusion of self, for do not I rank myself among the nonentities — men whose lives matter nothing, whose deaths none need deplore. How great my bewilderment to find that my efforts at concealment — to make myself even more remote than my Island — had had by impish perversity a contrary effect! On no consideration shall I part with all my secrets. Bereave me of my illusions and I am bereft, for they are “the stardust I have clutched.”

One confessedly envious critic did chide because of the calculated non-presentation of a picture of our humble bungalow. So small a pleasure it would be sinful to deny. He shall have it, and also a picture of the one-roomed cedar hut in which we lived prior to the building of the house of comfort.

Who could dignify with gilding our utterly respectable, our limp history? There is no margin to it for erudite annotations. Unromantic, unsensational, yet was the actual beginning emphasis by the thud of a bullet. To that noisy start of our quiet life I meander to ensure chronological exactitude.

In September of the year 1896 with a small par of friends we camped on the beach of this Island — the most fascinating, the most desirable on the coast of North Queensland.

Having for several years contemplated a life of seclusion in the bush, and having sampled several attractive and more or less suitable scenes, we were not long in concluding that here was the ideal spot. From that moment it was ours. In comparison the sweetest of previous fancies became vapid. Legal rights to a certain undefined area having been acquired in the meantime, permanent settlement began on September 28, 1897.

For a couple of weeks thereafter we lived in tents, while with clumsy haste — for experience had to, be acquired — we set about the building of a hut of cedar, the parts of which were brought from civilisation ready for assembling. Houses, however, stately or humble, in North Queensland, are sacrificial to what are known popularly as “white ants” unless special means are taken for their exclusion. Wooden buildings rest on piles sunk in the ground, on the top of which is an excluder of galvanised iron in shape resembling a milk dish inverted. It is also wise to take the additional precaution of saturating each pile with an arsenical solution. Being quite unfamiliar with the art of hut-building, and in a frail physical state, I found the work perplexing and most laborious, simple and light as it all was. Trees had to be felled and sawn into proper lengths for piles, and holes sunk, and the piles adjusted to a uniform level. With blistered and bleeding hands, aching muscles, and stiff joints I persevered.

While we toiled our fare, simplicity itself, was eaten with becoming lack of style in the shade of a bloodwood-tree, the tents being reserved for sleeping. When the blacks could be spared, fish was easily obtainable, and we also drew upon the scrub fowl and pigeon occasionally, for the vaunting proclamation for the preservation of all birds had not been made. Tinned meat and bread and jam formed the most frequent meals, for there were hosts of simple, predestined things which had to be painfully learned. But there was no repining. Two months’ provisions had been brought; the steamer called weekly, so that we did not contemplate famine, though thriftiness was imperative. Nor did we anticipate making any remarkable addition to our income, for the labour of my own hands, however eager and elated my spirits, was, I am forced to deplore, of little advantage. I could be very busy about nothing, and there were blacks to feed, therefore did we hasten to prepare a small area of forest land, and a still smaller patch of jungle for the cultivation of maize, sweet potatoes, and vegetables. Fruit, being a passion and a hobby, was given special encouragement and has been in the ascendant ever since, to the detriment of other branches of cultural enterprise.

I have said that our Island career began with an explosion. To that starting-point must I return if the narration of the tribulations our youthful inexperience suffered is to be orderly and exact.

While we camped, holiday-making, the year prior to formal and rightful occupancy, in a spasm of enthusiasm, which still endures, I selected the actual site for a modest castle then and there built in the accommodating air. It was something to have so palpable and rare a base for the fanciful fabric. All in a moment, disdaining formality, and to the, accompaniment of the polite jeers of two long-suffering friends, I proclaimed “Here shall I live! On this spot shall stand the probationary palace!” and so saying fired my rifle at a tree a few yard’s off. But the stolid tree — a bloodwood, all bone, toughened by death, a few ruby crystals in sparse antra all that remained significant of past life — afforded but meagre hospitality to the, soft lead.

“Ah!” exclaimed one of my chums, “the old tree foreswears him! The Island refuses him!”

But the homely back gate swings over the charred stump of the boorish tree burnt flush with the ground. Twelve months and a fortnight after the firing of the shot which did not echo round the world, but was merely a local defiant and emphatic promulgation of authority, a fire was set to the base of the tree, for our tents had been pitched perilously close. Space was wanted, and moreover its bony, imprecating arms, long since bereft of beckoning fingers, menaced our safety. I said it must fall to the north-east, for the ponderous inclination is in that direction, and therein forestalled my experience and delivered the whole camp as hostages into the hands of fortune.

In apparent defiance of the laws of gravity the tree fell in the middle of the night with an earth-shaking crash to the south-east. There was no apparent reason why it did not fall on our sleeping-tent and in one act put an inglorious end to long-cogitated plans. Because some gracious impulse gave the listless old tree a certain benign tilt, and because sundry other happenings consequent upon a misunderstanding of the laws of nature took exceptional though quite wayward turnings, I am still able to hold a pen in the attempt to accomplish the task imposed by imperious strangers.

And while on the subject of the clemency of trees, I am fain to dispose of another adventure, since it, too, illustrates the brief interval between the sunny this and the gloomy that. Fencing was in progress — a fence designed to keep goats within bounds. Of course, the idea was preposterous. One cannot by mere fencing exclude goats. The proof is here. To provide posts for the vain project trees were felled, the butts of which were reduced to due dimensions by splitting. A dead tree stood on a slope, and with the little crosscut we attacked its base, cutting a little more than half-way through. When a complementary cut had been made on the other side, the tree, with a creak or two and a sign which ended in “swoush,” fell, and as it did so I stepped forward, remarking to the taciturn black boy, “Clear cut, Paddy!” The words were on my lips when a “waddy,” torn from the vindictive tree and flung, high and straight into the inoffensive sky, descended flat on the red stump with a gunlike report. The swish of the waddy down-tilted the frayed brim of my cherished hat!

The primary bullet is not yet done with, for when the tree which had reluctantly housed it for a year was submitted to the fires of destruction among the charcoal a blob of bright lead confirmed my scarcely credited story that the year before the datum for our castle, then aerial and now substantial, had been established in ponderous metal.

What justification existed for the defacement of the virginal scene by an unlovely dwelling — the, imposition of a scar on the unspotted landscape? None, save that the arrogant intruder needed shelter, and that he was neither a Diogenes to be content in a tub nor a Thoreau to find in boards an endurable temporary substitute for blankets.

It was resolved that the shelter should by way of compensation be unobtrusive, hidden in a wilderness of leaves. The sacrifice of those trees unhaply in prior occupation of the site selected would be atoned for by the creation of a modest garden of pleasant-hued shrubs and fruit-trees and lines and groves of coconut-palms. My conscience at least has been, or rather is being, appeased for the primary violation of the scene, for trees perhaps, more beautiful, certainly more useful, stand for those destroyed. The Isle suffers no gross disfigurement. Except for a wayward garden and the most wilful plantation of tropical fruit-trees, no change has been wrought for which the genius of the Isle need demand satisfaction.

Though of scented cedar the hut was ceilingless. Resonant corrugated iron and boards an inch thick intervened between us and the noisy tramplings of the rain and heat of the sun. The only room accommodated some primitive furniture, a bed being the denominating as well as the essential feature. A little shambling structure of rough slabs and iron walls contrived a double debt to pay — kitchen and dining-room.

From the doorsteps of the hut we landed on mother earth, for the verandas were not floored. Everything was as homely and simple and inexpensive as thought and thrift might contrive. Our desire to live in the open air became almost compulsory, for though you fly from civilisation and its thralls you cannot escape the social instincts of life. The hut became the focus of life other than human. The scant hut-roof sheltered more than ourselves.

On the narrow table, under cover of stray articles and papers, grey bead-eyed geckoes craftily stalked moths and beetles and other fanatic worshippers of flame as they hastened to sacrifice themselves to the lamp. In the walls wasps built terra-cotta warehouses in which to store the semi-animate carcasses of spiders and grubs; a solitary bee constructed nondescript comb among the books, transforming a favourite copy of “Lorna Doone” into a solid block. Bats, sharp-toothed, and with pin-point eyes, swooped in at one door, quartered the roof with brisk eagerness, and departed by the other.

Finding ample food and safe housing, bats soon became permanent lodgers. For a time it was novel and not unpleasant to be conscious in the night of their waftings, for they were actual checks upon the mosquitoes which came to gorge themselves on our unsalted blood. But they increased so rapidly that their presence became intolerable. The daring pioneer which had happened during its nocturnal expeditions to discover the very paradise for the species proclaimed the glad tidings, and relatives, companions, and friends flocked hither, placing themselves under our protection with contented cheepings. Though the room became mosquitoless, serious objections to the scavengers developed. Before a writ of ejection could be enforced, however, a sensational cause for summary proceedings arose.

In the dimness of early morning when errant bats flitted home to cling to the ridge-pole, squeaking and fussy flutterings denoted unwonted disturbance. Daylight revealed a half concealed, sleeping snake, which seemed to be afflicted with twin tumours. A long stick dislodged the intruder, which scarce had reached the floor ere it died violent death. Even the snake spectre did no seriously affright the remaining bats, though it confirmed the sentence of their immediate banishment. In the eye of the bats the sanctuary of the roof with an odd snake or two was preferable to inclement hollow branches open to the raids of undisciplined snakes. Definite sanitary reasons, supplemented by the fact that where bats are there will the snakes be gathered together, and a pious repugnance to snakes as lodgers, made the casting out of the bats a joyful duty.

So we lived, more out of the hut than in it, from October, 1897, until Christmas Day, 1903. We find the bungalow, though it, too, has no ceiling, much more to our convenience, for the hut has become crowded. It could no longer contain our content and the portable property which became caught in its vortex.

In the designing of the bungalow two essentials were supreme, cost and comfort — minimum of cost, maximum of comfort. Aught else was as nothing. There was no alignment to obey, no rigid rules and regulations as to style and material. The surroundings being our own, we had compassion on them, neither offering them insult with pretentious prettiness nor domineering over them with vain assumption and display. Low walls, unaspiring roof, and sheltering veranda, so contrived as to create, not tickling, fidgety draughts but smooth currents, “so full as seem asleep,” to flush each room so sweetly and softly that no perceptible difference between the air under the roof and of the forest is at any time perceptible.

Since the kitchen (as necessary here as elsewhere) is not only of my own design but nearly every part of the construction absolutely the work of my unaided, inexperienced hands, I shall describe it in detail — not because it presents features provocative of pride, but because the ideas it embodies may be worth the consideration of others similarly situated who want a substantial, smokeless, dry, convenient appurtenance to their dwelling. Two contrary conditions had to be considered — the hostility of white ants to buildings of wood, and the necessity for raising the floor but slightly above the level of the ground.

A bloodwood-tree, tall, straight, and slim, was felled. It provided three logs — two each 15 feet long and one 13 feet. From another tree another 13-foot log was sawn. All the sapwood was adzed off; the ends were “checked” so that they would interlock. Far too weighty to lift, the logs were toilfully transported inch by inch on rollers with a crowbar as a lever. Duly packed up with stones and levelled, they formed the foundations, but prior to setting them a bed of home-made asphalt (boiling tar and seashore sand) was spread on the ground where they were destined to lie. Having adjusted each in its due position, I adzed the upper faces and cut a series of mortices for the studs, which were obtained in the bush — mere thin, straight, dry trees which had succumbed to bush fires. Each was roughly squared with the adze and planed and tenoned.

Good fortune presented, greatly to the easement of labour, two splendid pieces of driftwood for posts for one of the doors. To the sea also I was indebted for long pieces to serve as wall plates, one being the jibboom of what must have been a sturdily-built boat, while the broken mast of a cutter fitted in splendidly as a ridge-pole. For the walls I visited an old bean-tree log in the jungle, cut off blocks in suitable lengths, and split them with maul and wedges into rough slabs, roughly adzed away superfluous thickness, and carried them one by one to the brink of the canyon, down which I cast them. Then each had to be carried up the steep side and on to the site, the distance from the log in the jungle being about three hundred yards.

Within the skeleton of the building I improvised a rough bench, upon which the slabs were dressed with the plane and the edges bevelled so that each would fit on the other to the exclusion of the rain. Upon the uprights I nailed inch slats perpendicularly, against which the slabs were placed, each being held in place temporarily until the panel was complete, when other slats retained them. The rafters were manipulated of odd sorts of timber and the roof of second-used corrugated iron, the previous nail holes being stopped with solder. A roomy recess with a beaten clay floor was provided for the cooking stove. Each of the two doors was made in horizontal halves, with a hinged fanlight over the lintel, and the window spaces filled with wooden shutters, hinged from the top. The floor (an important feature) is of asphalt on a foundation of earth and charcoal solidly compressed. But before carting in the material boards were placed temporarily edgeways alongside the bedlogs round the interior. Then when the earthen foundation was complete the boards were removed, leaving a space of about an inch, which was filled with asphalt, well rammed, consistently with the whole of the floor space.

All this laborious work — performed conscientiously to the best of my ability — occupied a long time, and from it originated much backache and general fatigue, and at the end I found that I had been so absorbed in the permanence rather than the appearance of the dwelling that one of the corner posts was out of the perpendicular and that consequently the building stood awry. Grace of style it cannot claim; but neither “white ants” nor weather trouble it.

And to what sweet uses has adversity made us familiar! When I bought a boat to bring hither I knew not the distinguishing term of a single halyard, save the “topping lift,” and even that scant knowledge was idle, for I was blankly ignorant of the place and purpose of the oddly-named rope. Necessity drove me to the acquirement of boat sense, and now I manage my home-built “flattie”— mean substitute for the neat yacht which necessity compelled me to part with — very courageously in ordinary weather; and I am content to stay at home when Neptune is frothy at the lips.

A preponderant part of the furniture of our abode is the work of my own unskilled hands — tables, chairs, bookshelves, cupboards, &c. There is much pleasure and there are also, many aches and pains in the designing and fashioning serviceable chairs from odd kinds of bush timber.

In the making of a chair, as in the building of a boat by one who has had no training in any branch of carpentry, there is scope for the personal element. Though the parts have been cut and trimmed with minute care and all possible precision, each, according to requirements, being the duplicate of the other, when they come to be assembled obstructive obstinacy prevails. One of the most fiendish things the art of man contrives is a chair out of the routine design made by a rule-of-thumb carpenter. Grotesque in its deformities, you must needs pity your own mishandling of the obstinate wood. Have you courage to smile at the misshapen handiwork, or do you cowardly, discard the deformity you have created? How it grunts and groans as pressure is applied to its stubborn bent limbs! Curvature of the spine is the least of its ills. It limps and creaks when fixed tentatively for trial. Tender-footed, it stands awry, heaving one leg aloft — as crooked and as perverse as Caliban. In good time, botching here, violent constraint there, the chair finds itself or is forced so to do, for he is a weak man who is not stronger than his own chair. So, after many days’ intense toil — toil which even troubled the night watches, for have I not lain awake with thoughts automatically concentrated on a seemingly impossible problem, plotting by what illicit and awful torture it might be possible for the tough and stubborn parts to be brought into juxtaposition — there is a chair — a solid, sitable chair, which neither squeaks, nor shuffles, nor shivers. May be you are ashamed at the quantity of mind the dull article of furniture has absorbed; but there are other reflections — homely as well as philosophic.

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