My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter XXIX

The Death Bone

(Fact cemented with fiction)

“In accordance with Nature’s designs as he was a good artist he was also good. He possessed nothing but his individuality.”


Wylo was an artist, and, like all true artists, an artist by grace of God.

His family was not in any sense artistic. Of his lineage all had been forgotten, save a few of the many failings of his grandsire. So none could tell whence the talent that burst into blossom with him had sprung. It had not been transmitted. It was spontaneous; it was a gift; and all such gifts — are they not supernatural?

Gaunt old father and withered old mother would tell that Wylo from earliest boyhood could always “make em good fella along tree”; and now that he was a man and there were the emblems of manhood on his broad chest — deep, cut lines and swelling ridges — and he oft wore his hair long and fuzzy, his hand was very free.

Every morning he traced upon the convenient sand studies vigorous though entirely free from the canons of the schools. No authority existed that could tongue-tie his art. Each steamer, each boat which passed was sketched off-hand, and by some little trick, due to his inspiration, character faithful to the original was imparted. Banana-plants in full fruit and slim palms in cluster were ofttimes his models; but portraiture was not Wylo’s forte. On the bark of trees, on flat rocks as well as on the shifting sand he expressed himself plentifully and graphically. He could no more exercise restraint when he found a convenient surface and a piece of charcoal or a lump of soft red stone than he could have recited the Book of Job.

His genius was imperative, almost overbearing. He had been commissioned by an imperious authority to sketch — a fever almost amounting to insanity fired his soul. His work was everywhere, for he had miles of forest and jungle country for his studio, and no hampering, sordid cares to distract him. The light of genius in such an obscure world was unrecognised. Being beyond comprehension, it existed as the coldest commonplace. Not one of his fellows was equipped mentally to register the deviation from the frowsy norm of the camp exemplified in him; and if the camp never produced another artist the default would occasion exactly similar unconcern.

Wylo’s masterpiece in portraiture — the one revelation of the human form divine which he permitted himself to accomplish in other than transient sand, was a fancy picture of one of his many sweethearts — a lady in a very old hat and nothing more, with a few boomerangs thrown in to fill otherwise waste space on the inner surface of his shield. Wylo, though strenuous in his love of art is ever economic of the materials by which that love finds such apt expression. His scenes are crowded.

As a warrior, and as a strategist, not altogether as an artist — though sympathy must ever be with him in that o’ermastering talent of his — Wylo also displayed those gifts which proclaim the gifted, though he was true to his race in many of its phases of simplicity. His skill, or rather his supreme striving to appease aesthetic thrills, made Wylo superb in the fight. He developed a meek, affected voice, somewhat mincing ways, and a faraway look in his eyes. These distinctive traits, worn with careless hair, were so original, so intensely entertaining and notoriety-provoking in a camp which had never possessed the copyright of more than one shabby corroboree, that Wylo made many conquests. For each conquest of the heart he had fought, and the more frequent his fights the more expert and daring he became. Thus did love indirectly raise him eventually to the dignified position of king.

Never before had any man of the camp so many fights on his hands. The artistic instinct caused him to fashion weapons true and perfectly balanced, made his hand the steadier and his aim very sure, while his intense earnestness in love imparted terrific speed to his blows when he beat down his rival’s shield with his great short-handled wooden sword. He was enthusiastic as a duellist as he was absorbed in art. It came to pass that when Wylo was not tracing his favourite seascape he was either flirting or engaged in the squally pastime of fighting an aggrieved husband or scandalised lover.

Wylo had so many of the fair sex to do his bidding, that he was relieved of the necessity of troubling himself about food. Frequently, as all manly men do (civilised as well as savage), he longed for the passion of the chase; and then he fished or harpooned turtle or hunted wallabies with spear and nulla-nulla, or cut “bees’ nests” from hollow trees, when his face would become distorted by stings and his “bingey” distended with choice honey, and he would without patronage bestow upon gratified female friends, old or brood comb.

Wylo was a man and a king among his fellows, tall, white-toothed, generally decorated with a section of slender yellow reed through the septum of his broad-base nose, and with a broad necklace of yellow grass beads round his neck. He wore clothes sometimes, as a concession to the indecent perceptions of the whites (whom for the most part he despised); though he preferred to be otherwise, for he was a fine figure — not a plaster saint by any means, but a hero in his way and well set up, and an artist by Divine Right.

Handsome, then, of build and limb, if not of feature, the ideal of every female of the camp, a successful warrior, a true sportsman, was it any marvel that Wylo suffered gladly that pardonable transgression of genius — vanity? He oft wore nothing but a couple of white cockatoo feathers stuck in his hair. Thus arrayed he was audaciously irresistible, and provoked the enmity of the crowd. As an artist Wylo was an all-round favourite; but as a dandy all but the women — and he was disdainful of the goodwill of the men — despised while they panted with envy and made grossly impolite references to him.

Now, the sarcastic jibes of a black fellow are not translatable, or rather not to be printed beyond the margin of strictly scientific works. Courageously free and personal, they would be beyond comprehension in these chaste pages. Why, therefore, attempt to repeat them? A genius has been described as a deviation from the average of humanity. This definition exactly suited Wylo, for it was discovered when jibes were flashing about that he was positively inspired. They were as sharp as his spears, as stunning as his sword’.

Yan-coo, the wit of the tribe, a stubby, grim old man, who spent most of his time making dilly-bags and modelling grotesque debils-debils in a pliant blending of bees’ wax and loam, to the horror of every piccaninny, soon found that Wylo could talk back with such withering effect, such shatteringly gross personalities that he, who with the spiteful ironies of his venomous tongue had kept the camp in awe, was dazed to gloomy silence by Wylo’s vivid flashes of wit. His weird models showed a mind corroding with vicious intent. He dared not open his lips while Wylo was about. The quaking piccaninnies cringed with fear as they watched him working up his malignant feelings into the most awful imps — imps which threatened violence to their souls.

Wylo was supreme. He gloried in his dandyism and in his skill as a fighter. His genius basked in the sunshine as he made high reliefs in the sand or charcoaled pictures on the cool, grey rocks hidden in the sound-sopping jungle. The one weak spot in his character was his faith in a sort of wizardry. Contemptuous alike of the open violence or stratagems of his fellows, he had the utmost horror of an implement which Yan-coo, who was medicine-man as well as chartered wit, reserved for use against mortal enemies.

This terrible tool he had never seen. Very few had, or even wanted to, for its effects were as incomprehensible as they were tragic. Never employed in the exercise of private or individual malice, the death bone was an unfathomable and awful mystery. So dire was its influence that if a woman touched it or even looked at it she sickened.

What was this instrument of death?

A human bone scraped and rubbed to a gradually tapering point, to the thick, knobby end of which a string of human hair, plaited, was cemented, the other end of a length of several yards being similarly cemented to the interior of a hollow bone, also human. When the stiletto-shaped bone is directed towards an individual who has incurred the enmity of the medicine-man, his best heart’s blood is attracted. Drawn from the throbbing organ, it travels along the string and into the hollow receptacle. The pointer is then sheathed and sealed with gum blended with human blood, the string being wound about it. Simultaneously with the extraction of the victim’s most precious blood by this subtle and secret process, a pebble or chip of shell is lodged in his body with the result of ensuing agony.

Unaware of these very dreadful happenings, the individual so operated upon may not suffer immediately any ill effect. The wizard watches, and if no untoward symptoms are exhibited he takes into his confidence a friend, and this candid friend tells the inflicted one that he must be ill and dying, for the death-bone has been pointed at him and has done its worst. Fear begets immediate sickness, and if the blood of the patient be not restored and the foreign substance extracted from his spasmodic side with elaborate ritual, death is inevitable.

Ridicule is but a slight shaft to employ against any one who may retaliate with so potent a weapon as the death-bone. In the fulness of his vanity and wit, Wylo began to make gratuitous fun of Yan-coo, who fretted and fumed and terrified the piccaninnies with still more hideous debils-debils. I saw one of them. It resembled a span-long plesiosaurus, afflicted with elephantiasis, and a forked, lolling, tongue extruded from a head that swayed ominously right and left. A tipsy, disorderly, vindictive debil-debil it was, that made the boldest piccaninny shriek with dismay. Wylo with a tiny spear of grass knocked the head of the atrocious debil-debil off, and the piccaninnies changed shrieks for smiles.

That charitable feat sealed his fate. It was the beginning of a duel between wizardry and art.

At night Yan-coo, mute with vengeance, left the camp for the secret hollow, in a mass of granite which held the implements and elements of his craft. While Wylo slumbered and slept the malicious sorcerer directed with every atom of fervour he possessed the grisly death-bone towards him from the distance of half a mile. The influence of the death-bone is so completely under the control of the operator that it usually goes straight to the person against whom he in the dead waste of the night breathes his moody and angry soul away. Should the medicine-man, however, be conscious that the potency is inclined to swerve, if he but put his hand to the right or left it must fly in accordance with his will.

Perfectly unconscious of the dastard trick played upon him, Wylo continued for several days to flirt and fight. He had a glorious time, and so, too, had the piccaninnies, for Yan-coo, for reputation’s sake, dared not model debils-debils merely to have their horrible heads knocked off with irreverent grass darts. Rather have no debil-debil than one subject to Wylo’s profane but splendid marksmanship. So the naked black kiddies danced about Wylo, while Yan-coo fortified himself with the grim knowledge that he had Wylo’s heart’s blood securely sealed up, and that Wylo had a pebble in his body which would make him squirm sooner or later.

But, strange though it was, nothing happened to the arrogant Wylo. His physical condition was perfect, his spirits boisterous. The skill of the medicine-man, the whole dread influence of the death-bone were at issue, and to give effect to both Yan-coo whispered that he had employed the death bone against Wylo, because Wylo had become too “flash.”

The recital of the deed struck horror and dismay into Yan-coo’s confidant. He was shocked at the sacrilege, astounded that Wylo had not yet “tumbled down.” It was his duty to tell poor Wylo of his awful fate.

Individuals of other nationalities in all ages have been proof, as Wylo was, against unimagined evils.

“There may be in the cup

A spider steep’d, and one may drink, depart,

And yet partake no venom; for his knowledge

Is not infected; but if one present

The abhor’d ingredient, make known

How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides

With violent hefts.”

“His knowledge infected,” Wylo collapsed forthwith in a spasm of fright. All the prognostics of the medicine-man were verified. Wylo’s hair became lank, his eyes dull, his teeth yellow, his face pinched, his limbs weak. He spat frequently and groaned. He pined daily, for he slept little and his appetite was gone. Knowing that the fatal death-bone had been pointed at him, what was the use of attempting to resist inevitable fate? Rather would he resistlessly meet it. How was it possible to live without his precious blood, now sealed up in the death-bone? And he had a horrible pain in his side where the stone was — just as Yan-coo had said.

All the camp knew what had happened. Yancoo’s reputation had been grimly asserted. Every one now dreaded him anew. Again he was king. Though it was contrary to all precedent to point the death-bone at a member of the tribe, yet had Yan-coo made a law unto himself and his own justification, and the proudest testimonial to his skill was Wylo’s deplorable condition.

Wylo became thinner and weaker every day, for Yan-coo, seething, with malignity, stood aloof, declining to interfere. To him Wylo’s gibes had been more cruel than the grave, for they had had the grace of originality, and once and for ever he purposed to shake his authority and dreaded power over the heads of the affrighted camp.

The death-bone was slowly but implacably doing its office.

Among Wylo’s many sweethearts was one who, in early youth, had been kidnapped from a distant camp. She it was who took the news of Wylo’s direful sickness there, and implored the aid of a rival medicine-man. Glad of the chance of exhibiting his knowledge and skill in a case which was notorious and to outsiders absolutely hopeless, he followed the girl.

After making no doubt whatever that Wylo’s blood had been abstracted, that an angry stone was lodged in his side, and that death was imminent unless prompt measures were taken, the strange medicine-man chanted long and weirdly. He squeezed and Pommelled Wylo, and made tragic passes with his hands over his body and limbs. Then suddenly he applied his lips to Wylo’s sore side, and, after loudly sucking, exhibited between them an angular piece of quartz which he triumphantly declared he had drawn from his patient’s body. Everybody, including Wylo, believed him.

Wylo brightened up at once. The two medical men, whose interests were common — for the profession is very close and regardful of its rights and privileges — consulted, communicating by signs and gibberish not understanded of the people. Accompanied by a few of the elders of the camp, they went to Yan-coo’s surgery, took out the death-bone, and with much ceremony unsealed it.

Blood stained the interior! All could see that it was Wylo’s blood. It could be none other, for none but Wylo had been deprived of any. Ostentatiously the medicine-men washed the death-bone clean, restored it to its unholy nook, and returned solemnly to the camp.

After deliberate and impressive silence it was announced by moody Yan-coo that Wylo’s heart’s blood had been restored, whereupon that hero rose to his feet sound and well though lean.

No word of anger or complaint passed Wylo’s lips the while he regained normal strength and gaiety. With frank ardour he resumed his sketchings and flirting with old-time success. He actually modelled the grossest of debils-debils for the piccaninnies and impaled all the vital parts with grass darts, while the piccaninnies broke into open jeers at Yan-coo, for the spell of the debil-debil had been destroyed.

Such outrages upon the craft of the sorcerer could not be tolerated. But Wylo watched Yan-coo, and one night as he strolled out of the camp Wylo followed with that light-footed caution and alertness significant of his artistic perceptions. Wylo carried a great black-palm spear fitted into a wommera with milk-white ovals of shell at the grip.

Yan-coo went straight to his surgery. Once more he prepared the death-bone. Every detail of the unholy rite was performed with determination, for he had abandoned all remorse.

As he pointed the death-bone towards the camp where, as he supposed, Wylo rested, that hero cast his spear. He was strong. He had the sure eye of the artist, the vigorous hate of a black.

When they found Yan-coo next morning he was still kneeling on one knee, for the polished spear had impaled him, and, sticking six inches into the ground before him, kept him from falling. With his chin on his left shoulder and his right hand still retaining the string of the death-bone, he had died as unconscious of the hand of the artist as the artist had been primarily of his wizardry.

White folks heard of the, “murder.” Wylo was apprehended and put on trial. The solemn and upright judge could not learn the true facts of the case, since the witnesses were incapable of intelligently stating them. Wylo, who had promptly confessed to the crime in the terms, “Me bin kill ’em that fella one time — finish,” but who was denied the right of explaining that Yan-coo had been prosecuting designs against his life quite as effectual as a spear, and that Yan-coo had been “justifiably killed,” was sent to gaol for several years.

Constraint was dreadful to him, and the sorest trial which he endured was the suppression of artistic longings; but he made pictures, he tells me, everywhere —“alonga wind, alonga cloud altogether, alonga water, alonga dirt, alonga stone.” They were mostly imaginative, but to his mind, in fine frenzy rolling, they were soothing and real. He made pictures out of airy nothing, and gloated over them with his mind’s eye. No power other than that which had bestowed the breath of life could subdue the beneficient mania that exalted his soul.

Wylo, is at the camp, sketching, flirting, and modelling fearsome debils-debils for a new generation of hilarious piccaninnies.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

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