My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter VII

A Tropic Night

“Come and compare

Columns and idol-dwellings, Goth or Greek,

With Nature’s realms of worship, earth and air,

Nor fix on fond bodies to circumscribe thy prayer.”


For a week the wet monsoon had frolicked insolently along the coast, the intermittent north-east breeze, pert of promise but flabby of performance, giving way to evening calms. Then came slashing south-easters which, having discourteously bundled the cloud banks over the mountains, retired with a spasm upon the reserves of the Pacific.

All day long the sea had been pale blue with changeful silvery lights, and now the moon, halfway down on her westward course, shines over a scene solemn in its stillness — the peace and repose more impressive than all the recent riot and haste.

Here on the verge of the ocean, at the extreme limit of the spit of soft, shell-enamelled sand, where the breakers had roared in angry monotone, the ears thrilled with tender sounds. Though all the winds were dead the undertones of the sea linger in lulling harmonies. The tepid tide on the warm sand crisply rustles and hisses as when satin is crumpled and smartly rent. Weird, resonant tappings, moans, and gurgles come from a hollow log drifting, with infinite slowness. Broken sighs and gasps tell where the ripples advancing in echelon wander and lose their way among blocks of sandstone. As the tide rose it prattled and gurgled, toying with tinkling shells and clinking coral, each tone separate and distinct, however thin and faint. My solitary watch gives the rare delight of analysing the night thoughts of the ocean, profound in its slumber though dreamily conscious of recent conflict with the winds. All the frail undertones suppressed, during the bullying day now have audience. Sounds which crush and crowd have wearied and retired. The timid and shy venture forth to join the quiet revelry of the night.

On its northern aspect the sand spit is the steeper. There the folds of the sea fall in velvety thuds ever so gentle, ever so regular. On the southern slope, where the gradient is easy, the wavelets glide up with heedless hiss and slide back with shuffling whisper, scarce moving the garlands of brown seaweed which a few hours before had been torn from the borders of the coral garden with mischievous recklessness.

The sounds of this most stilly night are almost wholly of the faintly pulsing sea — sibilant and soft. Twice have the big-eyed stone plovers piped demoniacally. Once there were flutterings among the nutmeg pigeons in the star-proof jungle of the crowded inlet to the south. A cockatoo has shrieked out in dismay at some grim nightmare of a snake. Two swamp pheasants have assured each other in bell-like cadences that the night is far spent, and all is well.

As the moon sinks a ghostly silence prevails. Even the subdued tones of the sea are hushed. Though I listen with aching intentness no sense of sound comes to my relief. Thus must it be to be bereft of hearing. This death-like pause, this awful blank, this tense, anxious lapse, this pulseless, stifling silence is brief. A frail moan, just audible, comes from the direction of the vanishing moon. There is a scarcely perceptible stir in the warm air — a sensation of coming coolness rather than of motion, and a faint odour of brine. A mile out across the channel a black band has settled on the shining water.

How entrancing these night-tinted sights and soft sounds! While I loll and peer and listen I am alert and still, for the primitive passions of the universe are shyly exercised. To be sensitive to them all the faculties must be acutely strained. With this lisping, coaxing, companionable sea the serene and sparkling sky, the glow beyond the worlds, the listening isles — demure and dim — the air moist, pacific and fragrant — what concern of mine if the smoky messenger from the stuffy town never comes? This is the quintessence of life. I am alive at last. Such keen tingling, thrilling perceptions were never mine before. Now do I realise the magnificent, the prodigious fact of being. Mine not only a part in the homely world, but a fellowship with the glorious firmament.

It is night — the thoughtful, watchful, wakeful, guardian night, with no cloud to sully its tremulous radiance. How pretty a fable, I reflect, would the ancients have associated with the Southern Cross, shimmering there in the serene sky! Dare I, at this inspiring moment, attempt what they missed, merely because they lacked direct inspiration? Those who once lived in Egypt saw the sumptuous southern jewel, and it may again glitter vainly for the bewilderment of the Sphinx if the lazy world lurches through space long enough. Yes, let me invent a myth — and not tell it, but rather think of the origin of the Milky Way and so convince myself of the futility of modern inventions.

Juno’s favourite flowers were, it is written, the dittany (a milk-like plant), the flaunting poppy, and the fragrant lily. Once, as she slept, Jupiter placed the wonderfully begotten Hercules to her alien, repugnant breasts. Some of the milk dripped and as it fell was dissipated in the heavens — and there is the Milky Way. Other drops reached the earth and, falling on the lily, which hitherto had been purple, purified it to whiteness. In similar guise might the legend of the Southern Cross be framed — but who has the audacity to reveal it! And have not the unimaginative blacks anticipated the stellar romance?

As I gaze into those serene and capricious spaces separating the friendly stars I am relieved of all consciousness of sense of duration. Time was not made for such ecstasies, which are of eternity. The warm sand nurses my body. My other self seeks consolation among the planets.

“Thin huge stage presenteth naught but show

Whereon the stars in secret influence comment.”

A grey mist masks the winding of a mainland river. Isolated blotches indicate lonely lagoons and swamps where slim palms and lank tea-trees stand in crowded, whispering ranks knee-deep in dull brown water. The mist spreads. Black hilltops are as islands jutting out from a grey supermundane sea.

Come! Let me bid defiance to this clumsy dragon of vapour worming its ever-lengthening, ever-widening tail out from the close precincts of a mangrove creek. Shock-headed it rolls and squirms. Soft-headed, too, for the weakest airs knead and mould it into ever-varying shapes. Now it has a lolling, impudent tongue — a truly unruly member, wagging disrespectfully at the decent night. Now a perky top-knot, and presently no head at all. Lumbering, low-lying, cowardly — a plaything, a toy, a mockery, a sport for the wilful zephyrs. Now it lifts a bully head as it creeps unimpeded across the sea and spreads, infinitely soft, all-encompassing. As if by magic the mainland is blotted out. The sea is dark and death-like, the air clammy, turgid, and steamy. Heavy vapour settles upon the hills of the Island, descending slowly and with the passivity of fate, until there is but a thin stratum of clear air between the gloomy levels and the portentous pall.

Lesser islands to the south are merely cloud-capped. This lower level with blurred and misty edges may not be further compressed, but the air is warm, thick, sticky, and so saturated with vegetable odours that even the salt of the sea has lost its savour.

A low, quavering whistle heralds the approach of a nervous curlew, running and pausing, and stamping, its script — an erratic scrawl of fleurs-de-lis — on the easy sand. Halting on the verge of the water, it furtively picks up crabs as if it were a trespasser, conscious of a shameful or wicked deed and fearful of detection. It is not night nor yet quite day, but this keen-eyed, suspicious bird knows all the permanent features of the sand-spit. The crouching, unaccustomed shape bewilders it; it pipes inquiringly, stops, starts with quick, agitated steps, snatches a crab — a desperate deed — and flies off with a penetrating cry of warning.

A long-billed shore plover takes up the alarm, and blunderingly races towards instead of from me, whimpering “plin, plin” as it passes and, still curious though alert, steps and bobs and ducks — all its movements and flight impulsive and staccato.

The grey mist whitens. A luminous patch indicates the east. The light increases. The cumbersome vapour is sopped up by the sun, and the coo-hooing of many pigeons makes proclamation of the day. Detached and erratic patches of ripples appear — tiptoe touches of sportful elves tripping from the isles to the continent, whisking merrily, the faintest flicks of dainty toes making the glad sea to smile. Parcelled into shadows, bold, yet retreating, the dimness of the night, purple on the glistening sea, stretches from the isles towards the long, orange-tinted beach.

Let there be no loitering of the shadows. The gloomy isles have changed from black to purple and from purple to blue, and as the imperious sun flashes on the mainland a smudge of brown, blurred and shifting, in the far distance — the only evidence of the existence of human schemes and agitations — the only stain on the celestial purity of the morning — betokens the belated steamer for the coming of which the joy-giving watches of the tropic night have been kept.

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