Kinship with his Majesty the Sun of the tropics is not to be claimed offhand. The imperious luminary does not grant his letters-patent to all. Very few does he permit to wanton in his presence without exacting probation. He is a rare respecter of persons. Though there are faces, like King Henry V.'s, which the sun will not condescend to burn, sometimes he smites savagely. He makes of the countenances of his foes a fry and of their bodies a comprehensive granulation. But if you find favour in his eyes—in those discriminating, ruthless, sight-absorbing glances which none may reciprocate—accept your privileges with a thrill of chastened pride that you may bask in his presence and be worthy his livery and of gladsome mind. The harpings of the sweet singer of Israel could not have been more effectual in the dispersal of depression than the steadfast beams of the sun supreme in tropic sky.
Let the sun scorch the skin and blister it until it peels, and scorches and peels again, and scorches and peels alternately until, having no more dominion over the flesh, it tinctures the very blood and transmutes mere ruddiness to bronze. Thereafter you know not for ever the pallor of the street for have you not the gold of the sun in your blood and his iron in your bones?
Of the graciousness of the sun a special instance has been preserved in my erratic diary. Here it is: November 24, 1908: Spent from 10 a.m. to 1.15 p.m. on the beach and on the Isle of Purtaboi, bare-limbed, bare-bodied, save for scant cotton pants. Above high-water mark the sand was scorchingly hot to the feet. The heat of the glowing coral drift on the Isle forced me promptly to amend my methodic gait to a quick step, though my hardened soles soon became indifferent. Nutmeg pigeons were nesting plentifully on trees and shrubs amongst masses of orchids, and on ledges almost obscured by grass. Brown-winged terns occupied cool nooks and crannies in the rocks, and other species of terns had egg reserves—they cannot be called nests—on the unshaded coral bank. After gazing intently on the white drift, eagerly making mental notes of any remarkable mutations in the colouring of the thickly strewn eggs, and admiring the fortitude or indifference with which the fledglings endured the sizzling heat, I found myself subject to an optical illusion, for when I looked up and abroad the brightly gleaming sea had been changed to inky purple, the hills of the mainland to black. Though absolutely cloudless, the sky seemed oppressed with slaty gloom, and the leaves of the trees near at hand assumed a leaden green. For a few seconds I was convinced that some almost unearthly meteorological phenomenon, before which the most resolute of men might cower, had developed with theatrical suddenness. Then I realised that the intense glare of the coral, of which I had been unconscious, and the quivering heat rays had temporarily deprived my vision of appreciation of ordinary tints. Saturated by vivid white light, my bemused sight swayed under temporary aberration. I was conscious of illusion creating symptoms, tipsy with excess of sunshine. This condition passing, I found the atmosphere, though hot, pleasant and refreshing, the labour of rowing across the bay involving no unusual exertion or sense of discomfort. During my brief absence the beach of the island seemed to have absorbed still more effectively solar rays. "Scoot" (my terrier, exulting companion on land and sea) skipped in sprightly fashion across the burning zone, while I was fain to walk on the grass, the sandy track being impracticable to bare feet. In the house protests against the intolerance of the sun were rife. Crockery on the kitchen shelves seemed to have been artificially heated, while the head of an axe exposed to the glare was blisteringly hot. Yet to me in the open air, most scantily draped and wearing a frayed, loopholed, and battered straw hat, the sunbath had been a pleasant and exhilarating indulgence in no way remarkable on the score of temperature.
Dress, other than fulfils the dictates of decency, is not only unimportant but incongruous and vexatious. During bright but cloudless days the less worn the higher the degree of comfort, and upon comfort happiness depends. Sick of a surfeit of pleasures, the whining monarch, counselled by his soothsayers, ransacked his kingdom for the shirt of a happy subject. He found the enviable man—a toil-worn hind who had never fidgeted under the discomfort of the badge of respectability.
In his native state the black fellow is nearer the ideal than the white alien in his body clothes, starched shirt, high collar, cloth suit, and felt hat. The needs and means of the black are non-existent. His dress corresponds, whereas the white usurper of his territory—servile to the malignant impositions of custom and fashion—suffers from general superfluity and winces under his sufferings. Would he not be wiser owning subservience to the sun, and adopting dress suitable to actual needs and the dominant characteristics of the land of the sun? He would pant less, drink less, perspire less, be more wholesome and sweeter in temper, and more worthy of citizenship under the sun, against whose sway there can be no revolt. Kings and queens are under his rule and governance. His companionship disdains ceremonious livery, scorns ribbands, and scoffs at gew-gaws. Bronze is his colour, native worth the only wear.
Whosoever has seen (himself unseen) an unsophisticated North Queensland black parading his native strand has seen a lord of creation—an inferior species, but still a lord. His bold front, fluent carriage, springy step, alert, confident, superior air proclaim him so, innocent though he be of the frailest insignia of civilisation. The monarch arrayed in seven colours ascends the steps of his throne with no prouder mien than that in which the naked child of the sun lords it over the empty spaces.
In civility to his Majesty the Sun do I also proudly testify to his transcendent gifts as a painter in the facile media which here prevail. Look upon his coming and his going—an international, universal property, an ecstatic delight, an awesome marvel, upon which we gaze, of which we cannot speak, lacking roseate phrases. A landscape painter also is he, for have I not seen his boldest brush at work and stood amazed at the magnificence of his art?
Do those who live in temperate and cold climates realise the effect of the sun's heat on the sea—how warm, how hot, blessed by his beams, the water may become? The luxuriousness of bathing in an ocean having a temperature of 108 is not for the multitude who crowd in reeking cities which the sun touches tremulously and slantwise.
On November 21, 1909 (far be it from me to bundle out into an apathetic world whimpering facts lacking the legitimacy of dates), we bathed at Moo-jee in shallow water on the edge of an area of denuded coral reef fully two miles long by a mile broad. For three hours a considerable portion of the reef had been exposed to the glare of the sun, and the incoming tide filched heat, stored by solar rays, from coral and stones and sand. The first wallow provoked an exclamation of amazement, for the water was several degrees hotter than the air, and it was the hottest hour (3 p.m.) of an extremely hot day. No thermometer was at hand to register the actual temperature of the water, but subsequent tests at the same spot under similar conditions proved that on the thermometerless occasion the sea was about 108 F.—that is, the surface stratum of about one foot, which averaged from 4 to 6 F. hotter than the air. Beneath, the temperature seemed ordinary—corresponding with that of the water a hundred yards out from the shore. This delectable experience revealed that in bathing something more is comprehended than mere physical pleasure. It touched and tingled a refined aesthetic emotion, an enlightened consciousness of the surroundings, remote from gross bodily sensations. For the time being one was immersed, not in heated salt water only but in the purifying essence of the scene—the glowing sky, stainless, pallid, and pure; the gleaming, scarcely visible, fictitious sea and the bold blue isles beyond; the valley whence whiffs of cool, fern-filtered, odorous air issued shyly from the shadowed land of the jungle through the embowered lips of the creek. The blend of these elements reacted on the perceptions, rendering the bathe in two temperatures that of a lifetime and a means also whereby the clarified senses were first stimulated and then soothed. With an occasional lounge on the soft sand, when the body became clad in a costume of mica spangles and finely comminuted shell grit, the bathe continued for two hours, with an after effect of sleek and silky content.
Another date (January 10, 1910) may verify details of such a sybaritic soak in the sea as is to be indulged in only in the tropics and remote from the turmoil of man. Between noon and 3 p.m. the thermometer hanging on the wall of the house under the veranda, five feet from the corrugated iron roof, wavered between 89 and 90, while the unshaded sun registered 98. My noontide bath failed to detect any difference in temperature between air and water, and putting my perceptions to scientific test found the sea to be heated to 90. With the bulb buried in the sand six feet from the edge of the water, the mercury rose to 112 in a few seconds and remained stationary.
It being far more blissful to lounge in the sea than on the veranda, I sat down, steeped chin deep in crystal clearness, warmth, and silence, passively surrendering myself to a cheap yet precious sensation. Around me were revealed infinitely fragile manifestations of life, scarcely less limpid than the sea, sparkling, darting, twisting—strong and vigorous of purpose. Tremulous filaments of silver flashed and were gone. No space but was thickly peopled with what ordinarily passes as the invisible, but which now, plainly to behold, basked and revelled in the blaze—products of the sun. Among the grains of sand and flakes of mica furtive bubblings, burrowings, and upheavals betrayed a benighted folk to whom the water was as a firmament into which they might not venture to ascend.
Sought out by the sun, translucent fish revealed their presence by spectral shadows on the sand, and, traced by the shadows, became discernible, though but little the more substantial.
This peace-lulled, beguiling, sea, teeming with myriad forms scintillating on the verge of nothingness—obscure, elusive, yet mighty in their wayward way—soothed with never so gentle, so dulcet a swaying. This smooth-bosomed nurse was pleased to fondle to drowsiness a loving mortal responsive to the blissfulness of enchantment. Warm, comforting, stainless, she swathed me with rose-leaf softness while whispering a lullaby of sighs. Her salty caresses lingered on my lips, as I gazed dreamily intent upon determining the non-existing skyline. Yet, with no demarcation of the allied elements this rimless, flickering moon, to what narrow zone, I pondered, is man restricted! He swims feebly; if he but immerse his lips below the shining surface for a space to be measured by seconds, he becomes carrion. On the mountain-tops he is deadly sick. Thus musing, the sorcery of the sea became invincible. My thoughts drifted, until I dozed, and dozing dreamt—a vague, incomprehensible dream of floating, in some purer ether, some diviner air than ever belonged to wormy earth, and woke to realities and a skate—a little friendly skate which had snoodled beside me, its transparent shovel-snout half buried in the sand. Immune from the opiate of the sea, though motionless, with wide, watery-yellow eyes, it gazed upon me as a fascinated child might upon a strange shape monstrous though benign, and as I raised my hand in salutation wriggled off, less afraid than curious.
Beyond, a shadow—a disc-shaped shadow—drifted with a regular pulsating motion. Shadowlike, my thoughts, too, drifted, but how remote from the scene! They transported me to Thisbe—Thisbe who
"Saw the lion's shadow ere himself And ran dismayed away."
How different the shadow of the moment from that of the king of beasts which led to the tragedy under the walls of Babylon, where the blood of the lovers dyed the mulberry red! It is the evidence of a bloodless thing, a rotund and turreted medusa, the leader of a disorderly procession, soundless and feeble as becomes beings almost as impalpable as the sea itself. Shadows of fish exquisitely framed flit and dance. I see naught but shadows, dim and thin, for I doze and dream again; and so fantastic time, whose footfalls are beads and bubbles, passes, and grosser affairs beckon me out of the sunlit sea.
Oh, great and glorious and mighty sun! Oh, commanding, majestical sun! Superfine invigorator; bold illuminator of the dim spaces of the brain; originator of the glow! which distils its rarest attars! Am I not thy true, thy joyful knight? Hast thou not touched my toughened, unflinching shoulders with the flat of thy burnished sword? Do I not behold its jewelled hilt flashing with pearls and precious stones as thou sheathest it for the night among the purple Western hills? Do I not hail its golden gleams among the fair-barked trees what time each scented morn I milk my skittish goats?
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.
READING TO MUSIC
"Silence was pleased."
As I lounged at mine ease on the veranda, serenely content with the pages of a favourite author, I became conscious of an unusual sound-vague, continuous, rhythmic. Disinclined to permit my thoughts to wander from the text, at the back of my mind a dim sensation of uneasiness, almost of resentment, because of the slight audible intrusion betrayed itself. Close, as firmly as I could, my mental ear the sound persisted externally, softly but undeniably. Having overcome the first sensation of uneasiness, I studied the perfect prose without pausing to reflect on the origin of the petty disturbance. In a few minutes the annoyance—if the trivial distraction deserved so harsh an epithet—changed, giving place to a sense of refined pleasure almost as fatal to my complacency, for it compelled me to think apart. What was this new pleasure? Ah! I was reading to an accompaniment—a faint, far-off improvisation just on the verge of silence, too scant and elusive for half-hearted critical analysis.
This reading of delightful prose, while the tenderest harmony hummed in my cars, was too rare to be placidly enjoyed. Frail excitement foreign to the tranquil pages could not be evaded. The most feeble and indeterminate of sounds, those which merely give a voice to the air eventually, quicken the pulse.
An eloquent and learned man says that the mechanical operation of sounds in quickening the circulation of the blood and the spirits has more effect upon the human machine than all the eloquence of reason and honour. So the printed periods became more sonorous, the magic of the words more vivid. The purified meaning of the author, the exaltation he himself must have felt, were realised with a clearer apprehension. But the very novelty of the emotional undertaking drew me reluctantly from that which was becoming a lulling musical reverie.
Still, fain to read, but with the niceties of the art embarrassed, I began to question myself. Whence this pleasant yet provoking refrain? Not of the sea, for a glassy calm had prevailed all day; not of the rain which pattered faintly on the roof. This sound phantom that determinedly beckoned me from my book—whence, and what was it?
Listening attentively and alert, the mystery of it vanished. It was the commotion, subdued by the distance of three-quarters of a mile, of thousands of nutmeg pigeons—a blending of thousands of simultaneous "coo-hoos" with the rustling and beating of wings upon the thin, slack strings of casuarinas. The swaying and switching of the slender-branched and ever-sighing trees with the courageous notes of homing birds had created the curious melody with which my reading had fallen into tune.
And the sound was audible at one spot only. The acoustic properties of the veranda condensed and concentrated it within a narrow area, beyond which was silence. Chance had selected this aerial whirlpool for my reading.
Again taking my ease, the mellow "roaring" of the multitude of gentle doves commingling with the aeolian blandness of trees swinging under the weight of the restless birds, became once more an idealistic accompaniment to the book. I read, or rather declaimed inarticulately, to the singularly pleasing strain until light and sound failed—the one as softly and insensibly as the other. I had enjoyed a new sensation.
Relieved of the agreeable pressure of the text, my thoughts turned to the consideration of bird voices—more to the notes of pigeons, their variety and range. There are sounds, little in volume and rather flat than sharp, rather moist than dry, which seem to carry farther under favouring atmospheric conditions than louder and more acute noises. The easy contours of soothing sounds created in the air seem to resemble the lazy swell of the sea; while fleeter though less sustained noises may be compared to jumpy waves caused by a smart breeze. Pitched in a minor key sounds roll along with little friction and waste, whereas a louder, shriller stinging note may find in the still air a less pliant medium. The cooing of pigeons—a sound of low velocity—has a longer range than the shrieking of parrots. My pet echo responds to an undertone. A loud and prolonged yell jars on its sensitiveness—for it is a shy echo, little used to abrupt and boisterous disturbances. A boy boo-hooting into an empty barrel soon catches the key to which it responds. He adjusts his rhythms to those of the barrel, which becomes for the time being his butt. "Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps," he girds at its acoustic soul until it finds responsive voice and grunts or babbles or bellows in consonance with his. Only when the vibrations—subdued or lusty—correspond with the vocal content of the barrel are the responses sensitive and in accord. On this stilly, damp evening the air in the corner of the veranda happened to be resilient to the mellow notes of far-away pigeons.
Thus reflecting, I was less astonished that the coo-hooing of the congregation had reached me through three-quarters of a mile of vacant air. There was no competing noise. It was just the fluid tone that filled to the overflowing otherwise empty, shallow spaces.
The nutmeg pigeon has the loudest, most assertive voice of the several species which have their home in my domain, or which favour it with visits. Though the "coo-hoo" is imperative and proud, to overcome the space of a mile the unison of thousands is necessary. But when the whole community takes flight simultaneously the whirr and slapping of wings creates a sound resembling the racing of a steamer's propeller, but of far greater volume. The nutmeg is one of the noisiest of pigeons individually and collectively.
THE BIRTH AND BREAKING OF CHRISTMAS
"He doubted least it were some magicall Illusion that did beguile his sense; Or wandering ghost that wanted funerall, Or aery spirite under false pretence."
He was a tremulous long-legged foal on the Christmas Day we became known to each other. I accepted him as an appropriate gift, and he regarded me with a blending of reserve, curiosity, and suspicion, as he snoodled beside his demure old mother. The name at once suggested itself. It seems the more appropriate now, for he is whitish, with flowing mane and sweeping tail, of a fair breadth, and open countenance.
Can the biography of a horse be anything but crude, lacking reference to ancestry? On this point there is the silence of a pure ignorance, and the record will be deficient in other essentials. Moreover, none of the phrases of the cult are at command, nor can a purely domestic story be decorated with clipped, straw-in-the-mouth, stable-smelling terms.
Christmas's mother was a commonplace cart creature with a bad cough. It was a chronic cough, and in course of time its tuggings took her on a very long journey. She passed away, assisted towards the end with a cruel yet compassionate bullet, for in my agitation I made a fluky shot. She died on the beach, and as the tide rose we floated her carcass into the bay to the outer edge of the coral reef. The following morning the sea gave up the dead not its own. Once more we towed it away into the current which races north.
Some time before these reiterated ceremonies Christmas had been born, and I was grateful to the old mare, whose chronic cough had become one of the sounds of the Island, for he is an ornament, a chum, a companion, and a real character. I find myself confronted by inherent disadvantage, for I cannot even describe his points in popular language. He is a "clean-skin." That is the only horsey (or should it be equine?) phrase in my vocabulary. He is a "clean-skin," and in more than one sense. Clean describes him—character and all—and I like the word. He is 5 ft. 4 in. at the shoulders, barefooted, for he has never known a shoe, and his toes are long; his waist measurement is 6 ft. 8 in., his tail sweeps the ground, his forehead is broad, his eyes clear, with just a gleam of wickedness now and again; his ears neat, furry, and very mobile; his colour a greyish roan, tending more to white in his maturity, which now is. Lest the detail might prejudice him in his love affairs, of which he is as yet entirely innocent, I am determined not to mention his age, even in the strictest confidence, and though the anniversary of his birth is at hand.
Though he spends most of his time in the forest, he takes astounding interest in maritime affairs, watching curiously passing sailing boats and steamers. More than once he has been first to proclaim, "A sail!" for when he flourishes his head and tosses his mane and gives a semi-gambol with his hind quarters, we know that he sees something strange, and look in the direction in which he gazes.
But I am ahead of my story. When he was in his shy, frisky foalage—as nervous and twitchy as might be—one lucky day I offered him from a distance of thirty yards one of the luscious bananas I was enjoying as I strolled down the path to the beach. The aroma was novel, and apparently very pleasant, for to my astonishment he walked towards me gingerly, but with a very decided interest in the banana. As he approached on the pins and needles of alertness, I extolled the qualities of the banana. He stopped, and started again, anxious to taste the hitherto unknown delicacy, but not at all trustful. Soon he came boldly up, and taking the banana from my hand, ate it with the joy of discovery in his features, and calmly demanded another. Thus began the breaking of Christmas, and if I had had sense enough to have followed up his education on similar lines, a deal of hard work, risk to life and limb, and the loss of some little personal property might have been saved. Ever after, Christmas could not resist the decoy of a banana.
When he was two and a half years old we decided to break him in. He was big, and strong, and wilful, and how was a feeble man with no experience and a black boy confessedly frightened of the big horse to accomplish such purpose? Tom is at home on a boat, and enjoys outwitting fish and turtle and dugong. However unstable his craft and surly the sea, he keeps calm; but with a tempestuous horse, who was wont to play about on the flat, pawing the air like a tragic actor, and kicking it with devastating viciousness, well—"Look out!" As was the horse, so was the yard designed—big and strong. Some of the posts are one foot in diameter, and four and a half feet in the ground. As neither of us had built a yard before, there may be original points about this one; but I would admonish others not to imitate them unless they have time, heaps of time, and an oppressive stock of enthusiasm, and I may add, fascinating experience, upon which to draw. The last-mentioned quality is invaluable in all such enterprises. If you have it, full play is permitted the speculative, if not the imaginative, faculties. If you have it not, then the work is merely a brutal exercise, in which a dolt might excel.
During the building of the yard I frequently reflected whether, though Christmas lived to enjoy a long and laborious age, would all the work he performed compensate for the strains and aches and bruises suffered. Circumstances prevented the completion of the yard in exact accordance with plans, for experience, that harsh stepmother, proved that the enclosure was unnecessary. The yard exists as a monument to profane misunderstanding of Christmas's character. Had I realised his high-mindedness, his amiability, his considerateness and shrewdness, the yard would never have been built; a month of fearful over-exertion, and many pains would have been obviated, and poor Christmas saved much physical weariness and perplexity. At the cost of three ripe bananas all the virtue of the yard might, had we but known, have been purchased.
High and strong, and especially ponderous where it was weak, the yard was at last ready. The next process was to induce Christmas to enter it. We had another horse, Jonah, the nervous, stupid, vexatious skew-ball. In the absence of saddle and bridle, Tom deemed it wise not to attempt to round up Christmas. I admired his wisdom without exactly committing myself, and we resorted to strategy.
Naturally Christmas is inquisitive. He watched the building of the yard so intently that we half expected his curiosity might prompt him to try if it were adapted to his tastes and requirements. But when we chuckled and coaxed he grew suspicious, behaved quite disdainfully with his heels, and took a marine excursion to a neighbouring island. When he came back after three days, a banana tempted him. He was a prisoner before he realised. We giggled. The next thing was to rope him. Our perversity converted a trustful, gentle creature temporarily into a ramping rogue. Twice he snapped a new Manilla rope of like make and dimensions to that which is used in the harpooning of whales. For two days the conflict continued. Sullen and suspicious, Christmas ate scantily of the green grass we cut for him and drank from a bucket when we were not looking. At last a crisis came. Tom lassooed him once more. Nelly (Tom's spouse) assisted me to take up the slack round a blockwood tree as Tom cautiously, but with great demonstrations of evil intentions, hunted the weary horse into the corner, where we designed to so jam him that a halter might be put on with a minimum of risk to ourselves. Christmas made a supreme effort. He roared and reared, and when the rope throttled him, in rage and anger dashed his head against the foot-thick corner-post. The shock loosened it, so that two rails sprang out (just missing my scalp) and stunned Christmas.
As he lay on the ground with twitching lips, with frantic haste we cut the rope, and in a few seconds he rose to his feet, discovering that he was in the land of the living with a joyful whinnying. If he had not been endowed with the suavity of a gentleman and the long-suffering of a saint, he would have walked off, for the yard was in a disreputable state of repair, and we were all shaky from the effects of nerve-shock. But no, in spite of abuse and misunderstanding, he was resolved at cost of whatever discomfort to himself to give us further lessons in the science of horse-breaking. He stood patiently while we patched up the fence. Then, taking the halter, and my courage, in both hands, I walked to his head, and with a few comforting words put it on. The good horse looked down at me with wondrous eloquence. His sensitive upper lip spoke, and his sneering nostrils; his twitchy ears told his thoughts as truly as semaphores; his clear eyes under sagacious white lashes transmitted emotions I could not fail to comprehend. "Is that what you wanted me to do?" said he. "Why didn't you do it before? We have quite misunderstood one another! And what an exciting time we have had! I thought you were going to garrotte me. Yes, give me a banana. Follow you? Yes, of course, with pleasure; but don't attempt to hang me again or else there'll be trouble. Another banana if you please. Now, don't be frightened, I'm not going to run over you. I'm not that sort of horse. If I were there might have been a beastly mess in this yard any time the last two days. I was beginning to feel quite peevish. I don't know what might happen if I became really vexed. Another banana. Certainly you took great risks for a little man. We are beginning to understand one another. Are there any more ripe bananas handy?" He said all this and more, as he looked round, cheerfully accepting peace-offerings and listening to many consolatory words. The next morning he showed us how a young and not foolish horse should accept bit and bridle.
Several other episodes embellish the early career of Christmas as a working horse, all of them, I conscientiously confess, arising from gross misunderstanding. He knew in what manner a good-natured, competent, lusty horse should be handled and trained. We didn't, and necessarily had to learn. He trained himself while we took hearty lessons in holding him. Once he decided to gallop with a sled. It was a mere whim—a gay little prank—but Tom couldn't stop him. He ran too, holding on to the reins at arm's length, contrary to my counsel, urged from discreet distance. Christmas ran faster, and by and by Tom sat down on his chin, and Christmas went on without him. He didn't quite remember the width of the sled. Consequently when with a careless flourish he whisked between two bloodwoods the sled struck one with a shock that for a moment "dithered" the Island. It was just like that sucking earthquake which went off bang under Kingsley's bed when he was in Italy. The bruise is on the tree now, and the sled wasn't worth taking home for firewood. Christmas went on but just as the passion of the moment calmed down, the trailing reins—fit to hold a whale, be it repeated—caught in a tough sapling, and it was Christmas that went down. It was only a trip, but as he got up and faced about looking for the remains of the sled, the harness, tugged by the reins, crowded on his neck—backband, collar, hames, chains and all. Then began a merry-go-round, for Christmas, properly bedevilled, lost his presence of mind, and in a fancy costume of the Elizabethan age—a ruff of harness—waltzed most fantastically.
Again a few soothing words and two bananas calmed his affrighted and angry soul. Great is the virtue of the banana! A goodly hour was spent in untying the knots, and Tom made the one joke of his life. "My word, that fella Christmas he no good for boat. He make'm knot—carn let go quick!" Christmas is not petulant, though he is occasionally indignant on a large and complicated scale.
Early in his career Christmas showed and materialised the quality of masterfulness, his chief trait. He bullied Jonah, now banished to "an odd angle of the Isle," courted encounters with a huge nondescript dog belonging to the blacks which once disrespectfully snapped at his heels and for ever after took a distorted view of things on account of a lop-sided jaw, and was wont to scatter the goats with a wild gallop through the flock. How meek and gentle his demeanour when he whinnies over the gate for bananas, or screws his head beneath the kitchen shutter and shuts his eyes and opens his lips, tempting his mistress to treat him to unknown dainties! And for all his masterful spirit did he not once fly from Jonah? During one of Tom's many absences ex-trooper George was chief assistant in the administration of the affairs of the Island, between whom and Christmas cordial companionship was manifested; for George, in his understanding of horses, knew how to flatter and gratify Christmas with small attentions.
More at home in the saddle than on foot, having improvised bit and bridle, he rode off on Jonah into the bush, unobserved of Christmas, who had never beheld one of his species so hampered by a human being. While George was away it occurred to one of us to suggest that a high-mettled, never-ridden steed might be flustered when confronted with novel and incomprehensible circumstances. When George cantered home, Christmas gazed, horror-struck, for a moment, bounded into the air, snorted, and with flowing mane and flying tail fled to the most secluded corner of the paddock with strides that seemed to gulp the ground. In a few minutes he returned at the trot, inquisitive, high-stepping, tossing his head, flinging little clods of earth far behind, snorting, and tail trailing like a plume of steam from a locomotive. Again he looked, baulked, and with a contemptuous fling of heels raced up the paddock. Retreating to him was not running away, nor was staying wisdom when danger overbalanced hope. Again he made a gallant effort to vanquish his fear, but at the critical moment Jonah, under the stimulus of George's heels, charged, and Christmas, with a squeal of terror, thundered blindly among the trees. Now was he convinced of the grisliness of the visitation. That downtrodden, servile Jonah, from whom he exacted prompt obedience to every passing whim, should be thus translated and so puffed up with audacity as to chase him was proof of the presence of incredible mischief from which the most valorous might with discretion retire; and without pause he galloped—free and wild as the blast of a tempest—round the paddock time and again, keeping the greatest possible space between himself and the pursuing apparition.
George kept up the fun until Christmas, beginning to reflect, swerved from fear to the attitude of anger, and to paw the ground and to sniff defiantly the air. Trotting boldly up towards Jonah, he neighed imperatively, but George waved off his assurance with his hat, and Christmas collapsing with fright, made furious haste for non-existing solitude. Once more he ventured, with bolder, more menacing front. He reared, pranced, kicked, savaged the air—not an item of all his pentup wickedness being undemonstrated. Then George dismounted suddenly, and calling in soothing tones, Christmas realised that the appalling creature was but a temporary compound of his playmate and the abject Jonah. Cautiously advancing in a series of contours dislocated with staccato stops and starts and frothy exclamations, he seemed to recognise the whole episode as a practical joke, of which he had been the victim, and to promise retaliation upon Jonah, for no sooner was that meek animal at liberty than he became the sport and jeer.
From the catalogue of the more theatrical doings of Christmas one more may be cited. Within a week of his yarding he had taught us so much, inspired us with such confidence in his resourcefulness and ability, that we resolved to give him a treat in the plantation dragging round a miniature disc-harrow, a particular brand of agricultural implement known as the "pony dot." Being so, in fact and appearance, it was quite a misfit for Christmas—a mere toy with which a gay young horse might condescend to beguile a few loose hours. It was a charming morning. Birds were vulgarly sportful. Honey-eaters whistled among the trees, scrub-fowl chuckled in the jungle. Christmas, too, was bent on amusing himself, and he was so lusty and jocund, and the toy jangled and clattered so cheerfully that neither Tom nor myself could bestow much attention to the birds. What was gentle exercise to Christmas was quite sensational to us. He did not mind what stumps and logs were in the way. We did. Our agility was distinctly forced. But it was a charming morning, and Christmas was out for pleasure. In an hour or so the monotony of the picnic began to pall on Christmas, and as Tom began to chirp at him familiarly, if not quite authoritatively, I sat down in the shade to reflect that while Christmas had been violently exercising me, some of the charm of the day had filtered through my aching fingers. How pleasant it was to think that the discordant labour of the tropical agriculturist was past! This charming morning had settled it all. Tom and Christmas and the "pony dot" would keep the whole plantation as innocent of weeds as the Garden of Eden. Thus to muse in the dim arcade of the jungle absorbing the sounds of the birds, and of the murmuring sea, while a horse did all the work, in holiday humour, was the very bliss of the tropical farmer.
In the midst of a soothing, inarticulate soliloquy the "pony dot" burst out into a furious jangle. Tom yelled. Quick hoofs thudded on the soil, and Christmas swept through the banana-plants like a destroying angel, in a glorious bolt for home. The picnic had palled; and Tom, shouting rebukes, orders, and suggestions from behind a tree, showed by his dun-coloured skin that he had been dragged ignominiously through the freshly tilled soil. A remarkable feature of the plantation is a steep bank, the original strand line of the Island. Christmas, with the reins soaring like lassos, and harness welting his fat sides, stampeded to his fate. In a flash I saw what a ludicrous misfit the "pony dot" was. The impish invention—malignant purpose in its incompassionate metallic heart—furiously pursued Christmas twenty feet at a bound, discs whirling, every bearing squeaking with spite and fury. Struck with bewilderment, the honey-eaters became dumb, the dismayed doves forgot to coo, the scrub-fowl ceased their chuckling, and three cockatoos flew from the blue-fruited quandong-tree shrieking abominable sarcasms. As Christmas heaved over the banks the reins thrashed him. Resenting the insult, his heels flew high. The "pony dot" flew higher and jangled and screeched with accumulating vindictiveness. To what fearsome figure had this hasty flight transformed the mean little emblem of rusticity? A tipsy goblin? No—rather a limping aeroplane of the Stone Age; and it rattled like a belfry under the shock of bombardment. Could there be any crueller device to tie an unsophisticated horse to, and a horse whose single thought had been a merry morning? It would, when the crisis came, leap frenziedly on Christmas and slice him with keen, whizzing blades.
Tom raced past—a five-act tragedy in pantomime! A terrible jangle and catastrophic silence! No groan from misused Christmas. No remarks from the dumbfounded birds! With the vicious aeroplane hopping after him, he had galloped for the narrow aisle through the ribbon of jungle concealing the beach. There he had met his fate! Yes, the "pony dot" anyhow and everywhere, and Christmas all of a heap beyond. With imprecations on all "pony dots" in my mind, I hastened to inspect the mangled remains. They groaned, struggled to their feet, shook themselves and went placidly home as soon as we had unhitched the chains. One scratch on the most rotund part of the body was the only record of the "brief, eventful history," and Christmas smiled in Tom's face as he munched a soul-soothing banana.
THE SPORT OF FATE
"A populous solitude of bees and birds And fairy-formed and many-coloured things."
Was ever a more glorious season for butterflies, and, alas! be it said, for sand and fruit and other flies of humble bearing but questionable character?
Light-hearted, purely ornamental insects, sober and industrious, ugly, mischievous, destructive, all have revelled—and the butterfly brings the art of inconsequent revelling to the acme of perfection—in the comparatively dry air, in the glowing skies, and in the succession of serene days. Moreover there has been no off-hand, untimely destruction of the nectariferous blossoms of millions of trees and shrubs. Frail as some flowers are, others linger long if unmolested by profane winds, offering a protracted feast of honey, pure and full-flavoured. The light sprinklings of rain have served to freshen the air and moisten the soil without diluting the syrupy richness of floral distillations. All the generous output has been over-proof.
Gaudy insects, intoxicated and sensuous, have feasted and flirted throughout the hours of daylight, and certain prim moths, sonorous of flight, find subtly scented blossoms keeping open house for them the livelong night.
Let others vex their souls and mutter the oddest sorts of imprecations because the fruit-fly cradles its pampered young in the juiciest of their oranges. Me it shall content to watch butterflies sip the nerve-shaking nectar of the paper-barks, and in their rowdy flight cut delirious scrolls against the unsullied sky.
Shall not I, too, glory in the superb season, and its scented tranquillity? Even though but casual glances are bestowed on the dainty settings of the pages on which Nature illustrates her brief but brilliant histories, understanding little, if aught, of her deeper mysteries, but thankful for the frankness and unaffectedness of their presentation—shall not I find abundance of sumptuous colour and grace of form for my enjoyment, and for my pondering texts without number?
What more fantastic scene than the love-making of the great green and gold and black Cassandra—that gem among Queensland butterflies-when four saucy gallants dance attendance on one big, buxom, sober-hued damsel of the species, and weave about her aerial true lovers' knots, living chains, festoons, and intricate spirals, displaying each his bravest feathers, and seeking to dazzle the idol of the moment with audacious agility, and the beauty of complex curves and contours fluid as billows?
The red rays of the Umbrella-tree afford a rich setting to the scene. The rival lovers twirl and twist and reel as she—the prude—flits with tremulous wings from red knob to red knob—daintily sampling the spangles of nectar.
Not of these living jewels in general, but of one in particular, were these lines intended to refer—the great high-flying Ulysses, first observed in Australia on this very island over half a century ago. It was but a passing gleam, for the visiting scientist lamented that it flew so high over the treetops that he failed to obtain the specimen. True to name, the Ulysses still flies high, and wide—a lustrous royal blue with black trimmings and dandified tails to his wings that answer the dual purpose of use and ornament.
When Ulysses stops in his wanderings for refreshment he hides his gorgeous colouring, assuming similitude to a brown, weather-beaten leaf, and then the tails complete the illusion by becoming an idealistic stalk. He is one of the few, among gaily painted butterflies that certain birds like and hawk for. When in full flight, by swift swerves and doubles, he generally manages to evade his enemies, but during moments of preoccupation is compelled to adopt a protective disguise.
As the boat floated with the current among the bobbing, slender spindles of the mangroves—youthful plants on a voyage of discovery for new lands—there appeared a brown mottled leaf on the surface. A second glance revealed a dead Ulysses—an adventurous creature which had succumbed to temporary weakness during a more than usually ambitious maritime excursion. Here was a flawless specimen, for the wings of butterflies, in common with the fronds of some delicate ferns, have the property of repelling water, and do not readily become sodden, But as I essayed to take it up tenderly the wings boldly opened, displaying just the tone of vivid blue for which the silvery sea was an ideal setting.
It was sad to be weary and to fail; to experience gradual but inevitable collapse; to flop helplessly to the water to drown; but the lightest touch of the hand of man was a fate less endurable—too, frightful by far to submit to without a struggle. So, with a grand effort the great insect rose; and the sea, reluctant to part with such a rare jewel, retained in brown, dust-like feathers the pattern of the mottling of the under surface of the wings. What finicking dilettantism—was ever such "antic, lisping, affecting fantastico?"—that rough Neptune, who in blind fury bombards the stubborn beaches with blocks of coral, should be delicately susceptible to the downy print of a butterfly's wings!
Though languid and weary, the butterfly was resolute in the enjoyment of the sweetness of life, Its flight, usually bold, free, and aspiring, was now clumsy, wavering, erratic. Three-quarters of a mile away was an islet. Some comely instinct guided it thitherwards, sometimes staggering low over the water, sometimes flitting splendidly high until distance and the glowing sky absorbed it.
My, course lay past the islet, and I stood in the boat that I might see the coral patches slipping past beneath, the shoals of tiny fish, and the swift-flying terns, the broad shield of the sea, and the purple mountains. Close to the islet what I took to be the tip of a shark's fin appeared. It seemed to be cutting quick circles, rising and dipping as does the dorsal fin when a shark is closely following, or actually bolting its prey. As the boat approached, the insignia of a voracious shark changed to the spent Ulysses, making forlorn and ineffectual efforts to rise. Once again, however, the fearsome presence of man inspired a virile impulse. Ulysses rose, flapping wildly and unsteadily but with gallant purpose. The islet was barely twenty yards away. Would the brave and lovely emblem of gaiety reach it and rest? It rose higher and higher in lurching spirals, and having gained the necessary elevation, swooped superbly for the sanctuary of the tree-lined beach.
Rest and safety at last! But at that moment ironic Fate—having twice averted drowning, twice waved off the hand of man—flashed out in the guise of a twittering wood swallow. In the last stage of exhaustion no evading swerve was possible.
Two blue wings on the snow-white coral marked where the wanderings of Ulysses had ended, while at the corner of the little cove a dozen heedless Cassandras rioted amongst the rays of the umbrella-tree in curves and swoops of giddy flight.
FIGHT TO A FINISH
"Dire and parlous was the fight that was fought."
With logic as absolute as that of the grape that can "the two-and-twenty jarring sects confute," Nature sets at naught the most ancient of axioms. How obvious is it that the lesser cannot contain the greater! Yet that Nature under certain circumstances blandly puts her thumb unto her nose and spreads her fingers out even at that irrefragable postulate, let this plain statement of fact stand proof.
Where the grass was comparatively sparse a little lizard, upon whose bronze head the sunlight glistened, sighted on a chip a lumbering "March" fly dreaming of blood, and with a dash that almost eluded observation seized and shook it. With many sore gulps and excessive straining—for the lizard was young and tender—the tough old fly was swallowed. While the lizard licked its jaws and twirled its tail with an air of foppish self-concern and haughty pride, a withered leaf not three inches away stirred without apparent cause, and in a flash a tiny death adder grappled the lizard by the waist. The grey leaf had screened its approach.
Both rolled over and over, struggling violently. For a minute or two there was such an intertwining and confusion of sinuous bodies that it was impossible to distinguish one from the other. The grip of the death adder was not to be lightly shaken off. When "time" was called, the truce lasted several minutes. Then the wrestling was continued in a miniature cyclone of sand and grass-chips. All the energy was on the part of the lizard. The death-adder kept on doing nothing in a dreadfully determined way. In fighting weight the combatants seemed to be fairly equally matched, but in length the lizard had the advantage by at least two inches. The adder was slightly the bulkier. At times the lizard, full of pluck, would scamper away a few inches, dragging the adder, or would claw the sand into tiny, ineffectual furrows in vain efforts. The adder was never able to shake the lizard; it merely maintained its grip. All the wit and sprightliness of the fight was on the part of the lizard, who lashed its foe with its pliant tail, and endeavoured so to swerve as to bite. Both were light weights. One was all dash and sportive agileness; the other played a dull waiting game with admirable finesse.
In spite of the greater activity and muscular power of the lizard, the combat seemed unfair, for in the cunning persistency of the frail but determined little snake there was something uncanny and nerve-shaking. For fully ten minutes the fight continued. The violent antics of the lizard became less and less frequent. Obviously the tactics of the snake were wearing it down. Though the lizard seemed to have lost none of its spirit, the flesh was becoming weak. While it panted, its eyes twinkled with inane ferocity, and the snake, with that peculiar fearsome, gliding movement—neither wriggle nor squirm—typical of the species, slowly edged its victim under the shadow of a tussock. There both reposed, the snake calm in craft and design, the lizard waiting for the one chance of its life. Swallowing the lizard under any circumstances seemed an impossible feat. To begin the act in the middle of the body was absolutely beyond accomplishment. There would come a time when the death-adder must release its hold to re-seize its prey by the head or tail, and if the soul of the lizard could possess itself in patience until that moment, and take advantage of it, all might be well.
Now, it seemed to me, the only witness to this fateful fray, that both parties to it knew that the crisis had yet to come. The lizard reserved all its energy for a supreme effort—for one leap to liberty and life—while its impassive foe stolidly concentrated its powers in the direction of an instantaneous release and a fresh grip at a convenient part. Thus they lay. A thrill of excitement possessed me as I watched. The flashing alertness of a fly-catching lizard, is it not proverbial? Which was to be the master—the more muscular creature with four legs, the whole previous existence of which had depended upon its agility, or the subtle, slow, snake, which moves under ordinary circumstances not very much faster than a clammy worm? As I watched with all possible keenness a grey blur followed by bewildering wrigglings and contortions indicated a new manoeuvre. Then instead of two reptiles at right angles, there appeared to be but one, and with a tail at each end. The head of the lizard was in the jaws of the death-adder. The fatal quickness of the snake had decided the combat.
But the lizard was not yet resigned to its fate. It rolled and reared and wriggled, tossing and tumbling the adder; but all in vain.
Alas! light-hearted lizard, servant and trustful companion of man, thou art joined in woeful issue! There can be no deliverance for thy jewelled head from that slow, all-absorbing chancery! No striving, no pushing with frenzied fingers, no lashing with that whip-like tail may now avail. Never more may you bask and blink in the glare, or doze in the knife-edged shadows, or pounce upon gauze-winged flies. Thou hast learned too late that snakes, like democracy, never restore anything.
I waited for the finish, which came with painful slowness. The sides of the victim heaved and quivered even as they slowly disappeared and the end of that once foppish tail twitched sadly as it hung limply from the jaws of the gorged snake.
Although it had practically demonstrated that the lesser can contain the greater, the snake was but triflingly increased in girth. It was just in that phenomenal condition which entitled it to the honour of preservation in a solution of formalin.
SEA-WORMS AND SEA-CUCUMBERS
From the tinted tips of fragile corals to the ooze on the edge of the beach sand there is seething life. Exposed by the ebb tide, the sun-caressed slime glitters and shimmers, so that if the observer is content to stand still for a few moments he shall see myriads of obscure activities, graceful and uncouth, of the existence of which he has not previously dreamt and among which his footsteps make a desolating track. Perhaps in no other earthly scene do the gradations of life blend so obviously in form and appearance. This mud is primal, fertile with primitives, for similitude of environment checks variations.
In such tepid slime primordial life began, and in it even in these latter days the far beginning of superior things may be discovered actively pursuing their craft and purpose in the order of the universe. Worms are abundant, and among them certain genera which might be taken as apt illustrations of the more significant facts of evolution. Studying them, the parting of the ways between two distinct orders, each having a conspicuous feature in common while differing in appearance and habits generally, is made strangely plain, and I propose in my unversed way to demonstrate the line of upward development in a few examples.
Accepting as a primitive form that deplorably thin, phantasmal worm which excavates in the ooze an appropriately narrow shaft indicated by a dimple, or, in some cases, a swelling mound with a well-defined crater and circular pipe, the ascent of the genealogical tree is not beset with any great difficulty. These worms are grey in colour and shoddy in texture, merely a tough description of slime with a crude head and long, simple filaments. The sides of the shafts are smooth, and on the least alarm the nervous inhabitant retracts with surprising alertness. Slightly superior in grade, but in uninterrupted succession, is a similar worm which solidifies its shaft with a kind of mortar and carries it up above the level of the ooze about an inch or so—a crude effort in the direction of the acquirement of some ease of circumstance. These flue-like projections are more frequent on the verge of the sandy beach.
The next in order—still slim, though of a slightly more robust habit of body—has acquired the art of spinning (caterpillar-like) a cocoon, and of causing to adhere to the exterior thereof grains of sand and minute chips of shell. Though this vestlet is very frail and though the sandy outer coat is liable to drop off (when it collapses altogether), it seems to me to indicate distinct progress, a successful accomplishment in the direction of isolation, independence, and security. Does it not signify that the animal has a certain perception of the knowledge of good and evil such as dawned upon Eve as she ate the diverting apple? Eve forthwith took to fig-leaves; the slim worm knitted a shoddy wrapper and reinforced it with grains of sand when it realised that there was something better than slush for a dwelling. The sandy coverlet is evidence of the gift of discrimination.
A still more highly endowed relation spins a similar fabric, upon which are loosely agglutinated numbers of small dead shells, grit, and even opercula a quarter of an inch in diameter. In weight, size, and number of its constituents this exterior armour is altogether disproportionate to the extreme tenuity of its foundation. Too unsubstantial to sustain its own weight, it sprawls, like the track of a tipsy snail, indeterminately, slowly developing its sinuosities over the irregular surface of a rock, and slightly adherent thereto, throughout its whole length. Of this there seem to be several nicely shaded grades, some in the form of galleries laboriously built of a mixture of mud and sand, and each indicating superiority to the naked denizen of the clement mud. They seem to be superior in appearances also, for some of the animals display brightly coloured plume-like tentacles, long and capable of being ostentatiously fluttered.
The individual worm next to be described typifies such a wonderful advance that it might almost be designated a subsequent and intrusive sport, no marked are the distinctions it exhibits. It is one of the shell-binders (PECTINARIA), but its mansion of mosaics is unique and beautiful. In the universal struggle for place, self-preservation, and food, the animal has acquired a higher order of intelligence and keener perceptions of safety and of the niceties of life than its fellows. Living in sand and mud, in obedience to some gracious instinct, it gathers numbers of small shells, grit, and fragments of coral wherewith to construct a tube, somewhat similar in shape to the horn of cornucopia, and from three to six inches long. The materials are cemented together in accordance with a symmetrical design, the interior being lined with a transparent substance, which, when dry, is readily separable from the casing! This creature accomplishes by calculation, choice, and dexterity that which a subtle chemical process does unconsciously for the more advanced mollusc, and that it practised the art of the interlocking of atoms ages before the birth of Macadam can scarcely be doubted.
My imagination loves to dwell on the perceptive faculties possessed by this lowly creature, a creature soft and delicate, merely such and such a length of gelatinous substance, slightly stiffened and toughened and graced with a pair of tentacles glittering like tinsel extended from a marvellously constructed tube.
In certain structural details the animal (which in appearance has greater resemblance to a caterpillar than a worm) is even more remarkable than the ornate dwelling it constructs, for it is an actual though living prototype of the fabled race (catalogued by Othello with the anthropophagi)—
"Whose heads Do grow beneath their shoulders."
The paradox exists, not as a whim or grimace on the part of Nature but for a definite and vital end. In default the animal would be unable to obey the first law of Nature—self preservation—for it is soft-bodied and its dwelling has the serious defect of being open at both ends. In such plight lacking special organs it would be at cruel advantage in the struggle for existence. The posterior segment of the body is therefore developed into an operculum-like organ, smooth and of horny texture, which closes the narrow end of the tube. The other extremity is more elaborately guarded, the anterior segment being fringed with a frontal membrane, while the second segment forms a disc, the minute mouth orifice with the true tentacles and gills being debased to the third segment.
Confronted by danger, the animal closes its front door by retracting until the disc presses immovably against the circumference of the tube, the retraction being so sudden that a frail spurt betrays the whereabouts of an otherwise secret dwelling-place. In the centre of the disc is the first segment, from which the frontal fringe is extended in the form of an array of keen bristles as a defensive weapon. With the lid at one end and the armed disc at the other the animal enjoys security and comfort, and when unsuspicious the "shoulders" protrude, the head meekly following. The tentacles are serrate and glitter like tinsel, possibly for the fascination of the minute forms of life which the tube-dweller consumes. To enable it to retract and emerge quickly the animal is provided with a series of tufts of bristles on the back and on the ventral surface of the body with a row of toothed "pads," which fulfil the dual office of grapplers and feet.
With what skill and patience does this pectinarian construct its ornate habitation! How artfully does it pick and choose among the tiny shells and grit! With what rare discretion rejects the unfit, and with what satisfaction retains a neat and dainty item of building material! How deftly does it arrange its courses and bonds, cementing each fragment in its place until a perfect cylinder, proportionate in dimensions, uniformly expanding in circumference, smooth within, rugged without, scientifically correct in design, is the result! How apt, too, the frictionless lining! And all this laborious neatness and precision absorbed in the construction of a tenement which has no time! Does the inmate possess any sense of duration? Addison (quoting a French authority) says that it is possible some creatures may think half an hour as long as we do a thousand years! The magnificent mind of the modern biologist regards a million of years as a mere fag-end of time. The industrious worm which has built so choice a home may have enjoyed the sense of comfort and security for a period representing an honourable age, while, according to the standards of man, the home was not worth the building for so short a tenancy.
Do we not see in this astonishing example a highly successful effort of a marine worm to improve on the condition and habits of its barbarous ancestors? Analyse a bulk sample of the building material, and you shall find it not dissimilar from the shell of a mollusc, and the interior film—no doubt a secretion of the animal—is to be safely accepted as analogous to the silky smoothness which molluscs (often of rough and rugged exterior) obtain by nacreous deposit and which finds its culmination in the goldlip mother-of-pearl?
Still higher in the series, so far as the construction of a tenement is concerned, is that known as the SERPULA, a worm which constructs a calcareous tube more or less loosely convoluted and adherent to a shell or stone or coral, or sometimes entwined into a self-supporting colony.
Another worm builds of sand or mud, with a rough casting of fine gravel and shell-grit, a habitation similar in design to that of the serpula, though on a less complete and authoritative model; indeed, it would almost seem that the latter had designed its tenement after the fashion of that of its poor relation—that the one made a study in mud which the other reproduced in carbonate of lime. But the most curious fact is that a true mollusc (VERMETUS) so far departs from the fashion prevalent in the molluscan world of building a spiral shell, that after beginning one in proper spiral mode it elongates itself in vermiform manner and forms an irregular serpuloid tube on the surface of larger shells or stones just as the SERPULA does; so that without examination of the animal one may easily be mistaken for the other.
What a contrast is here—on the one hand a lowly worm learning to build a solid if rude shelly covering for its tender body, on the other a relative of the elegant, many-whorled TURRITELLA forgetting its high station and degenerating to the likeness of a worm. No doubt it is really a case of degeneration from the acquirement of fixed habits, just as when a lively young crustacean larva gives up its free independent life and glues its head to a stone—what happens? Why, he becomes a mere barnacle instead of a spritely shrimp as he might have been! Let mankind take note and beware.
Another group of worm-like or snaky creatures common on a coral-reef are the sea-cucumbers or bche-de-mer. In my experience the most singular branch of the family is at once the longest and thinnest, for it resembles a snake so closely that at first sight the observer subconsciously assumes an attitude of hostility. There seem to be two varieties of the species. One is much more ruddy in appearance than the other, and its body is the smoother; but they are much alike in physique and helplessness. The figure of a sausage-skin four or five and even six feet long, and capable of elongation to almost double, containing muddy water in circulation and one end exhibiting a set of ever-waving tentacles, conveys a not unflattering notion of the animal as it lies coiled among the coral, half hidden with algae. Far too feeble to be offensive, it suffers collapse on alarm—that is to say, if such a violent mental and physical ill can befall an animal of such crude organism. At least, the tentacles are withdrawn, nor will they be protruded until some sense—unlikely to be either sight, hearing, taste, or touch, but probably nervous tension acutely susceptible to vibrations—tells that danger is past. Then the tentacles are shyly exhibited and the agitations of the animal are renewed.
Throughout the length of the body of the more remarkable of the two species of which I may speak on first-hand knowledge are four rows of bosses, closely spaced, which when the animal has dragged its slow length along to the utmost limit diminish into mere wrinkles, and disappear altogether when it is slung across a stick, and the fluid contents, being precipitated, congest and woefully weight each end, sometimes to the bursting-point. The bosses of repose seem to indicate so much length in reserve. A dozen simple tentacles, sword-shaped, with frayed edges, and about an inch and a half long, indicate the head without decorating it, for they are of an inconspicuous neutral tint, closely resembling the alga among which the animal slowly winds its way.
The progress of all species of bche-de-mer is sedate and cautious, and this, probably the longest and the weakest and limpest of all, surpasses the race in deliberateness. It cannot move as a whole, so it progresses in sections. When the head has been advanced to its utmost, about the middle of the body an independent series of succeedant ripples or wrinkles manifests itself and travels consistently ahead, while farther towards the rear another series follows, and so on, until the lagging tail is enabled to wrinkle itself along. But the animal is endowed with the capacity of quite suddenly retracting its forepart like the bellows of a concertina, and when so compressed to heave it backward or in any direction, so that an immediate change of route is possible. The retraction and uplifting of the foreshortened part is astonishingly rapid in view of the methodic movements of the animal as a whole. It is also notable that when the retraction takes place the tentacles are entirely withdrawn, otherwise they are for ever anxiously exploring every inch of the toilsome way. Scientific men have entitled one of the species—possibly the very one blunderingly introduced—SYNAPTA BESELLII, and brief reference is made to it elsewhere.
One member of the great "sea-cucumber," or BCHE-DE-MER, family is especially noticeable because it is decorated with colours of which a gaily plumaged bird might be envious, though it has no other claim to comeliness. Most primitive in form—merely a flattened sac, oval and four inches long by three inches broad, with a purple and white mouth puckered as if contracted by a drawn string. Its general tint is grey; longitudinal bands of scarlet, green, violet, and purple radiate from the posterior and converge at the mouth, the hues blending rainbow-like. The brighter colours seem to have been carelessly and profusely applied, for they run when touched and smear the fingers. Among a family generally sad-hued and shrinking so conspicuous an example is quite prodigal and invites one to ponder upon the sportfulness of Nature. What special office in her processes does this fop of the species with prismatic complexion perform?
The functions of bche-de-mer are not only interesting, but requisite in the commonwealth of the coral reef, however purposeless to the observer intent upon the obvious and external only; while the genera are so numerous that doubtless to each species is consigned the performance of a special office. Some seem to delight in a diet of slush of the consistency of thin gruel; others prefer fine grit; others, again, coarse particles of shell and coral grit and rough gravel. Peradventure the actual food consists of the micro-organisms in the slush and on the superficies of the unassimilatable solids.
When submitted to the sun on the dry beach death is speedy, and decomposition in the case of some species complete to obliteration in a few hours. An apparently solid body, weighty in comparison with its size and apparently of such nature that rapid desiccation would convert it into a tough, leathery substance, it melts at the sight of the sun, leaving as a relic of existence its last meal—a handful of grit-covered with a transparent film of varnish, which the first wavelet of the flowing tide dissolves. Yet on the reef in a pool such an individual endures complacently water heated to a temperature of 108. Though feeble and of such readily dissolvable texture, bche-de-mer may be regarded as among the mightiest agents in the conversion of the waste of the coral reef into mud—the sort of mud of which some of the toughest of rocks are compounded. Graded by this and that species, the debris is reduced to fine particles, which upon sedimentation help to raise the level of the reef and thus prepare foundations for dry land.
For richness of colour and diversity of design some of the lovely corals and sponges, which seem to counterfeit the inventions and contrivances of man, and the algae, and those anomalous "growths" which fixedly adhere to the under surface of stones and blocks of coral debris, are not to be surpassed. These dull stones, partly buried in sand, reveal in blotches, daubs, and smears the crude extravagances of a painter's palette. Can it be that such brilliant colours and tints, so profuse and delicate, are necessary features of animals of such crude organisms that they appear to be merely disembodied splashes and driblets from the brush of the Great Artist? Look at this fantastic patchwork, brightening the obscurity of an upturned stone with glowing orange. In perfectly regular minute dots a pattern of quartered squares, raised slightly in the centre, is being worked out. Many of the squares are finished, but the fabric is rugged at the edges, where, with miraculous precision, the design is being followed, each tiny stitch the counterpart of its fellow. Unless this gross and formless blotch of sage green interferes or this disc of royal blue expands, the whole under surface of the stone may be covered with an orange coloured quilt as dainty as if wrought by fairy fingers.
Why, again, is this particular miniature dome of coral so precisely spirally fluted, like the dome of a Byzantine cathedral? Why of so pure a mauve and bespangled with so many millions of snow-white crystals? Why—where no eyes see them—should parti-coloured algae flaunt such graceful, flawless plumes? What marvellous fertility of imagination in form and design is exhibited in every quiet coral garden! Stolid battlemented walls, massive shapeless blocks, rollicking mushrooms, tipsy toadstools; narrow fjords, sparklingly clear, wind among and intersect the stubborn masses. Fish, bright as butterflies and far more alert, flash in and out of mazes more bewildering than that in which Rosamond's bower was secluded. Starfish stud the sandy flats, a foot in diameter, red with burnished black bosses, and in all shades of red to pink and cream and thence to derogatory grey. Here is a jade-coloured conglomeration of life resembling nothing in the world more than a loose handful of worms without beginning and without end, interloped and writhing and glowing as it writhes with opalescent fires; and here a tiny leafless shrub, jointed with each alternate joint, ivory, white, and ruby-red respectively; again this tracery of gold and green and salmon pink decorating a shiny stone, in formal and consistent pattern. What is it? why is it? and why are such luminous tints so sordidly concealed?
SOME MARINE NOVELTIES
"And call up unbound In various shapes old Proteus from the sea."
During the cool season the tides on the coast of North Queensland offer peculiar facilities to the observer of the thousand and one marvels of the tropic sea. Spring tides throughout the warm months range low at night and high during the day. In other words, the lowest day spring-tide in winter exposes far more of the reefs than the lowest day tide of summer, while the highest night tide of summer sweeps away the data of the corresponding tide of winter. When, therefore, the far receding water makes available patches of coral reef exposed at other times of the year merely to the cool glimpses of the moon, I am driven to explore them with an eagerness, if not of a treasure-seeker or in the frenzies of naturalistic fervour, at least with the enthusiasm of an ardent student.
It may be that most of the sights which are revealed are of common knowledge among scientific men, and if one is inclined to preach a little sermon on the text of the living stones and polyps and animated jelly, and if such text be trite, let it be granted that the sermon is at least original. Necessarily the sermon will lack commentary and application, and be very imperfect in many other details. If it possesses any virtues, you must apply them personally, for the preacher is not enlightened enough to expound them even to his own, much less to the satisfaction of others.
In many places on this reef little secrets, well kept throughout the rest of the year, are boldly proclaimed when the sea retreats. A fairly common one is a huge anemone of a rich cobalt blue which opens out like a soup-plate with convoluted edges. Another has a form something resembling a hyacinth-glass. The more public parts are not unlike a dwarf growth of that old-fashioned flower the Prince of Wales's feather, save that the colour is a rich brown. Being an animal, it possesses senses in which the most highly specialised vegetable is deficient. It has the power of waving its spikelets, and of the thousand of truncated tentacles which cover the spikelets each seems to possess independent action. Though all, no doubt, contribute to the sustenance of the animal, they, at will, rest from their labours or assume great activity.
It is natural to suppose that the diet of such an animal must be of microscopic proportions. The other day I happened on one which had seized a fish about four inches long, and seemed to be greedily sucking it to death. The fish was still alive, and as it looked up at me with a pathetic gleam in its watery eyes, I released it. It was very languid—indeed, so feeble and faint that it could not swim away. Aid had come too late. The fish was the legitimate prey of the anemone. My interference had been at variance from the laws of property and right. As the vestige of life which remained to the fish was all too fragile for salvation, and as I saw the chance of ascertaining whether the anemone had consciously seized it, or whether it had by mishap blundered against the anemone and had been arrested for its intrusion, I placed the fish close to the enemy. I am certain the anemone made an effort to reach it. There was a decided swing of one of the spikes in the direction of the fish, and decided agitation among the hundreds of minute tentacles. When I, in the interests of remorseless truth, placed the fish in the anemone it was immediately held fast, the activity on the part of the tubes subsiding with an air of satisfaction at the same moment.
It is well known that sea anemones do assimilate such robust and rich diet as living fish. If one's finger is presented the spikelets adhere to it. I cannot describe the sensation as seizure, for it is all too delicate for that; but at least one is conscious of a faint sucking pull. If the finger is rudely withdrawn, some of the tentacles which have taken a firm hold are torn away. Again, the animal is often found apparently asleep, for it is languid and listless, and will not respond to the bait of a finger, however coaxingly presented.
There is another giant anemone (DISCOMA HADDONI) known to the blacks as "pootah-pootah," whose inner, reflexed, convoluted edges are covered with tentacles of brown with yellow terminals. This is friendly to fish—at any, rate to one species. It is the landlord or host of one of the prettiest fish of all the wide, wide sea, and seems proud of the company of its guest, and the fish is so dependent upon its host as to be quite helpless apart from it. The fish (AMPHIPRION PERCULA) "intel-intel" of the blacks, is said to be commensal (literally, dining at the same table with its host), as distinguished from the parasite, which lives on its host.