Dr. Walter E. Roth, ex-Chief Protector of Aboriginals, and now Government Resident at Pomeroon River, British Guiana, devotes a pamphlet to descriptions of the "Games, Sports, and Pastimes" of Queensland blacks, but since the work has not yet been published unofficially, and since my own limited observations are confirmed generally by him, there seems justification for offering references to a few of the means by which the primitive people wile away time in good-humoured, gleeful pastime. One feature of the sports of the blacks is that they play their game for the sake of the game, not to gain the plaudits of an idle crowd or in expectation of reward. Rivalry there undoubtedly is among them, but the rivalry is disinterested. No chaplet of olive-leaves or parsley decorates the brow of him who so throws the boomerang that it accomplishes the farthest and most complicated flight. As the archers of old England practised their sport, so do the blacks exhibit their strength and skill, not as the modern lover of football, who pays others to play for his amusement, and who, possibly, knows not the game save as a spectator.
Some of the pastimes of the blacks are, of course, derivative from the most engrossing passion of the race, the pursuit of game—animals, birds, and fish—for food. Dr. Roth describes a pantomime in which three young girls take part, and which is imitative of the felling of a tree for the purpose of securing honey stored by bees in a hollow limb. Every detail of the process is illustrated by expressive gestures, even to the indication of the respective locations in the limb of the good comb (which is tabu to women), and the inferior stuff (old brood and drippings) to which the inferior sex is welcome. The whole episode is graphically mimicked, down to the mixing of the honey with water as a beverage.
But such games have not come under my personal knowledge, and as I wish to confine myself to those which I have witnessed, my catalogue must needs be trivial, and far from exhaustive even in respect of the district in which they are, alas! becoming obsolete. In these days of opium and rum, leisure moments are not generally devoted to "becoming mirth."
The very first toy of the blacks in this neighbourhood is the most cosmopolitan of all. No race of infant exercises over it a monopoly. It belongs as well to the palace as the hovel, for it is none other than the rattle. If proof were wanting that infants the world over have perceptive qualities in common, and that the universal mother employs like means for the development of them, the rattle would supply it. Here the toy which each of us has gripped with gladness and slobbered over is found not altogether in its most primitive form. It might, indeed, be classed as an emblem of arrested development in art, for better things might reasonably be expected of grown-up folks who in their infancy were wont to use such a neat means of charming away fretfulness. The toy is a tiny spherical basket of neatly interwoven thin strips of cane from one of the creeping palms, in which is enclosed one of the smooth, hard, lead-coloured seeds of the CAESALPINIA BONDUCELLA. The rattle, which is known by the name of "Djawn," seems to be quite as effective as the more elaborate but less neat varieties employed to amaze and pacify the infants of civilisation. Similar seeds are used by Arabian children for necklaces, hence the specific botanical name of the plant.
Measured ethnologically, perhaps the most primitive pastime is also one of the most interesting, for it seems to indicate the evolution of the spear. It may readily be believed that a black boy playing with a grass dart exhibits one of the early stages which the spear passed ere it reached its present form in the hands of his father with a wommera. As the boy grows up, so does his spear grow with his growth, and lengthen with his length. The grass dart is merely a stem of blady grass (IMPERATA ARUNDINACEA), which the blacks know as "Jin-dagi," shortened to about fifteen inches by the severance of the leaves, which is usually accomplished by a quick nip with the teeth. The dart is taken between the thumb and the second finger, the truncated ends of the leaves being pressed against the tip of the first finger, by which and the simultaneous impulse of the arm the dart is propelled. Accurate shots may be made with the missile, which has a range up to about thirty yards, with a penetrative force sufficient to pierce the skin. Occasionally the boys of the camp in opposing sides indulge in mimic fights, when the air rustles with the darts, and the yelling combatants exhibit expertness as marksmen as well as extraordinary shrewdness in the special protection of the face and other exposed and tender spots, and skill in dodging and parrying.
The "Wee-bah," another toy weapon (also obtained from blady grass), might be designated an arrow, the flight, though not the impulse, being similar. A single stem of grass is shortened to about fifteen inches. By being drawn between the nails of the thumb and the first finger, the web is separated from the midrib for about three inches. The sportsman pinches the web end loosely between the lips. The split ends, held in the left hand, are bent over a thin stick in the right hand. Upon the stick being moved smartly forward, the web peels from each side to the midrib, which shoots ahead with an arrow-like flight in the direction the marksman designs.
Velocity, accuracy, and range are remarkable. The arrow will penetrate the skin (the stem having an awl-like point) at a distance of ten or fifteen yards, and twenty yards is not an uncommon limit to its range. This is used for killing small birds, as well as in idle sport. A few handfuls of blady grass supply a sheaf of missiles, and with such cheap ammunition the sportsman is justified in providing himself profusely when intent upon the destruction of shy birds. Noiseless and rapid, if the shot misses there is no disturbing effect on the nerves of the bird. A dry twig falling or a leaf rustling has no more elemental shock than the flight of the dart. The unconscious bird hops about its business unconcerned until a dart does its work. Birds which fall to this most inartificial weapon are very small, but a black boy does not despise the most minute morsels of food. He wastes nothing, and in such respects is superior to many a white sportsman, who often shoots that for which he has no appetite, and glories in a big bag irrespective of the capacity of his stomach. No doubt the black boy, too, experiences the same exultant passion when his grass dart impales a pert wren, as does his prototype when the thud of a turkey on the plains is as an echo to the report of his gun. The black boy singes off the feathers, slightly scorches the flesh of his game and munches it whole, secures another sheaf of darts, and goes a-shooting again.
Darts are also improvised from blady grass by two other methods, each a prototype of the spear and wommera. The midrib is severed and the web peeled therefrom for a few inches as in the "Weebah." The loose ends of the web being retained between the thumb and the second finger, the midrib peels off completely when the hand is propelled, the impulse being transmitted to the dart. This, perhaps, is the earliest and most primitive application of the principle embodied in the wommera. In the third method the midrib is similarly severed and the web peeled for about two inches; but the stalk is held in the hand, and, being jerked forward, the midrib being torn from the web flies off, though not under accurate control as to direction.
Quite as early a toy as the grass dart is the boomerang made by a boy's father, or a companion older than himself, and which the youngest soon learns to throw with skill. He graduates in the use of weapons nicely graded to suit his growing strength, spending hours day after day in earnest, honest exercise, until some other game happens to become irresistibly fashionable.
A weapon intermediate between the "Jin-dagi" and the full-length spear of manhood is the scape of the grass-tree (XANTHORRHEA ARBOREA), with which youths fight furious battles, gradually perfecting themselves in elusive tactics and in the training of hand and eye. A favourite set target is the bulbous formicary of the white ant which disfigures so many of the trees of the forest. Along tracks where the spears are readily available there are few white-ant nests untormented by two or three. A strong reed which flourishes on the margins of watercourses is played with similarly, and by the time the youth has put aside youthful things and has learnt to fashion a spear of tough wood he is an expert.
In order to acquire dexterity, the fish spear in the first instance is a mere toy, and is used in play with as much vivacity and preoccupation as marbles and tops and kites are by boys of Australian birth. A coloured boy, in all the joyous abandon of the unclad, sports with a spear suitable to his height and strength for a month together, floating chips and scraps of bark in the water as targets, until hands and eyes are brought into such subjection that the art is, as it were, burnt into his blood, and a miss becomes rare. In the meantime he has also practised on small fish, and soon he is a regular contributor to the larder.
What is known as the "Piar-piar" accomplishes the flight of the boomerang, and is therefore termed familiarly the "little fella boomerang." Before attempting to describe the toy, it is interesting to note that the word "boomerang" is alien to these parts (Dunk Island), though in almost universal use among the blacks. "Wungle" is the local title. The "Piar-piar" is made from a strip from the side of the leaf of one of the pandanus palms (PANDANUS PEDUNCULATUS). The prickles having been sliced off with a knife or the finger nails, two distinct half-hitches are made in reverse order. Each end is shortened and roughly trimmed, the knots creased and squeezed to flatness between the teeth and lips, and the toy is complete, the making having occupied less than a minute. Before throwing the ends are slightly deflexed.
The toy is held in the right hand lightly between the thumb and the first and second fingers, concave surface down, and is thrown to the left with a quick upward turn of the wrist. After a short, rapid flight almost on the plane of the hand of the thrower, the toy soars abruptly upwards, and taking a sinistral course, returns, twirling rapidly, to the thrower, occasionally making two complete revolutions. The ends are deflexed prior to each throw. Boys and youths are fond of the "Piar-piar," and men of sober year's do not disdain it, being frankly pleased when they succeed in causing it to execute a more prolonged and graceful flight than ordinary.
Another toy which has the soaring flight of the boomerang is made out of two portions of the leaf of the pandanus palm stitched together in the form of a St. Andrew's Cross. It is thrown like a boomerang, the flight being circular, and when it is made to complete two revolutions round the thrower that individual is manifestly pleased with himself. This is known as "Birra-birra-goo."
Another form of aeroplane, "Par-gir-ah," comes from the pandanus palm—its parts being plaited together. This is thrown high and descends spirally, twisting so rapidly throughout its course that it appears to be a solid disc. This is also used as a windmill, being affixed to a spindle. Children run with the toy against the wind and find similar ecstasy to those of whites of their age and kidney.
The sea-beach supplies in plenty a missile which, from the hands of a black boy, has a fantastic flight. This is the bone of the cuttle-fish ("Krooghar"), which, when thrown concave surface down against the wind and after the style of the boomerang, whirls rapidly and makes a decided effort to return. It is also thrown along the surface of the sea as white boys do "skipping stones," often reaching astonishing distances in a wonderful series of skips.
"Cat's cradle" is popular in some camps, the ingenious and complicated designs into which the string is woven far outstripping the art of the white man, and leaving his wondering comprehension far behind. Toy boats and canoes are favourite means of passing away time by those who live on the beach; and while little girls dandle dolls of wood and bark, their brothers and cousins laboriously chip stones in the shape of axes, and used formerly to make fish-hooks of pearl shell, in imitation of the handiwork of their elders. Boys are also given to trundling a disc of bark, centrally perforated for a short cord, the art of the game being to give the disc, while it revolves, an outward inclination. In these degenerate days the top of a meat-tin is substituted for the decent bark disc, in the making of which nice art was exhibited.
Several of the games of the youngsters are bad imitations of the sports of the white. Just as their fathers find joy in a greasy, blackened, imperfect pack of cards, throwing them down with significant gestures, but in absolutely perfect ignorance of the rules of any game or capacity to appreciate any number greater than three—so do the children make believe to play cricket with a ball worlds away from a sphere (for it is none other than a pandanus drupe), and a bat of any waddy.
But it is due to the crude folks who owned Australia not so very long ago, to say that they had invented the top before the usurpers came along. Tops are made from the fruit of one of the gourds which ripens about the size of a small orange, the spindle being a smooth and slender piece of wood secured with gum. The spinning is accomplished by revolving the spindle between the palms of the hands, some being so expert in administering momentum that the top "goes to sleep," before the eyes of the smiling and exultant player. Dr. Roth chronicles the fact that the piercing of the gourd to produce the hum has been introduced during recent years. The blacks of the past certainly had no ear for music, but now no top which cannot "cry" is worth spinning.
A more primitive top is the seed-vessel of the "Gulgong" (EUCALYPTUS ROBUSTA), the pedicel of which is twirled between the thumb and second finger. Such tops, of course, are the common property of bush boys, white and black, but the latter seem to be more casual in the spinning, though deriving quite as much glee therefrom.
A similar top but of larger size is the unripe fruit of the "Kirra-kul" (EUPOMATIA LAURINA), which resembles an obtuse peg-top, and is spun from the peg.
The "Kirra-kul" tree provides also the means of obtaining that joy in loud explosions which is instinctive in the boy, whatsoever his race or colour. Young, lusty shoots several feet long, and full of sap, are placed in the fire for a few minutes, and upon being "bashed" on a log or other hard substance the heated gas contained in the pithy core bursts out with a pistol-like report.
"As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods— They kill us for their sport."
The cruelty of the average boy, his insensibility to, or carelessness of, the pain of others and of inferior creatures is exemplified by the treatment which the "Pun-nul" (March fly) receives. That an insect which occasions so much exasperation and pain should receive small mercy at the hands of a vexed and sportful boy is not extraordinary, and so he provides himself with entertainment and takes vengeance simultaneously. The hapless fly is impaled with an inch or two of the flowering spike of blady grass to which a portion of the white inflorescence adheres, and is released. Under such handicap flight is slow and eccentric, often, indeed, concentric, and the boy watches with unfeigned delight while his ears are soothed by the laboured hum.
"Blue-bottle" and "March" flies provide another sort of cheerful sport in which no little malice is blended. Some boys make tiny spears from the midrib of the frond of the creeping palm (CALAMUS OBSTRUENS), which, balanced on the palm palm of the left hand, are flicked with deadly effect, continual practice reducing misses to the minimum. Where the grass-tree grows plentifully the long, slender leaves are snapped off into about six-inch lengths and are used similarly to the creeping palm darts and with like accuracy. Hours are spent killing the big, lumbering, tormenting flies which infest the camp, and towards which no pity is shown, for do they not bite and bloodsuck night and day?
These incomplete and casual references to a very interesting and engrossing topic may be concluded by a reference to a particular spear. Since it consoles and comforts the solitary walks of an aged man, steeped to the lips in the superstitions of his race, and haply ignorant of, or indifferent to, the polyglot pastimes of the younger generation soiled by contact with the whites, the spear, though not a weapon of offence or of sport, is serious and indeed vital to the peace of mind of its owner. He is one of the few who were young men when the white folks intruded upon the race, with their wretched practical ways and insolent disregard of the powers of the unseen spirits, against whom "Old Billy," as his ancestors were wont, still acts on the defensive. "Old Billy" never ventures into the jungle without his spear, though throughout his long and expectant life he has never had occasion to use it. He fears what he knows as "Bidgero," a phantom not quite as truculent as the debil-debil, but evil enough to strike terror into the soul of an unarmed black boy, old or young.
The spear is slender and jointed, the grip being 4 feet 9 inches and the shaft 8 feet. Its distinguishing merit consists of an array of barbs (the serrated spurs of sting-rays) fifteen in number, and ranging in length from 1 inches to 4 inches. In the first eight inches from the point are five barbs, the second being double, and the rest are spaced irregularly in accordance with the respective lengths of the barbs, which are in line. "Old Billy" does not allow any one to handle the spear and will not part with it, no matter how sumptuous the price, for would he not, in default, be at the mercy of any prowling, "Bidgero?"
He describes its use with paucity of speech, effective passes, horrible grimaces, and smiles of satisfaction and victory, which make mere words tame. Suppose you ask, "When that fella Bidgero come up, you catch 'em?" "Old Billy" throws himself into an hostile attitude, in which alertness, determination, and fearsomeness are vividly displayed. "0-o-m!" (The thrust of the spear.) "Ha-a-a-ha!" (The spear is given an excruciating and entangling half-turn.) And "Old Billy" exclaims, still holding the imaginary "Bidgero" at the spear's length: "That fella Bidgero can clear out! Finish 'em!" The spear has penetrated the unlucky and daring phantom, several of the barbs have become entangled in its vitals, the enemy is at "Old Billy's" mercy, and since "Old Billy" has no such element in his mental constitution, there would be one "Bidgero" less in the land if there were any reality in the business. "Old Billy's" manoeuvres and tactics are so grim, skilful, and terrible that one may well hope that he may never be mistaken for a ghost, while within thrusting distance of his twelve foot "Bidgero" exterminator. Yet the young boys smile, when they do not openly scoff, because of his faith in the existence of a personal "Bidgero," and in the efficacy of his bristling spear, which many of them regard as an old man's toy.
TOM AND HIS CONCERNS
DOMESTIC AND OTHER BRAWLS
Tom, who holds himself well in reserve, stood once before an armed and angry white man, defiant, unflinching, bold.
As I have had the privilege of listening in confidence to both sides of the story, and as the main facts are minutely corroborative, I judge Tom's recitation of them to be quite reliable.
He was "mate" at the time of a small cutter, the master of which could teach him very little in practical seamanship. The captain was rather hasty and excitable. Tom never hurries, fusses, or falters, be the weather never so boisterous afloat or the domestic tribulations never so wild ashore. When Nelly, his third wife, tore her hair out by the roots in double handfuls and danced upon it, Tom calmly observed, "That fella make fool belonga himself!" But when she rushed at him, clawing blindly, he promptly and without the least consideration for her sex, silenced her for the time being with a stone. The sudden peace after Nelly's squeals and yells of temper was quite a shock; and when she woke her loving-kindnesses to Tom were quite engaging. Tom will ever be master in his own humpy.
To tell of that other incident that caused Tom to look wicked and so bellicose. The captain of the cutter lost half a crown. His excitement began to simmer at once. A hasty general search was made without result, every nook and corner of the boat and all the captain's garments and the belongings of Tom and the other blacks being ransacked. The money declined to be found, and the captain, like David of old, refused to be comforted, and further following the fashion of the psalmist, said in his haste all blacks are thieves. Tom put on the stern, sulky, sullen aspect that so becomes him, and when he was individually challenged with the theft, disdainfully told his master, "Me no take your money! You lost em yourself!"
This calm, plain statement of fact so angered the boss that, calling Tom a cowardly thief, he yelled, "You take my money! I shoot you!"
It is placing rather a paltry valuation even on the life of a black fellow to threaten to shoot him for the sake of half a crown; but the death penalty has been exacted for far less, according to the boastful statements of self-glorifying white men. The boss was raging. He groped in the locker for his revolver, while Tom took a side glance at a tomahawk lying on the thwart.
Presenting the revolver, the boss yelled, "You rogue, Tom! You steal my money! I shoot you!" Tom changed his sulky demeanour for the pose and look that a camera has preserved, saying, "My word! you shoot one time, straight. Subpose you no shoot one time straight, look out."
The shot was never fired.
I asked Tom what he would have done suppose the revolver had been fired and he not killed.
"My word! Subpose that fella he no kill me one time, I finish him one time quick alonga tomahawk!"
In the course of the day the half-crown was found under the stern sheets, where the boss had been sitting.
To coolly face death under such circumstances is surely evidence of rare mental repose.
Once Tom had a jovial misunderstanding with his half-brother Willie, who cut a neat wedge out of the rim of Tom's ear with a razor. He had intended, of course, to gash Tom's throat, but Tom was on the alert. In revenge and defence Tom merely sat upon Willie, who is a frail, thin fellow, but the sitting down was literal and so deliberate and long-continued that Willie was all crumpled up and out of shape for a week after. Indeed, the "crick" in his back was chronic for a much longer period. Tom was half ashamed of this encounter, and while glorying in the scar with which Willie had decorated him, excused his own conduct in these terms:
"Willie fight alonga razor. He bin make mark alonga my ear. My word! Me savage then. B'mbi sit down alonga Willie. Willie close up finish. Me bin forget about that fella altogether. When Willie wake up he walk about all asame old man l-o-n-g time!"
With whatsoever missile or weapon is at hand Tom is marvellously expert. As we rested in the dim jungle after a long and much entangled walk, a shake—a poor, thin thing, about four feet long, wriggled up a bank ten or twelve yards off, just ahead of a pursuing dog. On the instant Tom picked up a flake of slate and threw it with such precision and force that the snake became two—the tail end squirmed back, to be seized and shaken by the dog, and the other disappeared with gory flourish under a root.
Most of Tom's feats of marksmanship, though performed with what white men would despise as arms of precision, end seriously. Yet on one occasion the result was broadly farcical. He has a son, known to our little world as Jimmy, who, like his father, is given to occasional sulks, a luxury that even a black boy may become bloated on. Tom does not tolerate that frame of mind in others. The attentions of "divinest melancholy" he likes to monopolise for himself, and when Jimmy becomes pensive without just cause, Tom's mood swerves to paternal and active indignation—which is very painful to Jimmy.
Jimmy, in the very rapture of sulkiness, refused to express pleasure or gratitude upon the presentation of a "hand" of ripe bananas. Tom's wrath at his son's mute obstinacy reached the explosive climax just as he had peeled a luscious banana. He sacrificed it, and Jimmy appeared the next instant with a moustache and dripping beard of squashed fruit as an adornment to his astonished face. Then he opened his mouth to pour forth his soul in an agonising bleat. Tom got in a second shot with the banana skin. With a report like unto that which one makes by bursting an air-distended paper bag, the missile plastered Jimmy's cavernous mouth, smothered his squeal, and sat him down so suddenly that Tom thought his "wind" had stopped for ever. Kneeling beside the boy, he set about kneading his stomach, while Jimmy gasped and glared, making horrible grimaces, as he struggled for breath. Nelly, nervous Nelly, concluding that Tom was determined to thump the life out of Jimmy, assailed him with her bananas and vocal efforts of exquisite shrillness. Just as matters were becoming seriously complicated, Jimmy rolled away, scrambled to his feet, and fled, yelling, to the camp, firm in the belief that his doting father had made an attempt on his young life.
THE LOGIC OF THE CAMP
Poor half-caste Jimmy Yaeki Muggie, a pleasant-voiced lad, who always wore in his face the slur of conscious shame of birth, died apparently from heart failure, an after-effect of rheumatic fever. Tom and Nelly mourned deeply and wrathfully. Smarting under the rod of fate, they sought with indignant mien counsel upon the cause of death.
Jimmy was a young fellow. Why should a young man, who had been lusty until a couple of months ago, die? Somebody must have killed him by covert means. In the first outburst of grief they blamed me. Tom declared, with passion in his eyes, that I had killed Jimmy by making him drunk. The charge was not absolutely groundless, for when the yellow-faced fellow was chilly with a collapse, I had administered reviving sips of whisky-and-water.
Yes, Tom declared in an angry mood, and with the air of one who washed his hands of the whole sad business, the doses of whisky had killed Jimmy. As Tom indulged to the fulness of his heart in the luxury of his woe, he began to reflect further, and to change his opinion.
He mentioned incidentally that whisky was "good." "Before you gib em that boy whisky, he close up dead-finish. B'mby he more better."
Then he began vehemently to protest against the malign influence of some "no good" boy on the mainland, and Nelly, eager to satisfy her own cravings for some definite cause for the ending of the life of a strong boy, supported Tom's vague theories quite enthusiastically. To each distinct natural phenomenon blacks assign a real presence. Even toothache, to which he is subject, Tom ascribes to a malignant fiend, so he asks for a pin which, without a wince, he forces into the decaying bicuspid. His theory is that the little "debil-debil" molesting it will abandon the tooth to attack furiously the obtrusive pin. The affliction upon the camp had certainly been wrought by some boy who had been angry with Jimmy. The how and the why and wherefore of such malignant influence mattered not.
There was the dead boy rolled in his blanket, with a petrified smile on his thin lips. Obviously death was due to some illicit control of the laws of Nature. No one but a black boy could so grossly intercept the course of ordinary events as to produce death. Such, at least, was the logic of the camp.
Reflecting still deeper, and always with Nelly's unswerving corroboration, Tom began to urge that Jimmy had been poisoned.
"Yes," said Nelly, quite cheerfully, "some boy bin poison em. What's the matter that boy want poison Jimmy? Jimmy good fella!"
"Who poison that boy?" I asked.
"Some fella alonga mainland. .He no good that fella!"
"He bin sick long time. Poison kill em one time quick!"
Tom dissented. "Some boy make em poison slow. I know that kind."
Then he explained. "Some time 'nother fella tchausey belonga Jimmy. He wan make Jimmy shout. Jimmy no wan shout for that boy. They have little bit row."
"That boy wouldn't poison Jimmy because he no shout," I reasoned. Everybody liked Jimmy."
"Yes," said Tom. "Sometime he might have row."
With an air of mystery, Tom continued: "When that boy have row, he get bone belonga dead man, scrape that bone alonga old bottle. When get little heap all asame sugar, put into tea. Jimmy drink tea. B'mby get sick—die long time. Bad poison that."
Nelly's grief, which had been shrilly expressed at intervals, became subdued as she listened to Tom's theories. To her mind the whole mystery had been settled. There need be no further anxiety, and only formal expressions of grief.
During the rest of the evening the wailing was purely official. Tom's wit had so circumstantially accounted for the event, that it ceased to be solemn.
The next day they dug a hole five feet deep in the clean sand at the back of the humpy, and there Jimmy was laid to rest with the whole of his personal property, the most substantial of which consisted of an enamel billy, plate, and mug. The Chinese matting on which he had slept was used to envelop the body, and the sand was compressed in the grave.
But Tom and his family had gone. He said—and the deep furrows of grief were in his face: "Carn help it. Must go away one month. I bin think about that boy too much."
Tom had been so long intimately associated with cynical white people that several of the more fantastic customs of his race are by him contemned. Accordingly I was somewhat surprised to discover, after a few weeks of rainless weather, during which the shady pool at the mouth of the creek whence the supplies for his camp are drawn had decreased in depth, that he had been slyly practising the arts of the rain-maker.
As a matter of fact Tom was not in need of water, but, calculating fellow that he is, he foresaw the probability of having to carry it in buckets from the creek for the house, and to obviate such drudgery he shrewdly exercised his wit. A thoughtful, designing person is Tom—ever ready to accept the inevitable, with unruffled aboriginal calm, and just as willing—and as competent, too—to assist weary Nature by any of the little arts which he, by close observation of her moods, has acquired, or the knowledge which has been handed down from generation to generation. As it was the season of thunderstorms, he craftily so timed his designs that their consummation was not in direct opposition to meteorological conditions, but rather in consistency with them. Captain Cook found the ENDEAVOUR in a very tight corner on one occasion, out of which he wriggled, and in recording the circumstance wrote: "We owed our safety to the interposition of Providence, a good look-out, and the very brisk manner in which the ship was manned." In a similar spirit Tom's art was exemplified. He watched the weather, while he coaxed the rain.
Some rain-makers tie a few leaves of the "wee-ree" (CALOPHYLLUM INOPHYLUM) into a loose bundle, which is gently lowered into the diminishing pool, in which he then bathes; but all are presupposed to observe the clouds, so that the chances of the non-professional being able to blaspheme because of non-success are remote. Tom slightly varied the customary process, though he accepted no risk of failure. Cutting out a piece of fresh bark from a "wee-ree"-tree, he shaped it roughly to a point at each end, and having anchored it by a short length of home-made string to a root on the bank, allowed it to sink in the water.
A few yards away, towards the centre of the pool, he made a graceful arch of one of the canes of the jungle (FLAGELLARIA INDICA) by forcing each end firmly into the mud, and from the middle hung an empty bottle. The paraphernalia was completed on the Saturday, when the weather was obviously working up to a climax, but I was not made aware of Tom's plans, and as one of the tanks was empty, on the following Monday, with his assistance, I cleaned it out, remarking to him with cheerful irony:
"Now we get plenty rain. Every time we clean out this little fella tank rain comes. You look out! Cloud come up now! We no want carry water from creek."
That night a thunderstorm occurred, during which half an inch of rain fell, to the overflowing of the tank.
In the morning Tom smilingly told of his skill as a rain-maker, while admitting that the cleaning out of the little tank had also a certain influence in the right direction. It was, a pleasant, gentle rain, too, nothing of the violent and hasty character such as Tom had designed, but again he had a plausible explanation.
"Subpose I bin put that mil-gar in water deep, too much rain altogether. We no want too much rain now. After Christmas plenty." Tom asserts that the deeper the pool in which the "mil-gar" is submerged the heavier and more continuous the downpour; but as heavy rain is not liked, only vindictive boys who have some spite to work off indulge in such wanton interference with the ordinary course of the wet season.
The submerged bark which attracts the rain Tom calls "mil-gar," and the suspended bottle (a saucer-shaped piece of bark is generally used) serves to catch PAL-BI (hailstones), which, being, uncommon, are considered weird and are eaten in a dare-devil sort of spirit. In this case PAL-BI had but the remotest chance of getting into the bottle, and for that reason (according: to Tom) none tried. "Subpose I bin put bark all asame plate—look out plenty!"
Many natural phenomena are associated in the folklore of the blacks with untoward events. The rainbow (AM-AN-EE) is not regarded by them as a covenant that the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh, but as an evil omen, a cause of sorrow, for to whomsoever shall bathe in the sea when the bow is seen in the cloud evil is certain to befall.
Unprotesting Nelly is assured of this by her own sad experience. In tones of deep conviction, which permit of no manner of doubt, she tells me that AM-AN-EE caused the death of her infant—"brother belonga Jimmy." She had bogied at Toorgey-Toorgey, when to her dismay the harbinger of disaster appeared to spring out from the sea. In a week the child was born-dead.
Both father and mother have the tenderest thoughts of that breathless image in bronze. I saw it. Its features were refined, the nose sharp and symmetrical, and the mouth a perfect Cupid's bow. Its expectant repose thrilled me, for it was the realisation of that which Dickens said of little Nell—"a creature waiting for the breath of life."
No marvel they mourned, that Nelly cut her arms with splinters of glass, that she still regards the lovely rainbow with resentment tempered by fear.
Tom does not respond to cross-examination. He thinks his own thoughts and says but little. When he is communicative his veracity is the less to be trusted. Many a time have I sought his opinions on the serious import of life—to find that he has none. His thoughts are concentrated on things which affect the immediate moment. Since he is mentally incapable of denying himself the most trivial recreations upon which his wishes have dwelt, restraint is succeeded by despairing, uncontrollable moroseness pathetic in its genuineness. How could such a temperament reflect upon the future? He is no doctrinaire; he does not credit existence after death—"When you dead, you finish!"
"But," I suggested, "plenty of your country men think about another place when you die—finish."
"Yes, some boy he say when you dead you go long another place. L-o-n-g way. More better place, plenty tucker, no work, sit-down, play about all day. When you come alonga that place father, mother, brother, sit-down—no more can die!"
Then I put a customary question: "Yes, what all go alonga that place like when you die? You father old man when he die. He old man now alonga that good place? Little Jinny young when she die. That fella young along that place? That piccaninny belonga Nelly—piccaninny alonga that place?"
"Yes, all asame when you die you along that place."
"Good boy and bad boy-rogue, all go one place?
"Yes. Rogue he got one heaby spear right through. Go in here (indicating the middle of his chest), come out alonga back. Sore fella. That spear fight em inside. My word! Carn pull em out. He no die. Too much sore fella!"
Since the foregoing was penned Tom has realised the supreme fact of existence. He is dead, and is buried in dry, hot ground away from the moist green country which he knew so well, and was wont to love so ardently.
Although he was "only a black fellow," yet was he an Australian by the purest lineage and birth—one whose physique was example of the class that tropical Queensland is capable of producing, a man of brains, a student of Nature who had stored his mind with first-hand knowledge unprinted and now unprintable, a hunter of renown, and in certain respects "a citizen impossible to replace."
Given protection from the disastrous contact with the raw, unclean edge of civilisation, he and others, his fellows, might have lived for a score of years longer, and in the meantime possibly the public conscience of Australia might have been aroused, and his and their last days made wholesome, peaceable, and pleasant.
There is something more to be said about Tom in order that the attempt to show what manner of man he was may be as complete as the inexorable regulation of death permits.
Strong and substantially built, so framed that he looked taller than the limit of his inches, broad-chested, big-limbed, coarse-handed, Tom's figure differed essentially from that of the ordinary type, and as his figure so his style and mental capacity. Serene in the face of perils of the sea, with all of which he is familiar, he was afraid of no man in daylight, though a child might scare him after dark.
Tom was not as other blacks, for he loved sport. It was not all a question of pot-hunting with him. Apart from the all-compelling force of hunger, he was influenced by the passion of the chase. Therefore was he patient, resourceful, determined, shrewd, observant, and alert. His knowledge of the ways of fish and of the most successful methods of alluring them to his hook often astonished me. He saw turtle in the sea when quite beyond visual range of the white man. Many a time and oft has he hurled his harpoon at what to me was nothingness, and the rush of the line has indicated that the aim was true. He would say when fifty yards of line were out the particular part of the body in which the barbed point was sticking. If it had pierced the shell, then he must play with the game cautiously until it was exhausted and he could get in another point in better holding locality. If the point had entered the shoulder, or below the carapace to the rear, or one of the flippers, he would haul away, knowing that the barb would hold until cut out. When restrained from the sea for a few days he became petulant and as sulky as a spoilt child, for, in common with others of the race, he was morally incapable of self-denial. Big and strong and manly as he was, he became as an infant when circumstances compelled him to forego an anticipated excursion by water, and rather than stay in comfort and safety on dry land would—if he had so set his mind—venture over six miles of stormy sea in a flattie little more commodious than a coffin. He was, on such an occasion, wont to say, "No matter. Subpose boat drowned, I swim along shore, tie em Nelly along a string," meaning that in case of a capsize he would swim to dry land, towing his dutiful, trustful spouse.
Although by nature a true lover of the sea, his knowledge of the plant life of the coast was remarkable. Among his mental accomplishments was a specific title for each plant and tree. His almanac was floral. By the flowering of trees and shrubs so he noted the time of the year, and he knew many stars by name and could tell when such and such a one would be visible. Yet, though I tried to teach him the alphabet, he never got beyond "F," which he always pronounced "if." Perhaps his collapse in literature may have been due to persistent efforts to teach him the difference between "F" and "if" vocalised. He may have reasoned that so finicking an accomplishment was not worth acquiring. In his own tongue he counted thus:—
Yungl One Bli Two Yacka Any number in excess of two—a great many.
But in English he did not lose himself until he had passed sixty—at least, he was wont to boast of being able to comprehend that number.
Tom was a bit of a dandy in his way, fond of loud colours and proud of his manly figure. When the flour-bag began to sprinkle his moustache he plucked out one by one the tell-tale hairs until his upper lip became almost barren, but remorseless Time was never made to pause. Though many a white hair was extirpated, Tom was as much at fault as most of us who seek for the secret of perpetual youth, or to evade the buffets of old Father Time.
Opium and rum lured Tom away during the last four years of his life. He was sadly degenerated when I saw him for the last time, and several months after, in a mainland camp, he quarrelled with his half-brother Willie—the same Willie who many years ago in honourable encounter cut a liberal nick out of one of Tom's ears with a razor. Willie probed Tom between the ribs with a spear. While he lay helpless and suffering representatives of the police force visited the spot and the sick man was taken by steamer to a hospital, where he passed away—peradventure, in antagonism to his own personal belief, to that "good place" fancied by some of his countrymen, where tucker is plentiful and opium and rum unprocurable. And unless in that "good place" there are fish to be caught and turtle and dugong, and sting-rays to be harpooned, and other sport of the salt sea available, and dim jungles through which a man may wander at will, and all unclad, to chop squirming grubs out of decayed wood and rob the rubbish mounds of scrub fowls of huge white eggs, and forest country where he may rifle "bees' nests," Tom will not be quite happy there. He was ever a free man, given to the habit of roaming. If there are bounds to that "good place," he will discover them, and will peer over the barricades longingly and very often.
"As, however, there is no necessity whatever why we should posit the existence of devils, why, then, should they be posited?"
Some of the blacks of my acquaintance are ardent believers in ghosts and do posit the existence of personal "debils-debils." Seldom is a good word to be said of the phantoms, which depend almost entirely for "local habitation and a name" upon the chronicles of old men steeped to the lips in the accumulated lore of the camps. Many an old man who talks shudderingly of the "debil-debil" has lived in daily expectation of meeting some hostile and vindictive personage endowed with fearsome malice, and a body which may be killed and destroyed. Therefore, when the old man ventures into the dim spaces of the jungle he is invariably specially armed and his perceptive faculties strained to concert pitch, while the unseen glides always at his elbow providing unutterable thrills, lacking which life would be far less real and earnest.
Only one record has come to my knowledge of the presence of a benign "debil-debil." All the other stories have been saturated with awesomeness and fear. A very intelligent but excessively superstitious boy now living on the Palm Islands was wont to entertain me with graphic descriptions of the one species of "debil-debil" which he feared, and of the most effective plan for its capture. He was under the belief that a live "debil-debil" would be worth more as a curio than "two fella white cockatoo." He imagined that if a "young fella debil-debil" could be caught—caught in the harmless stage of existence—I would give him a superabundance of tobacco as a reward, and that I would keep it chained up "all asame dog" and give it nothing but water. I was frequently warned "Subpose me catch em young fella 'debil-debil' when he come from mother belonga him, no good you give him much tucker. Gib him plenty water. He got fire inside. Smoke come out alonga nose." Given the possibility of its capture, there was no reason why I should not indulge the frugal joy of having a small and comparatively innocent "debil-debil" on the chain. Did not the legendary Maori chiefs keep such pets for the torment of their enemies? Mine would have to console itself with the astonishment and admiration of friends, for, alas! I have not, to my knowledge, an enemy worthy the least of the infernal pangs. Moreover, out of our abundance of rain we could well spare an occasional meat-tinful of water for the cooling of its internal fires.
Now, the method of capture of a piccaninny "debil-debil" was this: Certain manifestations, not explainable and not visible to white men, had revealed to the blacks that a favourite resort of the species was the sand spit of the Island. Two boys who were wont to discuss their plans, and even to practise them, decided that they must first observe the habits of the "debil-debil," and so arrange to catch the young one when the backs of the parents were turned, for, of course, designs against a full-grown specimen were not only futile, but attended with infinitely greater risks of personal injury than George would accept for love or money. They procured about fifteen yards of cane from one of the creeping palms, from which they removed all the old leaf sheafs and adventitious rootlets, making it perfectly smooth. Crouching low, each holding an end of the cane, which was strained almost to rigidity, the boys, in their demonstration of the feat, were wont to sweep continuously over a considerable area with the idea of getting the cane on the nape of the neck of the assumed "debil-debil," and then to suddenly change places, so that it became ensnared in a simple loop by which the baneful beast was to be choked to submission.
Upon my suggestion a thin line used in the harpooning of turtles was substituted for the cane, with which, however, some most realistic and serious preliminary work towards perfection in the stratagem of "debil-debil" capture had been accomplished in valorous daylight. But though the boys gave many exhibitions of their skill and of the proper attitude and degree of caution, the correct gestures and facial expression for so momentous a manoeuvre, they could never be persuaded to put their skill to the test at the spot where "debils-debils" most do congregate after dark, the consequences inevitable on failure being too diabolical to contemplate.
The conditions never seemed to be absolutely favourable for the deed, for the boys anxiously persuaded me of the craft and alertness of the evil one. Either the night was too bright or too gloomy, or it was so calm that the "debil-debil" would be sure to hear their approach, or so windy that they themselves might possibly be taken unawares. They insisted that "debils-debils" suffered from certain physical limitations; they could not cross the sea—hence the variety native to the Island might be different from the mainland species, and would therefore demand local study before being approached with hostile intentions. I was wont to point out that since the sea presented an impassable barrier, the sand spit, drawn out to a fine point, was just the spot where a piccaninny might be easily rounded up, if it were detected in a preoccupied mood. I suggested that I might be at hand to encounter any untoward results in case of a bungle, but was met with the positive assertion that no "debil-debil," however young and unsophisticated, would "come out" if it smelt a white man.
One of the boys went so far as to select the chain with which the captive was to be secured, and the empty meat-tin whence it was to be schooled to take the only form of nourishment judicious to offer. That he did most truly and sincerely believe the existence of "debils-debils" we had proof every evening, for he would sit at the door of his grass hut, maintain a big, dancing fire, and sing lustily under the supposition that a good discordant corroboree was the most effective scare. Though alleged to be obnoxiously plentiful, the boys could never screw up their courage to the point of a real attempt to apprehend the dreaded enemy to their peace of mind.
Two blacks in the employ of a neighbour went to sleep under an orange-tree early one afternoon, and slumbered industriously while the others worked. The quiet of the drowsy time was, however, suddenly shocked by a great outcry, when the two lazy ones raced towards the workers with every manifestation of fear in their countenances. They declared that while they had slept a piccaninny "debil-debil" had "sat down" on the orange-tree which had afforded them shade, and that when they woke up it was there—"all a same flying fox." All moved cautiously up, and sure enough, hanging head down, was what my friend took to be a veritable flying fox; but he was in a hopeless minority. All scornfully out-voted him, and to this day the blacks assert that "a piccaninny debil-debil" so closely resembles a flying-fox that none but a black boy can tell the difference.
Again, a black boy and his gin slept in an outhouse across the door-space of which they, as usual, made a fire. In the morning', Billy found himself, not in the corner where he had gone to sleep, but close to the fire, and moreover his left arm was "sore fella." With a dreadfully serious face he related his experiences. In the middle of the night a "debil-debil" had entered the hut and, seizing him by the arm, had dragged him towards the door, but being unable to cross the fire, had been compelled to abandon otherwise easy prey. The aching arm proved that he had been dragged by a superior force, and the absence of tracks was assurance that none other than a "debil-debil" could have clutched him. The episode was accepted as one more proof of the horror of "debils-debils" of fire, and of the necessity of such a precautionary measure.
The scene of the only occasion on which a visitant from the land of spirits assumed benign shape is not far from this spot. It is historic, too, from the standpoint of the white man, for it occurred during a "dispersal" by black troopers under the command of mounted police. An old black boy tells the story. Before sunrise the whole camp was panic-struck, for it was surrounded by men with rifles. As the defenceless men and helpless women and children woke up, dismayed, to seek safety in flight, they were shot. One man tumbled down here, another there. The awful noise of the firing, and the bleeding results thereof, the screams of fear and shrieks of pain, caused paralysing confusion. When it seemed impossible for any one to escape, a big man jumped up, and, standing still, called out to the bloodthirsty troopers, "Kill me fella! Kill me fella!" indicating, with his hand his naked chest. Such audacity had its effect. All the troopers began firing at the noble, self-sacrificing hero; but marvellous to say, he did not tumble down, for though the bullets went through him, no blood gushed out. While he was the only target, the other blacks, including the veracious chronicler, ran away, leaving many dead. He afterwards declared that the "big, good fella boy," who had drawn the fire of the troopers, and whom the troopers could not kill, was a stranger to the camp. No one had ever seen him before or since; but that he appeared at a terrible crisis specially to save the whole camp from butchery was, and is, the emphatic belief of the survivors. This incident was related, or rather dramatically acted, in the presence of an aged native of the Malay Peninsula, whose knowledge of the mysterious was (in his own estimation) far more exact than that of the unenlightened blacks. With eyes sparkling and all his senses quivering under the stress of impatience, he listened to the end, and then burst out, "You fool! That good, big fellow boy, he no boy. That fellow, white man call em ghost! Plenty in my country!"
TO PARADISE AND BACK
"He on honey-dew hath fed And drunk the milk of Paradise."
A gaunt old man with grizzled head, shrunk shanks, and a crooked arm was the most timid of the strange mob of blacks who, under the guidance of some semi-civilised friends, visited the clearing of a settler on one of the rivers flowing into Rockingham, Bay. Shy and suspicious, his friends had difficulty in reassuring him of the peace-loving character of the settler, whose hut stood in the midst of an orange-grove. In a few days, for no disturbing element existed, the nervousness of the old man in the presence of his host ceased, and it was then noticed that those who had accompanied him from the jungle-covered mountains, as well as the friends he had picked up near the home of the white man, paid him the rare compliment of deference. Well they might, for he was a man of importance, though he lacked clothing, and the elements of decency. The old man's friends—perhaps because of his semi-helplessness, due to the twisted limb—performed various friendly offices for him, and never thought of the spice of any dread avowal, for he was far superior to them all, and righteously was he honoured. The lean Old Man had visited that "undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns." There was no doubt of his actual presence in this. There were his young wife and several companions, male and female, ready to corroborate his story; and was not his crippled arm painful but unimpeachable testimony to the reality of his experiences?
In the telling of the history of a too brief sojourn in the paradise of the blacks the old man took but little part, for his English was NIL. The members of the party knew it by rote, and some of them could make themselves understood. Pieced together—for the story came out bit by bit—it ran thus:
A very long time ago, when the Old Man was young and lusty and the "King" of the tribe, an evil-minded "boy" made great rains. All the rivers overflowed their banks, the palm and tea tree swamps became impassable, the hollows between the hills were filled with water. Week after week it rained continuously, the floods gradually hemming in the camp and restricting the wanderings of the men to one long ridge of forest country. Soon all the food obtainable within such narrow limits was eaten. Every one became hungry, for the camp was large and its daily necessities considerable. Patiently they waited for the subsidence of the waters, but more rain came and the camp grew hungrier than ever. Many sat in their shelters and drank water copiously, thereby creating a temporary sensation of satisfaction.
In the midst of the adversity the Old Man remembered having seen a "bees' nest" up a gigantic tree some distance away. He had not climbed the tree offhand because the feat seemed to be impossible. What might have been just possible on a well-filled stomach was worth hazarding now that he was famishing. So, wading and swimming, he gained the little dry knoll in the centre of which stood an enormous bean-tree, and there, a long way up, was the "bees' nest." With a piece of cane from a creeping palm and a stone tomahawk he slowly ascended the tree, for he was weak and his nerves unstrung. But he joyed when he reached the "bees' nest," for it was large and full of honey and brood comb—a feast in prospect for the whole camp. Then, as he set to work to chop out the comb, he heard, to his astonishment, voices below, and peering down, saw not only a wife who had departed to the land of spirits a year or so before, but his own mother, who had died when he was a youth. Greeting him in glad tones, they told him to come down, and that they would show him a big camp in good dry country where there was abundance of food.
Descending the tree with the cane loop, he saw that his previous wife was well favoured and fat, that his mother, too, was portly, that they had dilly-bags crammed with tokens of material wealth. They were overjoyed to see him, but expressed wonder that he was so weak when so much good food was available. Saying but little, they struck out for the big camp. The Old Man noticed, as they walked, that a track through the thickest part of the jungle opened up—a beaten, straight track, which he, for all his wanderings, had never before seen. The country was dry, too. Scrub hens and scrub turkeys, cassowaries, wallabies, huge carpet snakes, pigeons, fruits and nuts, bees' nests, and decayed trees full of great white grubs were there in plenty.
Silently and swiftly the three passed along the track through a country which, at every step, became more desirable, and at last emerged on an immense pocket where there was a concourse of gunyahs from which the smoke curled up, and in every gunyah was abundance. Some of the young men were throwing sportful boomerangs and spears; large parties were so absorbed in the pleasure of corroboreeing that no notice was taken of the new-comer. The advent of strangers was too common an occurrence to distract them from unconfined joys. Such a scene, so different from the forlorn, starving, water-beleaguered camp over which the sullen despair brooded, mystified and gladdened.
The cup of happiness overflowed when, conducted through merry throngs to a particular spot, the Old Man was greeted by relations and friends for whom he had once duly mourned, plastering his face with ceremonious charcoal and clay, and denying himself needed food. Yet were they not here, alive, and in the enjoyment of every good thing? It was almost beyond comprehension. Was he not to credit the evidences of his own senses? Was not the food they pressed on him most pleasant to the taste? All the privations due to the flood were talked of familiarly. The scene of plenty was so close to the famine-stricken camp that the Old Man found himself wondering why it had not been found before. Now he knew the spot, and would in due time guide his starving friends hither and make one great camp, where all would live in undreamt-of ease, unrealisable superfluity of food.
For three days he dwelt in the good land with content, lionised by his relatives, taking part in the hunts, the feasts, the corroborees, and being urged never to return to the camp of floods and hunger. Here was bliss. Every wish amply gratified, who would willingly depart from so entrancing a place? And with fervent promises on his lips never to go away he was conscious of a sharp pain in his wrist and found himself crumpled up, stiff, sore, hungry, and helpless, at the foot of the big tree.
Reluctantly back in the land of stress and distress, so woefully weak that he could not stand without swaying, while his right hand dangled helplessly, confused sounds of Paradise still rang in his ears, verifying all that had recently befallen.
He gazed around, dismayed to see no trace of his wife or mother; no clean-cut, straight path leading to the land of pure delight. Far up the tree hung the cane loop; beside him lay the stone tomahawk. All present realities were of pain and hunger. Bewildered, slowly and with much difficulty, he made his way to the flooded camp, noticing as he went that water-courses he had been compelled to swim were now fordable—proof of the lapse of time.
Eyes starved to impassiveness stared at the gaunt, crippled creature, complaining mutely, for no food had been brought. Some muttered that he had eaten it all during his unaccounted absence.
Silently the old man bound up his wrist excruciatingly tight with strips of bark, and then in detail told of his glad sojourn in Paradise.
Then the faces of the famishing lit up with joyous expectancy and—impatient, reckless, heedless of floods, forgetful of weakness born of hunger—one and all hastened to the scene whence began the straight path to the enchanting land. But keen as the best trackers might be, not the least sign in proof of the Old Man's experiences could be found.
The impassive wall of jungle which had opened so agreeably to the Old Man offered no obstacles to the enthusiastic searchers for Paradise. Far and wide, among slim palms standing waist deep in sullen brown water; across flooded creeks and rivers; over hills and mountains; up gloomy gorges into which none had ever before dared to venture, elated, they hastened day after day, glorious enterprise investing them with hardihood and courage. Ardently, hopefully, each vying with the other—for had not the Old Man proved beyond inglorious doubt the nearness and perfection of Paradise?—they pushed the quest far and beyond the limits of their own small province, and in vain, for they were not of the elect, however loyal and eager.
Years have elapsed, but the Old Man and his friends have not lost faith in the existence locally of the Happy Land. Had he not been hither, led by wife and mother, and did he not remain there three days—the only days of unimpeded joy in his long life? No such rich privilege had ever befallen any one else; but without questioning or envy all verify his words and delight to do him honour.
THE DEATH BONE
(FACT CEMENTED WITH FICTION)
"In accordance with Nature's designs as he was a good artist he was also good. He possessed nothing but his individuality."
Wylo was an artist, and, like all true artists, an artist by grace of God.
His family was not in any sense artistic. Of his lineage all had been forgotten, save a few of the many failings of his grandsire. So none could tell whence the talent that burst into blossom with him had sprung. It had not been transmitted. It was spontaneous; it was a gift; and all such gifts—are they not supernatural?
Gaunt old father and withered old mother would tell that Wylo from earliest boyhood could always "make em good fella along tree"; and now that he was a man and there were the emblems of manhood on his broad chest—deep, cut lines and swelling ridges—and he oft wore his hair long and fuzzy, his hand was very free.
Every morning he traced upon the convenient sand studies vigorous though entirely free from the canons of the schools. No authority existed that could tongue-tie his art. Each steamer, each boat which passed was sketched off-hand, and by some little trick, due to his inspiration, character faithful to the original was imparted. Banana-plants in full fruit and slim palms in cluster were ofttimes his models; but portraiture was not Wylo's forte. On the bark of trees, on flat rocks as well as on the shifting sand he expressed himself plentifully and graphically. He could no more exercise restraint when he found a convenient surface and a piece of charcoal or a lump of soft red stone than he could have recited the Book of Job.
His genius was imperative, almost overbearing. He had been commissioned by an imperious authority to sketch—a fever almost amounting to insanity fired his soul. His work was everywhere, for he had miles of forest and jungle country for his studio, and no hampering, sordid cares to distract him. The light of genius in such an obscure world was unrecognised. Being beyond comprehension, it existed as the coldest commonplace. Not one of his fellows was equipped mentally to register the deviation from the frowsy norm of the camp exemplified in him; and if the camp never produced another artist the default would occasion exactly similar unconcern.
Wylo's masterpiece in portraiture—the one revelation of the human form divine which he permitted himself to accomplish in other than transient sand, was a fancy picture of one of his many sweethearts—a lady in a very old hat and nothing more, with a few boomerangs thrown in to fill otherwise waste space on the inner surface of his shield. Wylo, though strenuous in his love of art is ever economic of the materials by which that love finds such apt expression. His scenes are crowded.
As a warrior, and as a strategist, not altogether as an artist—though sympathy must ever be with him in that o'ermastering talent of his—Wylo also displayed those gifts which proclaim the gifted, though he was true to his race in many of its phases of simplicity. His skill, or rather his supreme striving to appease aesthetic thrills, made Wylo superb in the fight. He developed a meek, affected voice, somewhat mincing ways, and a faraway look in his eyes. These distinctive traits, worn with careless hair, were so original, so intensely entertaining and notoriety-provoking in a camp which had never possessed the copyright of more than one shabby corroboree, that Wylo made many conquests. For each conquest of the heart he had fought, and the more frequent his fights the more expert and daring he became. Thus did love indirectly raise him eventually to the dignified position of king.
Never before had any man of the camp so many fights on his hands. The artistic instinct caused him to fashion weapons true and perfectly balanced, made his hand the steadier and his aim very sure, while his intense earnestness in love imparted terrific speed to his blows when he beat down his rival's shield with his great short-handled wooden sword. He was enthusiastic as a duellist as he was absorbed in art. It came to pass that when Wylo was not tracing his favourite seascape he was either flirting or engaged in the squally pastime of fighting an aggrieved husband or scandalised lover.
Wylo had so many of the fair sex to do his bidding, that he was relieved of the necessity of troubling himself about food. Frequently, as all manly men do (civilised as well as savage), he longed for the passion of the chase; and then he fished or harpooned turtle or hunted wallabies with spear and nulla-nulla, or cut "bees' nests" from hollow trees, when his face would become distorted by stings and his "bingey" distended with choice honey, and he would without patronage bestow upon gratified female friends, old or brood comb.
Wylo was a man and a king among his fellows, tall, white-toothed, generally decorated with a section of slender yellow reed through the septum of his broad-base nose, and with a broad necklace of yellow grass beads round his neck. He wore clothes sometimes, as a concession to the indecent perceptions of the whites (whom for the most part he despised); though he preferred to be otherwise, for he was a fine figure—not a plaster saint by any means, but a hero in his way and well set up, and an artist by Divine Right.
Handsome, then, of build and limb, if not of feature, the ideal of every female of the camp, a successful warrior, a true sportsman, was it any marvel that Wylo suffered gladly that pardonable transgression of genius—vanity? He oft wore nothing but a couple of white cockatoo feathers stuck in his hair. Thus arrayed he was audaciously irresistible, and provoked the enmity of the crowd. As an artist Wylo was an all-round favourite; but as a dandy all but the women—and he was disdainful of the goodwill of the men—despised while they panted with envy and made grossly impolite references to him.
Now, the sarcastic jibes of a black fellow are not translatable, or rather not to be printed beyond the margin of strictly scientific works. Courageously free and personal, they would be beyond comprehension in these chaste pages. Why, therefore, attempt to repeat them? A genius has been described as a deviation from the average of humanity. This definition exactly suited Wylo, for it was discovered when jibes were flashing about that he was positively inspired. They were as sharp as his spears, as stunning as his sword'.
Yan-coo, the wit of the tribe, a stubby, grim old man, who spent most of his time making dilly-bags and modelling grotesque debils-debils in a pliant blending of bees' wax and loam, to the horror of every piccaninny, soon found that Wylo could talk back with such withering effect, such shatteringly gross personalities that he, who with the spiteful ironies of his venomous tongue had kept the camp in awe, was dazed to gloomy silence by Wylo's vivid flashes of wit. His weird models showed a mind corroding with vicious intent. He dared not open his lips while Wylo was about. The quaking piccaninnies cringed with fear as they watched him working up his malignant feelings into the most awful imps—imps which threatened violence to their souls.
Wylo was supreme. He gloried in his dandyism and in his skill as a fighter. His genius basked in the sunshine as he made high reliefs in the sand or charcoaled pictures on the cool, grey rocks hidden in the sound-sopping jungle. The one weak spot in his character was his faith in a sort of wizardry. Contemptuous alike of the open violence or stratagems of his fellows, he had the utmost horror of an implement which Yan-coo, who was medicine-man as well as chartered wit, reserved for use against mortal enemies.
This terrible tool he had never seen. Very few had, or even wanted to, for its effects were as incomprehensible as they were tragic. Never employed in the exercise of private or individual malice, the death bone was an unfathomable and awful mystery. So dire was its influence that if a woman touched it or even looked at it she sickened.
What was this instrument of death?
A human bone scraped and rubbed to a gradually tapering point, to the thick, knobby end of which a string of human hair, plaited, was cemented, the other end of a length of several yards being similarly cemented to the interior of a hollow bone, also human. When the stiletto-shaped bone is directed towards an individual who has incurred the enmity of the medicine-man, his best heart's blood is attracted. Drawn from the throbbing organ, it travels along the string and into the hollow receptacle. The pointer is then sheathed and sealed with gum blended with human blood, the string being wound about it. Simultaneously with the extraction of the victim's most precious blood by this subtle and secret process, a pebble or chip of shell is lodged in his body with the result of ensuing agony.
Unaware of these very dreadful happenings, the individual so operated upon may not suffer immediately any ill effect. The wizard watches, and if no untoward symptoms are exhibited he takes into his confidence a friend, and this candid friend tells the inflicted one that he must be ill and dying, for the death-bone has been pointed at him and has done its worst. Fear begets immediate sickness, and if the blood of the patient be not restored and the foreign substance extracted from his spasmodic side with elaborate ritual, death is inevitable.
Ridicule is but a slight shaft to employ against any one who may retaliate with so potent a weapon as the death-bone. In the fulness of his vanity and wit, Wylo began to make gratuitous fun of Yan-coo, who fretted and fumed and terrified the piccaninnies with still more hideous debils-debils. I saw one of them. It resembled a span-long plesiosaurus, afflicted with elephantiasis, and a forked, lolling, tongue extruded from a head that swayed ominously right and left. A tipsy, disorderly, vindictive debil-debil it was, that made the boldest piccaninny shriek with dismay. Wylo with a tiny spear of grass knocked the head of the atrocious debil-debil off, and the piccaninnies changed shrieks for smiles.
That charitable feat sealed his fate. It was the beginning of a duel between wizardry and art.
At night Yan-coo, mute with vengeance, left the camp for the secret hollow, in a mass of granite which held the implements and elements of his craft. While Wylo slumbered and slept the malicious sorcerer directed with every atom of fervour he possessed the grisly death-bone towards him from the distance of half a mile. The influence of the death-bone is so completely under the control of the operator that it usually goes straight to the person against whom he in the dead waste of the night breathes his moody and angry soul away. Should the medicine-man, however, be conscious that the potency is inclined to swerve, if he but put his hand to the right or left it must fly in accordance with his will.
Perfectly unconscious of the dastard trick played upon him, Wylo continued for several days to flirt and fight. He had a glorious time, and so, too, had the piccaninnies, for Yan-coo, for reputation's sake, dared not model debils-debils merely to have their horrible heads knocked off with irreverent grass darts. Rather have no debil-debil than one subject to Wylo's profane but splendid marksmanship. So the naked black kiddies danced about Wylo, while Yan-coo fortified himself with the grim knowledge that he had Wylo's heart's blood securely sealed up, and that Wylo had a pebble in his body which would make him squirm sooner or later.
But, strange though it was, nothing happened to the arrogant Wylo. His physical condition was perfect, his spirits boisterous. The skill of the medicine-man, the whole dread influence of the death-bone were at issue, and to give effect to both Yan-coo whispered that he had employed the death bone against Wylo, because Wylo had become too "flash."
The recital of the deed struck horror and dismay into Yan-coo's confidant. He was shocked at the sacrilege, astounded that Wylo had not yet "tumbled down." It was his duty to tell poor Wylo of his awful fate.
Individuals of other nationalities in all ages have been proof, as Wylo was, against unimagined evils.
"There may be in the cup A spider steep'd, and one may drink, depart, And yet partake no venom; for his knowledge Is not infected; but if one present The abhor'd ingredient, make known How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides With violent hefts."
"His knowledge infected," Wylo collapsed forthwith in a spasm of fright. All the prognostics of the medicine-man were verified. Wylo's hair became lank, his eyes dull, his teeth yellow, his face pinched, his limbs weak. He spat frequently and groaned. He pined daily, for he slept little and his appetite was gone. Knowing that the fatal death-bone had been pointed at him, what was the use of attempting to resist inevitable fate? Rather would he resistlessly meet it. How was it possible to live without his precious blood, now sealed up in the death-bone? And he had a horrible pain in his side where the stone was—just as Yan-coo had said.
All the camp knew what had happened. Yancoo's reputation had been grimly asserted. Every one now dreaded him anew. Again he was king. Though it was contrary to all precedent to point the death-bone at a member of the tribe, yet had Yan-coo made a law unto himself and his own justification, and the proudest testimonial to his skill was Wylo's deplorable condition.
Wylo became thinner and weaker every day, for Yan-coo, seething, with malignity, stood aloof, declining to interfere. To him Wylo's gibes had been more cruel than the grave, for they had had the grace of originality, and once and for ever he purposed to shake his authority and dreaded power over the heads of the affrighted camp.
The death-bone was slowly but implacably doing its office.
Among Wylo's many sweethearts was one who, in early youth, had been kidnapped from a distant camp. She it was who took the news of Wylo's direful sickness there, and implored the aid of a rival medicine-man. Glad of the chance of exhibiting his knowledge and skill in a case which was notorious and to outsiders absolutely hopeless, he followed the girl.
After making no doubt whatever that Wylo's blood had been abstracted, that an angry stone was lodged in his side, and that death was imminent unless prompt measures were taken, the strange medicine-man chanted long and weirdly. He squeezed and Pommelled Wylo, and made tragic passes with his hands over his body and limbs. Then suddenly he applied his lips to Wylo's sore side, and, after loudly sucking, exhibited between them an angular piece of quartz which he triumphantly declared he had drawn from his patient's body. Everybody, including Wylo, believed him.
Wylo brightened up at once. The two medical men, whose interests were common—for the profession is very close and regardful of its rights and privileges—consulted, communicating by signs and gibberish not understanded of the people. Accompanied by a few of the elders of the camp, they went to Yan-coo's surgery, took out the death-bone, and with much ceremony unsealed it.
Blood stained the interior! All could see that it was Wylo's blood. It could be none other, for none but Wylo had been deprived of any. Ostentatiously the medicine-men washed the death-bone clean, restored it to its unholy nook, and returned solemnly to the camp.
After deliberate and impressive silence it was announced by moody Yan-coo that Wylo's heart's blood had been restored, whereupon that hero rose to his feet sound and well though lean.
No word of anger or complaint passed Wylo's lips the while he regained normal strength and gaiety. With frank ardour he resumed his sketchings and flirting with old-time success. He actually modelled the grossest of debils-debils for the piccaninnies and impaled all the vital parts with grass darts, while the piccaninnies broke into open jeers at Yan-coo, for the spell of the debil-debil had been destroyed.
Such outrages upon the craft of the sorcerer could not be tolerated. But Wylo watched Yan-coo, and one night as he strolled out of the camp Wylo followed with that light-footed caution and alertness significant of his artistic perceptions. Wylo carried a great black-palm spear fitted into a wommera with milk-white ovals of shell at the grip.
Yan-coo went straight to his surgery. Once more he prepared the death-bone. Every detail of the unholy rite was performed with determination, for he had abandoned all remorse.
As he pointed the death-bone towards the camp where, as he supposed, Wylo rested, that hero cast his spear. He was strong. He had the sure eye of the artist, the vigorous hate of a black.
When they found Yan-coo next morning he was still kneeling on one knee, for the polished spear had impaled him, and, sticking six inches into the ground before him, kept him from falling. With his chin on his left shoulder and his right hand still retaining the string of the death-bone, he had died as unconscious of the hand of the artist as the artist had been primarily of his wizardry.
White folks heard of the, "murder." Wylo was apprehended and put on trial. The solemn and upright judge could not learn the true facts of the case, since the witnesses were incapable of intelligently stating them. Wylo, who had promptly confessed to the crime in the terms, "Me bin kill 'em that fella one time—finish," but who was denied the right of explaining that Yan-coo had been prosecuting designs against his life quite as effectual as a spear, and that Yan-coo had been "justifiably killed," was sent to gaol for several years.
Constraint was dreadful to him, and the sorest trial which he endured was the suppression of artistic longings; but he made pictures, he tells me, everywhere—"alonga wind, alonga cloud altogether, alonga water, alonga dirt, alonga stone." They were mostly imaginative, but to his mind, in fine frenzy rolling, they were soothing and real. He made pictures out of airy nothing, and gloated over them with his mind's eye. No power other than that which had bestowed the breath of life could subdue the beneficient mania that exalted his soul.
Wylo, is at the camp, sketching, flirting, and modelling fearsome debils-debils for a new generation of hilarious piccaninnies.