Small, slim fish took shelter from the intense light. Some hung motionless in the water; others nibbled daintily the green and lazy slime on the batten at the bilge, their gently waving shadows being barely perceptible, for their delicate, semi-transparent bodies absorbed but the merest particle of the brightness of noonday.
The unnoticeable swing of the tide took the responsive boat out from the beach, and again the serpent swayed sleepily. Down in the mud an organised conflict was taking place between a tiny soft-bodied crab and four molluscs which used whip-like tentacles with unceasing energy, while the crab defended itself with ever-ready claws. Borne down by numbers, it sank into the mud, the energy of the victors creating a tiny spiral of slush. A huge stingray passed on its way, the edges of extended wings rippling never so gently, its shadow half the size of the boat; and presently, with ghostly glide, a dull-skinned shark came into view with motion so steady and apparently effortless that it might have been a spectre. The pectoral fins swayed listlessly. The swirl of the tail was as tender as a caress. Passing the boat a few yards, it turned with a gracious sweep and nestled in its shade, and, though motionless, it was wide awake. The eyes on each end of the projecting extremities of the head blinked up at the boat. It was comfortable, but suspicious. Was its conscience quite clear? The hammer-head has not the reputation of being an active enemy of man. Why should it be distrustful? This hammer-head would not sleep in the shadow, so let it be made aware of the serpent. I took hold of the chain cautiously, the shark watching, and with a quick turn of the wrist the docile serpent lashed offensively. Then did the shark, frightened of a shadow, flee with mud-stirring haste, like the wicked when no man pursueth.
The hour of day-dreaming was past. I slip over the side of the boat to roll and splash in tepid water limpid almost to invisibility, and to test the wondrous buoyancy of the substantial part of man. Sit down, the lips just awash, so that the accurately ballasted portion cushions on the cleanly sand. Stretch out the legs so that the heels barely rest. Head thrown back and arms extended, fill the lungs to their utmost capacity with the placid, revivifying air, and you will find yourself so uplifted that the heels alone gently touch the sand. At each inspiration almost sufficient air is imbibed to float the whole bulk and machinery of the body. And when the radiant air is all one's own, why be niggardly? Let it be gulped greedily, strongly, wilfully, and let the smiling sea, responding to the embraces of your widespread arms, salute your lips with ripples.
"The light of the morning, When the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; As the tender grass springing out of the earth By clear shining after rain."
A cloudless sky, the long grass wet with the night's gentle shower, a thin veil of mist on the hills, a glassy, steel-blue sea, the air saturated with the essences from myriads of leaves and scented with the last whiffs from the tea-trees and the primal blossoms of the wattles—such are the features of this smiling morn.
A spangled drongo—ardent lover of light and free air—talkatively announced the dawn long before its coming; the noisy pitta—bird of the moist soil and leafy gloom—triumphs in three notes. For an hour the scrub fowl have been violently noisy, but have retired to the recesses of the jungle, whence comes an occasional chuckle of satisfaction or a coarse, triumphant crow. The fasciated honey-eater has loudly called "with a voice that seemed the very sound of happiness"; the leaden flycatcher, often silent but seldom still, has twittered and whispered plaintively; the sun-birds are playing gymnastics among the lemon blossoms, and the centre of activity for butterflies is the red-flowered shrub bordering the wavering path.
Since—sometimes wantonly, often thoughtlessly—man interferes with plants, time out of mind the banqueting-table of the butterflies, is it not a duty to provide substitutes for devastated natural vegetation? When it is discovered that a plant, introduced to give satisfaction to the lust of the eye, provides from year's end to year's end nectar as unfailing as the widow's cruse of oil, is it not becoming to reproduce it plentifully so that excited and virtuous insects may be encouraged to return to former scenes? If not a duty, at least it is a source of happiness, for the particular insects which revel in the nectar of the perpetually flowering shrub are the two most gorgeous butterflies of the land—pleasantly known as Ulysses and Cassandra.
Science changes its titles so frequently that unless the intellect is to be increasingly burdened it is well to refuse to be divorced from the old and often explicit and fulfilling names. Cassandra is the lovely green and gold fly which dances in the air so delightfully when he woos his sober, fluttering mate. That of gorgeous royal blue with black edging to the wings and dandyish swallow-tails, which wanders far and wide and flies high and swiftly, is Ulysses.
This glorious morn the ruddy shrub is as lively as a merry-go-round with the feasting and antics of flitting gems, and there are others by the dozen attentive to less seductive fare. For half an hour the courtship of a perfect Ulysses has interfered with the staid ways of those not in holiday humour. Unlike Cassandra, there is little in appearance to distinguish the sexes, nor in the wooing does the dame exhibit staid demeanour. The object of Ulysses' love is almost, if not quite, as brilliantly decorated as himself. She is not, therefore, to be fascinated by the display of blue no more lustrous than that of her own proud wings. He may flit and toss about her, but she seems to take scanty notice of his affected aerial limpings. Her raiment is just as brave, and she has swallow-tails too. The wider black margin on her wings is no badge of subserviency, but rather an additional charm inciting tremulous fascination. She may soar over the mango-trees with ease as careless as his, and slide down straight to the red flowers with like certainty. She is not to be bewildered by his gyrations, nor thrilled by mock hostile swoops. However sprightly his activities, she has a mood to correspond and power to mimic. Indeed, is she not indifferent?—so much on an equality with him that she might say:
"If thou thinkest I am too easily won, I'll frown and be perverse, and say thee nay."
Might she not say more at the moment, since her airs are those of independence? Possibly she imagines hers to be the superior sex. Is she to be distinguished from her wooer as she flits from him disdainfully? Can she not imitate his most audacious feats? Ah! but for how long may she restrain primal emotions? The blue-mantled dandy understands his art. His wings beat with the passion of the dominant lover. He tosses himself before her, impeding her flight until she imitates his antics. Tossing is not the privilege of his sex. She exercises her right to toss, and the pair toss in delightful but bewildering confusion, like jewels sent skyward by a conjurer. And thus having established her rights if not her equality, she consents to play the part Nature decrees, and the pair tumble and toss over the mango-trees, while half a dozen others sip contentedly the red flowers.
Many other winged creatures flit and glisten in the garden and down along the grass-invaded path between the coco-nuts. Dragon-flies hover over the moist spots, transparent wings carrying coral-red bodies, and two sand-wasps pilot my steps, following the narrow ribbon of bare ground as a fish the course of a shallow stream, buzzing ominously as if in warning of some possible mischance. They are friends, and will in a moment swerve, and boom back to the shafts they have excavated in sand as depositaries for their eggs, and into which they will pack living caterpillars as fresh food for their young. They dig with such deftness and vigour that the sand is expelled in a continuous jet. When the mouth of the shaft, round to exactness, is lumbered with soil, the insect emerges backward and shovels away dog-like with its forelegs. Then it disappears again, until the sand-jet has made another encumbering heap.
These alert and furiously resentful insects are endowed with resourcefulness and "intelligence" in keeping with their physical activities. One had foraged a caterpillar in bulk and weight beyond its flight strength, and was, therefore, compelled to haul it along the toilful earth. On the wing the wasp finds its home unhesitatingly. On the unfamiliar ground it lost its bearings, and, moreover, the lumbering caterpillar had to be tugged through a bewildering forest of grass stems, among which it went astray. During a pause the wasp surveyed the scene, and, locating the shaft, after stupendous exertions deposited its prey conveniently thereto, to find itself confronted with a problem, since the diameter of the caterpillar exceeded that of the shaft. It seemed to reflect for a few moments, and then with feverish haste enlarged the shaft. Another difficulty had then to be overcome. Was it possible to force such a bulky and unwieldy body head first down—the habitual way? The insect came to a rapid decision in the negative. Backing into the shaft, it seized the caterpillar by the head and drew it down, presently emerging, and how it managed to squeeze past so tight a plug is another of the magics of the morn. Having butted with its highly competent head the caterpillar well home, the wasp selected a neatly fitting stone as a wad, and, filling the shaft with earth, strewed the surface with grass fragments, to the artistic concealment of the site.
On the beach is another industrious winged miner which has not learned the art of the rapid evacuation of the spoil, but follows the slower ways of the crab, carrying the sand in a pellet between the forelegs, and as it backs out jerking it rearward until a tidy heap is made. But it is a fussy worker, so charged with nervous energy that its glittering wings quiver even while down in the depths of its shaft, as you may assure yourself if you hearken attentively when neither the sea nor air makes competitive noises.
"Time was when, settling on thy leaf, a fly Could shake thee to the root—and time has been When tempests could not."
If it were possible to recall the spirits of the departed of this Isle to solemn session and to exact from them expression of opinion as to the central point of it, the popular, most comfortable and convenient camping-place, there can be no question that the voice of the majority would favour the curve of the bay rendered conspicuous by a bin-gum or coral tree. Within a few yards of permanent fresh water, on sand blackened by the mould of centuries of vegetation, close to an almost inextricable forest merging into jungle, whence a great portion of the necessaries of life were obtained, and but ten paces from the sea, the tree stood as a landmark, not of soaring height, but of bulk and comeliness withal.
Generation after generation of careless coloured folk must have been born and bred under its branches. When the soil became rank because of continuous residence and insects of diabolical activity pestered its occupants, the camp would shift to another site; but there existed proofs that the bin-gum-tree localised the thoughts of those aimless, unstable wanderers to whom a few bushes stuck in the sand as a screen from prevailing winds represent the home of the hour and all that the word signifies and embodies. Many a one was laid to rest beneath its spreading branches, for it was the custom of the pre-white folk's days to swathe the dead in frail strips of bark, knees to chin, and place the stiffened corpse in a shallow pit in the humpy which had been in most recent occupation. If the dead during life had possessed exceptional qualities, burial rites would be ceremonious and prolonged. With tear and blood stained faces (for the mourners enforced grief by laceration of the flesh) incidents in the admirable career of the departed would be rehearsed in pantomime. The enactment of scenes from the life of the hunter and fighter might occupy hours. The art of the canoe or sword maker would be graphically mimicked. The life of the woman found rehearsal from infancy until she passed from the protection of her father into the arms of her lover. If she had died childless, a protesting infant or an effigy in bark would be placed on her shrunken bosom, so that she might not suffer the reproach of matrons who had preceded her to the mysterious better country.
The ancestral shade was a birth-place, an abiding-place, a cemetery, and the soil grew ever richer, and the thick-trunked tree displayed its ruddy flowers and gave of its best in nectar for birds and butterflies and gauze-winged, ever-flitting creatures.
It was not a comfortable tree to climb, for its grey-green branches were studded with wens each armed with a keen prickle, long and tough. It offered the hospitality of its shade to man, but little else, save flowers to gladden his eyes, though it stood as a perpetual calendar, or rather floral harbinger, of some of the most excellent things in life. At a certain season its big, trilobed, hollow-stalked leaves changed from bright green to pale yellow and lingeringly fell, and often before the last disappeared, flower-buds registered the date with almost almanac exactitude. Then, as the rich red began to glow here and there, and impatient small birds to assemble in anticipation of the annual feast, the old inhabitants of the Isle would comfort one another with reminiscences of the "Oo-goo-ju," the nutmeg pigeon, which was wont to congregate in such numbers that adjacent and easily accessible isles were whitened. There would be plenty of eggs then, and in a few weeks squabs quiveringly, helplessly fat.
It was a good tree, for it gave good tidings, and it centralised the shelter of the Isle. Its blooms were delightfully, dashingly red, and they lasted long—that is, if the camp—the soil rectified by sun and rain—happened to be in residence, for then the sulphur-crested cockatoos would be scared. Otherwise the profligate birds would sever the heavy racemes of flower in their eagerness for honey until the ground beneath glowed with a furnace-hued shadow. But there would be still plenty for the gay sun-birds and the honey eaters, while the grey goshawk would make the site of regular call, for the bibulous lesser birds could not always be on the alert, ready to dart into adjacent tea-trees. The hawk would abide its time, and have occasion, after its kind, to be grateful because of the tree and its seductive nectar which translated artless little songsters into shrill-tongued roysterers, careless of the ills of life, or at least less watchful for the presence of crafty enemies. Flying foxes would swoop into the tree at sundown to squeak and gibber among its repellent branches till dawn, when some, too full for flight, would hang among the lower limbs all day, sleeping with eyes veiled by leathery wings.
For many a long day the bin-gum tolerated no undergrowth. Despotic over its territory, the shade was clean but for a carpet of ferns, and its branches free from the embraces of orchids, save that which bears the ghostly white flowers which set off its own of bold red. But as it passed its maturity shrubs and saplings began to encroach, until it was the centre of a circus of upstart vegetation, though still stretching big, knotty limbs over the slim youths of yesterday. Anterior to this era a neglected fire had scorched a portion of its trunk. Decay set in. A huge cavity gradually appeared, betokening vital injuries. The soft though tough wood does not patiently endure the annihilating fret of time. Far up in a recess of this cavity a toy boomerang was found, placed there by some provident but forgetful piccaninny. At the date of the discovery of the missile the age of the resident blacks had passed away; but still the tree stood, stout of limb, while the encompassing saplings shot up until sun-seeking shoots caressed the branches and familiarised with the blooms, as if taking credit for the seasonal gaiety of the patriarch.
In the prime of life the wood of the bin-gum is of pale straw colour with a faint pinkish tinge, and tough though light. Sapless age makes it tindery, and the decaying fibre descends in dust—glissades of dust which form moraines within the hollow of the base. Then the end is not far off.
The old tree might have been credited with premonition of its fate. However fanciful to ascribe to it power of utterance, some phenomena, perhaps associated with the dusty flux draining its vitals, gave it distinct voice. On silent days it was often heard—a whispering, whimpering sing-song, pitifully weak for so great a tree, but not without appeal. Did it not suggest the sanctuary of some wood-nymph chanting never so faint a death psalm—a monotone which the idlest zephyr might still?
Disdaining to die while consenting to disappear, the great tree, proudly green of head, did not fall headlong, like a giant, in its pride, but subsided silently behind its leafy screen while all the winds were still, and as one who passes away full of years and with untarnished conscience.
Though the saplings and shrubs which fought for its place decently conceal its shattered relics, addressing glossy leaves to the face of the sun, is it quite vain to expect that its graceful proportions—a true and stately dome—will be transmitted to the most worthy of its descendants? Or that they will escape for so long a term the many mischances that befall soft-wooded trees? No; the bin-gum of the bay was unique. Afar off its flowers assumed a bricky shade, which contrasted with the sage-green background of huge and overtopping melaleucas, while but a strip of creamy sand intervened between its low and spreading branches and the shallow sea, with its varying tints of pale green and blue. So lovely and conspicuous a feature is not to be reconstituted under a century.
If it be permitted to assume that trees are sentient, that each—since it differs from all others in some material quality and condition—has its individuality, and that one may stand out from the rest as a figure and representative of its age, then was this old monarch which maintained its red robes to the last an examplar of the race whose births, nuptials, pastimes, deaths and burials it witnessed from the date when the good ship ENDEAVOUR slowly plodded along the alien coast. The dust of the witness is blending in common decay. A few months and not a trace will be discoverable, and what is left of those who rested in its shade? In the pages of history they will be unchronicled, for were not their lives less beautiful than the life of a tree, and their renown no more durable?
"Like playhouse scenes the shore slid past."
Lovable as is the open sea when the spray drenches the scanty clothing of the steersman and rains upon his lips salty salutation, yet is there rare delightsomeness in reverse of the wet frolic.
A few minutes past the deck glistened in the sun as each rollicking billow sent its herald over the bows, and here the surface of the river is almost rippleless. Shallows and uncertainties perplex its union with the ocean. Sombre green mangroves screen its muddy banks at full tide and trail leathery leaves and the tips of spindly fruit on its placid surface. Pendant roots and immersed branches create on each hand a continuous scroll of wavering ridges and eddies bordered with the living tints of the steadfast wall of leafage. The sun so burnishes the midstream ribbon that the boat seems to float on an invisible element. Though the topmost leaves of the mangroves fail to disclose any movement in the air, an unceasing and inharmonious hum tells of the sea idly shouldering the orange-hued sands outside.
The original inhabitants of the country knew the stream as Marang. None call it so; but half stranded on the bank at the mouth lies a raft typical of the past, and of the ease and resource with which those of the day are wont to avail themselves of Nature's suggestions in the art of crossing flooded waters. The name of the river has gone, but not that of the three buoyant logs lashed together with strips of cane which with sullen lurch, take the wash of the boat. The boys jerk their heads in the direction and murmur "wur-gun," and speculate on the last user. The day is young. For the time being the best the ancient river has to show—the quintessence of the season, superb October—shall be ours. The cloudless sky is richly blue, lighter in shade than the shapely mountain which seems to block the way miles ahead. The sun gives a taste of its quality, not to fret or discomfort, but merely to add a slightly richer tint to skin glowing with previous marks of his fervour and favour.
All the sounds of the little engine are maliciously exaggerated as the boat forges ahead. The silent green river has become vociferous with echoes, which snap and grunt, groan and hiss, in mockery of inevitable and earnest doings. Out at sea the merry moods of the boat and hasty and determined throbs of the engine are manifestations of something accomplished in the overcoming of distance. Here it is all mere idle fancy, while the echoes jeer. Surely the uncouth imps of the dimly-lit jungles need not proclaim their spite with such exaggerated fuss.
With but little effort of imagination the boat becomes stationary on a shining ribbon with strips of dark green on each side, and the banks glide past with never so gentle undulations. The tide screens most of the mud on which the many-rooted trees stand. Some are in full bloom, the hawthorn-like flowers breathing perfume as from an orangery soliciting the raids of millions of bees. Scents cling to the placid surface. It is as a stream of scent, bounded and confined by changeful tints as the sun toys with the shadows, and curve after curve, reach after reach, slip by. Sometimes the chattering boat heads due east. South she knows too, and then she bows her duty to the west, along reaches which run straight and clean as a canal; and round hairpin bends she sweeps with disdainful air, as if conscious of besoiling banks.
Gradually the monopolistic mangroves become more tolerant of the rights of other vegetation. Tea-trees with white papery bark and pale yellow flowers dripping with spirity nectar, the sunflower-tree with its masses of gold, an occasional wattle, and slim palms mirror themselves, and here and there compact jungle, with its entanglement of ponderous vines and smothering creepers, shoulders away the salt-loving plants. Scents may vary as the river's fringe; but only a delicate blend is recognised—the breathings of honey-secreting flowers and of sapful plants free from all uncleanliness. Many trees endure sadly the decoration of orchids in full flower, some lovely to look on and deliciously scented. The snowy plumes of one species sway gently, as if offering friendly greeting. A worthy similitude to the lily of the valley clings to a decaying limb, and a passing smudge of lustrous brown is but the reflection from a mass of the commonest of the Dendrobiums which encumbers a long-suffering host. Where forest trees and wattles guard the bank the water is of a different hue, as if the face of the river had absorbed less of the actualities of the sun. The screen of vegetation is not only higher, but it is varied and impresses its individuality. Only during the pelting rains of the wet season may this delightful stream be monotonous, for at intervals brief and narrow vistas open out on patches of yellowing grass, and beyond lie forest-clad hills.
All save the boat is wonderfully still. The birds are silent, for this is the first hot day of the season, and they have retired to the patches of jungle where shade and dimness afford relief from the sunlight spaces. For many a mile a cormorant, lacking valour to double on its tracks, has fled before the boat, settling out of sight ever and anon, only to be scared further from its nest. A mangrove bittern sitting humpbacked on a root and roused from its night thoughts has flown ahead, following the bends of the stream until it crossed a familiar loop and so evaded incessant harrying.
No murmur of the sea is audible, though the water is as briny as at the mouth. Mangroves still reinforce the muddy banks at intervals, and big barramundi swirl aside to give the boat precedence in the narrow way. If in no impetuous haste, one might drift with the tide up and down with but little exertion except during periods of flood, which quickly rise and quickly subside. Drifters become familiar with characteristics of the stream unknown to those who hurry up and down in an echo-rousing motor-boat. They see crocodiles basking on their sides, as many as seven on a sunny morning in the cool season, and many curse them in De Quincey's phrase as "miscreated gigantic vermin" because the rifle happens to be unavailable. Crocodiles have their moods. Sometimes they are lazy and indifferent and will not be disturbed though the boat may clink and chatter as it passes, and the then easygoing man disposes of them. More often the faculties of the crocodile are disappointingly acute. He is visible for such a fragment of time that the authoritative man who has promised sport looks foolish and tries to relieve the strain by the relation of anecdotes in which circumstances have not been all in favour of the illusive creature. He tells of the slumbering one which lay on a mud-bank with its jaws distended, weary of the monotony of the mangroves, and took but sleepy notice when upbraided for being a sluggard. And of that other monstrous beast which, with eyelids like saucers and a bulk which filled a narrow tributary of the river, floundered, splashed, and flurried into deep water, while the awestruck individual with the rifle was too astounded to fire a shot. He may tell, too, of another instance of good luck on the part of the crocodile. How, drifting down silently with the ebb, the black boy indicated the presence of game on a slide overhung by a deep verandah of mud; how a shot was fired and a big log splashed into the water and the little one remained bearing the bullet-wound, the real having been too big and impressive for sight.
The day is well spent among strange plants. Here is a tall hibiscus with coarse leaves, diversely lobed, and great pink, fragile flowers, each with a blotch of maroon at the base and each containing a fat and lumbering bee spangled with maroon-tinted pollen. A trailing eugenia bears dark red flowers shaped like a mop, and a tiny white lily with petals and strangely protuberant anthers scents the air as with honey and almonds.
The tide ebbs fast. All the country teems with entertainment, and the river, cool in the dusk, and black, reflects the dead mangroves, white and spectral, on its brink.
This breathless night the sea is as tetchy as petrol. Trailing fingers are terminals which ignite living flames, and the propeller of the little boat creates an avengeful commotion of light which trails far astern. Blobs of light are cast off from her bows as she rounds the familiar sandspit and glides to her moorings.
"THE LOWING HERD"
"Your cattle, too—Allah made them; serviceable, dumb creatures; they change the grass into milk; they come ranking home at evening time."—CARLYLE.
Remote from the manners and the sights of the street, here are we secure against most of the pains which come of the contemplation, casual or intimate, of other folk's sufferings. No hooded ambulance moves joltlessly, tended by enwrapt bearers, on pathless way; no formal procession paces from the house of death to the long last home. Immune from the associations which oft subdue the crowd, as well as from its too exciting pleasures, and participating only indirectly in its inevitable sorrows, yet we are occasionally forced to remember that troubles do come to all that is flesh, and that keen is the grief attendant upon enforced separations even among animals which cannot call reason to their solace. Man cannot claim to be the sole proprietor of the luxury of woe, and may he not draw edifying lessons from contemplating the transient sorrows of his pets and domestic animals? Is he to confine his schooling on the wholesome theme of the frailty of flesh solely to his own species? It is not to be denied that animals lower in the scale than mankind have acute sense of bereavement, though it is equally certain that in their case the healing influences of time are more prompt and potent.
An illustration may be cited. Two favourite Irish terriers, in violation of an all-precautionary training, molested a death adder, the emulation of each inciting the other to recklessness. When the fray was over and the wicked little serpent lay squirming in death, both dogs took joyful credit on account of the feat. An hour after one began to froth at the lips, and in another hour he lay dead. His son and companion, as well as rival in all rat and lizard hunts, softly approached the body, lifting each foot with almost solemn deliberation. He sniffed, and catching a whiff of the scent of death, sat on his haunches, threw back his head, and in loud and piercing tones lamented the tragedy until from very hoarseness he could howl no longer. He stood the solitary spectator of the burial, and as the soil was patted down tenderly, sniffed the spot, whimpered plaintively, and followed with downcast mien. Unable to fathom the mystery of death, yet fearful, if not resentful, he wandered about for days rebuking the moon, or its dire influence, and hailing passing steamers with weak whines. Time soon soothed the mental hurt.
Since I became a milker and tender of pet cows many instances have been revealed of the patience and amiability of these inestimable beasts. The man who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, who employs stockmen by the dozen, who sends off hundreds of fat, contented, happy, liberty-loving oxen in droves to end their days in an unknown locality amid the clatter and swish of machinery and with the fearful scents of blood and decaying offal defiling the air, has few opportunities of studying the nicer qualities of his possessions. He may be full of bullock lore and able to recite sensational and entertaining stories illustrative of the ways of the big mobs which tramp from native hills and downs to the city of the thousand deaths. He knows, perhaps, something of the individualities of his herds, and will tell how fat beasts form friendships, and how they pine when separated. Then will he register his personal regrets, counting in the measure for fat, for, refusing food, the animals fall away in condition, so that the sorrows of two fat bullocks due to parting, enforced by determined men on horseback, cracking whips and using violent and threatening language, come home to the owner in terms of pounds, shillings, and pence.
Here are few sordid considerations, for does not the full-fed and contented herd supply generously milk and cream with no apprehensions of the butcher? Perhaps on that account the sentiments of the sleek cows are more tender. At least it has been noticed that when the time comes for the flash young bulls to be banished, and they are transported, the mother's grief is loud-voiced and prolonged. Under stress of departure and all the novel excitement of a first experience of the motion of the sea, the fat calf, which has rollicked in all that makes for good temper and ease and comfort, becomes mute. Tears trickle from big, affrighted eyes, and the head is turned wistfully when terms of comfort are uttered. He is of the make of man and will not whimper. But the mother, on the discovery of her bereavement, arouses the echoes of the hills with her calls.
Accustomed to the voices of the individuals of your herd, your ears are also attuned to the significant tones of each—the low warning hum of the mother to her safely hidden new-born, the imperative command to obedience, the note of inquiry when the wandering offspring is out of sight, the anxious call when it is absent from her side unaccountably, the angry bellow when she thinks injury is being done.
The other day a lusty young bull which had been wont to treat me as a chum, and perhaps as a slightly inferior animal, was reluctantly parted from. His face displayed his emotions-astonishment, grief, resignation—and once, and only once, did he permit himself to protest vocally. But for a week his mother's sorrow has been insistent. Early on the morning following, the banishment, she led off the rest of the herd in Indian file, to search accustomed scenes. At times she hastened—perhaps she heard in fancy the loved one's voice—but more often and with rare persistency she shrewdly scrutinised every possible hiding-place, lowing plaintively and with a coaxing, wistful tone. Frequently, attended by silent, sympathising companions, she made frantic appeals to me, and then there seemed to be a note as of upbraiding, if not accusation, in her voice. Knowing her feelings, it was easy to interpret them, and her doleful mood and loud yet melodious protests against the arbitrary usage of man affected the wonted serenity of the Isle.
How many lusty, fat, sleek, good-humoured, straight-backed, frolicsome calves had she reared, and when they had come to the age when a mother's pride must be in the full, each in its turn had mysteriously disappeared. Was this not a subject of moan? Why should she not tell her grief to the responsive hills, and send it as far as her voice might carry over the irresponsive sea?
Time soothes all such pangs. She calls now when she spies me in the forest, still suspecting where responsibility rests, and mumbles as she crops the succulent herbage. A few more days and her sturdy offspring will be forgotten; but the recollection of her material woes excites the thought that human beings, in guiding the destinies of domestic animals, may not always be conscious of certain moral aspects of such incidents. Are we justified in lacerating the feelings of those creatures, which have become accustomed to our ways, which submit to our arbitrary authority with wondrous patience, which depend on us in many ways, and which trust us with unquestioning fidelity?
Against all precedent, the dairy herd was started with a bull. Though such a beginning is not to be recommended as a general precept, it must be confessed that in this particular instance developments proved its wisdom. Unjust fears were overcome while yet he was undistracted by society of his kind. Having no other company, he sought ours in frank and friendly manner. Occasionally he would accompany me on indefinite excursions in the bush, and would oft tempt me to play. With the fable of the frogs and the boys in mind, I had to decline participation in his sportful moods, for what would have proved pure frolic to him might have been fraught with disaster to me. At this period of the dairy herd, he spent most of his leisure moments in the paddock where poultry congregates, and where many of the domestic rites are performed. He was at home, and he was a gentleman, and did no one premeditated ill. Longing for something to play with, he would make hostile demonstration against the wheelbarrow, but that dull-hearted vehicle never responded except by ignominious collapse at tenderest touch of horn. One evening, when all the good little chicks had been put to bed for the night, the bull, impatient for play, overturned two coops so suddenly that two of the inmates were crushed flat. There was no sheltering mother to protest against such violation, and so the adjoining coop was visited. But for once he went wrong in strategy. The coop contained an exceptionally numerous family, the mother of which richly deserved the name of "Scotty." The coop was overturned none too politely; the squeaking chicks vanished in the grass and remained discreetly silent; the irate hen, with the valour of ignorance and all feathers on end, flew in the face of the startled bull. Though a white leghorn, she has fighting blood in her veins, and as she hurled herself—stuttering with frantic exclamations—at the violator of her home, he backed with a mirth-provoking look of surprise and dismay. He seemed to wish to say that he regretted the intrusion, and would apologise and ask permission to retire. The hen was not in the mood to accept apologies, however seemly the cringing attitude of the bull. Making herself ever so much bigger than Nature intended, she followed up her advantages, slapping her enemy's face with widespread wings until he winced again, and clawing with truly feminine extravagance and uncertainty of aim. The first round was all to the credit of the hen, and the startled poultry cackled derisively as the bull retreated. Sure of victory, the hen followed him up, skipping, flapping, clawing, and scolding as only an irate hen in transports of rage can. Still the bull backed. He was a gentleman, and genuinely afraid of female tantrums. With half-shut eyes, he submitted to the buffets of the wings, while encouraging remarks from friends and companions further excited the delirious pugnacity of "Scotty." Then it seemed to dawn on him that honour was at stake. Gallantry forbade him to do violence to a lady; honour forbade him to run away. What other recourse was open? He must treat the whole episode as a joke. So, rubbing his muzzle on the ground, he invited the hen to come on. She did so. There was a splash of outspread feathers against his front and more clatter than ever. He pawed the ground, jerking little clods over his shoulders, and, lowering his head, menaced the hen with horns that could have tossed her over the highest of the mango-trees. But there was a smile on his face the while, and the spectators knew, though "Scotty" did not, that it was all a joke. Again and again she flew in his face. Just as often he refused to take her seriously, though all the pantomime of battle was displayed. She cackled in impotent anger. He bellowed with gratification. Not a fowl in the yard saw the joke, and all the little chicks in adjacent coops strained their necks to watch the battle and their voices in shrill comments. Having made not the slightest impression on the jovial little bull, "Scotty" retired, feinting and scolding, while he, still blue mouldy for a game, coaxed her by unmistakable gesticulation to one round more. Twice during the night "Scotty" dispelled the silences with loud exclamations of wrath and defiance. She was fighting her battle again in her dreams, and though I was not there to see, I am very sure that the gentle bull beguiled his wakeful moments with smiles. There are several white hens in the yard, and whensoever one crosses his path the bull, who does not pretend to discriminate, tosses his head with an interrogative gesture. "Do you want to fight?" he says, and the hens flee—all except "Scotty."
The herd comprises a dainty little cow of most placid disposition. Nothing disturbs her placidity, incites her to hurry, or bewilders her. Cure the dove of its timidity and shrinking and you will have a good prototype of Parilla, who, taking life easily and affably, is fat and amiable. When she brought home her firstborn, mooing plaintively, he, big and fat for his age, walked into the byre as a matter of course. Here was the first evidence of heredity. It was patent that Fillo Billaroo was born with a mind like that of his sweet-tempered mother. He earned his name because of acute dissimilarity to the swiftlet which swoops about the cleared spaces, never resting save in a dark and dirty cave.
Though, apparently, entirely unselfconscious, Fillo Billaroo at once established himself as a superior sort of creature. He did not exact any rights. They were conceded with all possible grace. He enjoys privileges none other dares to imagine. When he has exhausted for the time being the maternal source of refreshment, he visits other mothers, and with such a pompous, patronising, good-humoured, thoroughly appreciative and yet gentle way, that the absurd creatures are flattered. They realise he is something quite out of the common, and give agreeably of their best. Thus he has become a favourite, and he drinks so much and has become so fat that he could not for a couple of weeks accompany his lazy-pacing mother on her daily rounds, but would be planted in shade and coolness with cautions against straying until called for late in the afternoon. Often would Parilla forget the hiding-place, or rather pretend to, and beseech in wistful tones for help in the search, and when it was successful the greetings she bestowed displayed the bigness of her heart.
Once the little mother left Fillo Billaroo in charge of Lady Clare, a much more experienced matron, who cannot bear to permit her frisky heifer out of her sight for a moment unless safely planted, and then the treasure must not be wandered from more than a hundred yards. Parilla went off for the day. Late in the afternoon, Lady Clare with her heifer and Fillo Billaroo were found far away from the mob and driven home. It had been hot, and the big calf has an enormous appetite and apparently Lady Clare had been coy. When he saw his mother and his mother saw him, he stooped with uplifting nose, sniffing; she stopped feeding and begin to sniff. He seemed to say to himself, "I do believe I know that little creature. Yes; I am certain I must have met her before. She rather resembles my own mother; but I have so many fond, kind, and obliging aunts that it is not so very easy to make sure. She has a special look. Can I be mistaken? I really hope not, for I am painfully hungry."
In the meantime Parilla was saying to herself—you could see it all plainly written in her big, round, bulging eyes, so full of inquiry, hope and longing—!" The sight of that really fine fellow reminds me that I, too, am a mother. He is a pretty fellow; I fancy that Fillo Billaroo is not unlike him. I now recollect with dismay that I have not seen him since morning, when Lady Clare condescended to look after him. And there's Lady Clare! Oh! if she's mislaid Fillo Billaroo! But can that fine, beautiful fellow be mine? I must inquire. Come!" And she moo'd, and Fillo Billaroo murmured "Mum," and they rushed to one another, and the look in Parilla's face was that of perfect happiness.
"By the wisdom of Nature it has been appointed that more pleasure may be taken in small things than in great."—Ruskin.
On a breezy day, when the sun scorches the sand and the wind continuously sweeps off the dry surface, and your ears detect the musical sound accompanying the process—vague as the visible part of it is blurred and misty—then it is that you are made aware of the agencies by which time creates geographical differences. Precipitated at the apex of the spit, the sand as it sinks tints the verge of the sea, while the lighter spoil, leaves and wisps of seaweed, trip off on independent voyage. The current from the south pares the spit, preserving its shapeliness. The ebb from the bay maintains the fluent inner curve. The dry wind, the current with its northerly set, and the ebb in conjunction, push the spit to the north, and as the sand advances, vegetation consolidates the work. Then comes the season of northerly winds, when the apex of the spit is forced backwards and outwards into a brief but graceful flourish, in the bight of which small boats may nestle, though the seas roar and show white teeth a few yards away. Since the winds of the north are less in duration and persistency than those from the south and east, the tendency of the spit—in defiance of the yearly setback—is to the north. Driftwood, logs, and huge trees with bare, branchless limbs become stranded, to dry and whiten in the sun and reinforce the sand, and in their decay, with ever contributed seaweed, to make mould for vegetation. The work of encroachment and consolidation is incessant and strangely rapid, for vegetation never lacks pioneers of special character to prepare the way for the less venturesome and less hardy. Often before vegetation appears, coral chips, shells, small stones, and sharp gravel, are concreted into platter-shaped masses which seem to become the base of blocks of rough conglomerate, capable of resisting the attacks of the sea; and a few yards back, where a mangrove-bordered creek once existed, the mud and decayed fragments of wood have been transformed into a black, cheesy substance which might be mistaken for soft coal. So do these beaches lay bare their secrets.
When the mainland streams pour out their floods and the commingled volume hurries north in a mud-tinted, sharply delimited current, and whole trees are cast up on the beaches of far-away isles, vivid examples of the dispersion of animate and inanimate things by purely natural means are afforded. Weighty stones are found locked among roots which, as the wood decays, are deposited on alien sands, thereafter to invite speculation as to origin and means of transport. On one such raft voyaged a living specimen of the white and black banded snake, one of the most singular of the family, for Nature has bestowed on it a placid disposition, and provided it with an unmischievous mouth and fangs so minute that, although classed as venomous, it is not considered injurious to man. Though strange and interesting, on the plea that the family is quite sufficiently represented, the derelict was unwelcome, save as a living proof of the practicability of natural transports. By what grace, indeed, could the creature which earned the Almighty's bitter curse be accepted as "wilsam"—goods of God's mercy driven ashore, no wreck or ship being visible?
This small bay never ceases the laying of tribute at one's feet. There are seasons when the amount is less than at others; but how seldom are its sands trodden without a display of the infinite variety of productions of the ocean? When the mood of the sea is savage and the spoil from the reef is flung in ridges among the vegetation of the shore—coral in blocks and shattered masses, shells, seaweed, sponges, and other dead marine animals and driftwood, heap on heap—days of enthusiastic toil might be spent in sorting out the oversurplus of the secrets of the sea. But for months together the beach maintains its cleanly orderliness, and during these dreamy days the sea will tell of many a pretty treasure which the sands will reveal in the face of the sun.
The most famous of botanists compiled a floral almanac; the months, and in some cases the weeks, being associated with the development and flowering of significant plants. So might it be possible to ascribe to particular months the tokens with which the obliging sea bestrews the beaches. It is not proposed herein to attempt any such design, which would involve special knowledge of the science of conchology and the compilation of the records of years of patient observation. A few examples of the material on which the delightful work might be undertaken are given, so that the wealth of one brief strip of beach may be taken as typical of a vast stretch of calm waters within the Great Barrier Reef.
The ridges and furrows of the cyclone season, when the clean sand is covered and stained with weed, dead and living molluscs, coral, leaves carried from the hills by flooded streams, all fermenting in the heat, tell that Christmas is past and March not yet over. Many a year passes without such a storm as compels the groaning ocean to ravage its reefs. Then the beaches, during the first three months are not particularly fertile, nor are the shells to be found special or peculiar. In April many specimens of the mollusc known as Tapes, of which there are several species, are cast ashore, empty but fresh. In life the animal buries itself in the mud at the edge of the sand, and some disturbance of natural conditions, possibly due to the fresh water from flooded rivers, causes seasonal mortality. The most conspicuous of the species is that known as "literati," because of the erratic scribblings decorating its valves. With others of the genera, it is to be found cast away at other times of the year, but the end of the wet season seems exceptionally direful.
April is confirmed, too, but transiently, by the presence of a frail mollusc (HAMINAEA CYMBALUM) which is washed ashore attached to seaweed, soon to disappear desiccated by the sun and ground to powder. The shell is semi-transparent with a sandy tint, and in form not unlike that of a common snail. As the weather becomes cooler, a thin, delicate bivalve decorates high-water mark. It is one of the tellinas—semi-transparent, lustrous, and fragile—which occurs in muddy sand, but why the species should be more susceptible to the ills of life during a particular season is not apparent. When the fates do conspire against its welfare dozen of bright specimens may be picked up during a casual stroll, the animal having disappeared. The epidemic the beach thus announced with pink and glittering shells coincides with low night tides, which possibly leave the inefficiently protected animals exposed to the attacks of uncustomary enemies which thrive only when the muddy banks are exposed. The cause of the exhibition of the relics is not of so much concern to the unlearned observer as the relics themselves and the part they play in signifying the progress of the season. If strong winds occur during the cool months, among the wreaths of broken seaweed thrown on the beach may be found unbroken and fresh specimens of a singularly beautiful and fragile univalve known commonly and most appropriately as the "bubble shell" (HYDATINA PHYSIS), which when alive is a most lovely object, its fine spiral lines being black and faint yellow with faint purple edges, while the mantle is fringed with light blue intermingled with pale yellow. In some specimens the base colouring is fawn, the lines, of varying width, being brown and "comely crinkled," like the face of the pleasant old woman of whom a poet wrote. Such a frail shell is subject to many mischances before it reaches the beach, and a few hours of exposure to the sun tarnishes its lustre. To obtain it in perfection the beach must be patrolled every day during due season, and very rarely is the collector rewarded by the discovery of unsullied specimens.
When the chill is out of the surface the spring-time of the sea begins. Vegetable life is strenuous, so that one may chance to see a lazy turtle bearing on its back a weedy garden. The water is alive. Miles of space are belted with that plant to which Captain Cook applied a significant name, likening it in its myriads to "sea sawdust." Some dare call it "whale spawn," forgetful that the whale is not a fish. Others assert it to be none other than the "coral insect," which does not exist save in the minds of those who write odes to such creatures:
"Ye build, ye build, but ye enter not in, Like the tribes whom the desert devoured in their sin."
It consists of minute vegetation in bundles, to be individualised under a strong microscope, though when countless billions drift on to the beaches and die and become green and grey with corruption, the fumes are by no means in proportion to the marvellous littleness of the individual plants. Then we know by the organs of scent and sight that August has come. The beaches are foul. The breakers roll in unbroken or with a muddy, froth, for the scum acts as oil, calming even troubled water.
The Red Sea is said by some authorities to derive its title from the scum formed by this plant (TRICHODESMIUM ERYTHRAEUM), which is strongly impregnated with iodine. It emits a most disagreeable odour and exhales a gas which affects the mucous membrane, causing in some individuals sneezing and inflammation of the eyes. One amateur fisherman of considerable experience and by no means susceptible to intangible irritations, and not to be diverted from his sport by trifles, has frequently been compelled to move from a favourite ground by a stream of the scum drifting to his anchored boat. The fumes gave intense smartness to the eyes, which were relieved by a gush of tears, but keen discomfort recurred when the tears were wiped away.
Following the least desirable of marine phenomena is that which is known as the "blanket weed," which floats ashore in loathsome blobs, a hand's breadth and more, the centre a grey, solidified slime, with a periphery of long, dull green, slimy, shapeless fringes Individual plants coalesce on the sand and, mingling with other weeds, cover respectable beaches with a woolly, compact mass not unlike a rough, thick blanket, but teeming with unpleasantnesses. Isolated plants cling to ropes, which become garlanded with thickened slime, from which evil-smelling mud oozes. Offensive to man afloat and ashore, the "blanket weed" is a luxury to mullet and garfish, for during its period both may be seen in shoals skimming the surface of the sea in abandonment of habitual shyness, and the stomachs of both are found to be full of the greenish-grey slime. With the compliance of the sun the impurity disappears, giving place to the graceful weed of vivid green that attaches itself to dead and whitened shells and fingers of coral covered at low water. Every flood-tide deposits a zone of shells splashed with green, while the shallows glow as a field of rich pasturage. In favourable situations, such as the upper part of a long immersed log, coated to the water-line with goose barnacles, the plant grows long and luxuriantly, falling on each side like a silken mantle.
One other season, ephemeral but universal, do the babbling but truth-telling beaches record. No rocky cove, no smooth strand, no rubbish-accumulating creek, no mangrove-fringed islet, no coral esplanade white under the tropic sun, no sand-bank with crest of windshaken bush, is free. It is Christmas. Christian and pagan alike tell it to the sea, and the sea tells it to the beaches in—corks.
Though there are grounds for the belief that some molluscs are seasonal in their appearances and disappearances, the majority are always with us, though subject to many casualties. A few months since an epidemic broke out among a certain species of sea urchins (Echinus), spherical animals with shells thickly set with spines, keen and exceedingly brittle. The beaches were strewn with thousands of the dead, no apparent exterior injury having been suffered. The particular species afflicted gathers to itself, seemingly as a disguise, but perhaps as ballast, the dead shells of cockles, which are retained by the spines. It was noticed that the dead were not encumbered.
A curious and one of the rarest of local shells is that known as the elephant's tusk (DENTALIUM APTINUM). Pure white and slightly fluted longitudinally, it typifies the marvellous extent of Nature's requirements and her fertility in design. It is especially interesting to note that the existence of the species in Australian waters has not hitherto been recorded, the nearest known locality being the Moluccas.
The DRUPA RICINUS (so specifically called because of resemblance to the prickly seeds of the castor-oil plant) has another feature almost unique—two ivory-white projections in the mouth, singularly like a baby's teeth. In the waters of Florida is a distinct curiosity in the form of an altogether different mollusc which is commonly known as the "bleeding-tooth shell," the gory stains about the base of the tooth being highly significant. The local example of the whimsicality of Nature owes its excellence to absolute purity. No fond mother crooning to her first-born ever looked on budding teeth more delightful in modelling and pearliness.
CHAMA LAXARUS belongs to the same family as the clams, the largest of living molluscs, its specific title being an allusion to the tattered raiment of the beggar of the most edifying of parables. Occasionally the china-white upper valve is decorated with a broad streak of buff. Some of the genera are attached to coral or rock indifferently by either valve, and it is exceptional to find on the beach a perfect specimen—that is, the valves united. Since on the reef the shells are frequently protectively disguised with seaweed and other growth, it is only after the violence of a cyclone that the amateur collector expects to be rewarded.
Unlike some others of the family, the cockscomb oyster, though not objecting to the near-by presence of its kind, seems to hate a crowd. Half a dozen may occupy separate areas on a rock, and solitary specimens lie embedded and strongly anchored in the sand. A typical example may weigh over seven pounds. So big and weighty a shell can scarcely be sensible of its invariable burden of parasites and other encumbrances—but the variety of such tenants never fails to excite curiosity. That which is illustrated accommodated another oyster of delicate texture, a thorny clam (which has the reputation of being poisonous), a mass of seaweed, a serpentine mollusc, two species of coral—the red organ-pipe and a mushroom—three burrowing crabs, besides a number of smaller animals, fixed and mobile, in addition to the congregation of less obvious life critical examination would undoubtedly have revealed.
Most species of univalves are wanderers, many bivalves are free, and multivalves become fixed at an early stage of existence. The goose-necked barnacle, with its five valves, comes in its myriads attached to derelict coco-nuts, floating logs, and pumice-stone. The species owes its name to the fabulous belief that it was the preliminary state of the barnacle goose of the Arctic regions, the filaments representing the plumage and the valves the wings. It has been found on shells, whales, turtles, and marine snakes.
In the mud close to the edge of the beach sand one of the most singular of marine animals exists, and often its empty, horny, flexible, semi-transparent shell, always tinted green, may be found. It is known in some works as LINGULA ANATINA, and by the natives of this Isle, by whom a certain part of it is eaten, as "Mill-ar-ing." A pinhole in the mud indicates the presence of the animal, and the hungry black boy, thrusting his hand with outspread fingers below it, closes the fingers and withdraws anything but an inviting morsel. To the tongue-shaped shell is attached a pedicle or stalk, attaining a length of ten inches, opaque and tough, which is broken off, seared over the fire, and eaten with apparent relish. It is remarkable that in localities in which this mollusc is found a seaweed occurs similar in shape and size, the chief difference in appearance being in the length of the stalk, which in the plant is thin and membranous.
The Phorous, or carrier, otherwise the mineralogist, is remarkable for its extraordinary habit of cementing to its exterior stones of irregular size, and in some cases dead shells of other species, an office performed by the use of an exceptionally long tongue. Its movements are said to be very clumsy and erratic, as if its self-imposed burden was too cumbersome for its strength. Personal observation fails to verify its staggering gait, for dead specimens only have been found. The stones are, no doubt, designedly acquired as a disguise and so represent another form of life insurance. When stationary the mineralogist successfully baffles observation; but some day, peradventure, in a moment of preoccupation, it will reveal itself lurching along over the rough country it favours. How few living things escape the "penalties of Adam." Some bear sorrows, some stones.
Among the fixed molluscs are what is known as the winged shells, to which the "pearl oysters" belong. The name is apt, for the expanded valves are not unlike the form of a bird in flight. The illustration shows a rare species, several specimens of which were found attached to the mooring-chain of a buoy by what is known as the "byssus," a bunch of tough fibres which passes through an hiatus in the margins of the valves. Like the king's daughter of the Psalmist, PTERIA PEASEI is "all glorious within," the nacreous surface, margined with lustrous black, shining like silver with a tinge of blue.
Only a very small proportion of the species of shells to be found on the shore of this bay have been enumerated. In a work of general character a complete commentary on any particular branch of natural science would be out of place, nor is it competent for one who has but a trifling knowledge of a special subject to deal with it in an enlightening manner. It would be highly interesting to ascertain by study and observation why the denizens of so many parts of the ocean meet in community in such a narrow space, though it may not be very difficult to present a fairly satisfactory theory for the continuous presence of many species by reference to existing features and prevalent conditions. Within the area of the bay the water varies in depth from a few feet to four fathoms, the rise and fall of the tide being about two fathoms. The fringing coral reef represents all stages of development and decay—live growth on the outer edge, ever encroaching on the deeper water, and comprising many varieties; dying masses on the shore-side, and a considerable extent of dead and denuded relics lying in mud. There are also weedy patches, bare sand-banks of limited extent, uncovered at low water, and muddy depressions both in the deep and shallow portions and clean sand. Strong currents race past the sand-spit and across the bay, carrying, no doubt, continual supplies of spat from elsewhere to settle in quiet places. No one who has lived on the margin of the tropic sea can be astounded at its prolific life, though it may be a matter of unceasing wonder that along a beach not more than four hundred yards in extent should be found shells representative of species existing in nearly all the warm waters of the world.
And there are other isles with other beaches. One may present a narrow strip of soft sand, cringing and squeaking under foot, almost entirely composed of finely ground coral and shells, among which polished fragments of red coral are to the beach-comber as the "colours" the gold fossicker may find in his dish—prospective of reward. They reinspire the like fervour which leads to the discovery of mountains as well as microbes, for may they not signify the existence within the bounds of the Great Barrier Reef of the precious coral of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea? Above such hopeful sands lies a band formed of stag's-horn coral, bleached snow-white, each time lying at right angles to the sea, and higher up on the strand are blocks and lumps of weather-stained coral among which vegetation is springing. A few yards further back stands a group of Pandanus palms, the van of the dense and intricate jungle covering rock and ridge.
The shore of the sister islet may at the moment be but series of steeply shelving banks of coral debris, to the base of the granite ramparts over which the luxuriant foliage falls.
Each islet has its distinguishing features, each beach its budget of news for ears attuned to "small measures," each its display of seemly things—the sweepings of the floor of the sea.
THE LOST ISLE
"Some unsuspected Isle in far-off seas."
In a region of rare serenity it lay—a blue stud on a silver shield—aloof from other lands—unmapped, untarnished, pure, gleaming in the dawn of exultant day.
Emblem of perfection, its charms were imperative, partly because of remoteness from the taint of man-trodden land, mainly because, by right of discovery, it was joyfully mine. Could anything be more desirable than such a blending of jungle-clad mountains, verdurous hills, sheltered valleys, orange-tinted beaches, with the shadows of white headlands staining the sea purple?
An all-comprehending glance revealed the Isle in the shape of a five-rayed star, each ray irregularly serrated. Here was promise of many a landlocked cove to which the breathings of the sea would be foreign. Unsalted streams wound among the foothills of the central mountain, whence a spire of rose-red porphyry shot into the luminous sky from unbroken jungle, the superficies of which were soft and brilliant as sodden moss.
Some of the valleys showed in succession ever-green, flower-bedecked glades, with great trees and blossoming shrubs in scattered clumps and patches, among which sinuous ribbons of jungle denoted the courses of deep hidden streams. Others were merely precipitous depressions in the unbroken mass of foliage, variegated with aspiring palms so slender of shaft that their unceasing swaying in the still air seemed an act of unconscious affectation for the display of huge bunches of gaudy fruit, seductive and dulcet to the taste. Spider-webbed tree-ferns with furry, water-bespangled trunks stood in crowded groves on the brink of spray-creating cascades and along the margins of cool rivulets which murmured as they hurried to the sea.
Water-dripping moss padded the lintels of grottos, before which dangled translucent ferns of delicate form, yet so rich and intense with life that crozier-tipped fronds took the hue of flowers—coral-red, golden-bronze, and yellow; while golden dust clung to hairy undersides like pollen to the thighs of hive-returning bees. Deep in perpetual shadow lived a shy plant with heart-shaped leaves, so succulent and distended as to resemble green capsules, and in association with each leaf was a single semi-transparent fruit, pink with a central glow like the fire of opal, but so frail that upon touch it resolved into a dewdrop which glistened, trembled, and was gone in a moment.
In the full blaze, feather-foliaged trees crowned with gigantic red blossoms offered as a sacrifice fruit which blushed before the insistent gaze of the sun; while beneath this gay canopy vine and creeper and pliant shrub wove an undergarment which screened the moist earth and created a realm of subdued light in which all the flowers were pale of tint and tremulously fragile, though of almost forbidding magnitude of form.
Birds of painted plumage and loud and sonorous note sang and fluttered among the flowers and fruit with no ill thing to disturb them, no dissonance to compel them to silence and fear.
Whithersoever I gazed, the lone and lovely Isle denoted a paradise of unkempt vegetation, unfeared birds. No stump was there to betray the passing of the devastating axe. No footprint except that of birds—erratic, rectangular, scribbling—dented the sand. No human being had ever visited those groves perfumed by orchids, gauzy as the wings of the butterflies which poised over them and sipped the nectar stored in their slender throats.
Each bay and inlet and cove differed in delightsomeness. Unsoiled, weedless sand littered with shells floored this deep and sheltered nook, where shadow and substance blended to the complete deceit of the closest scrutiny. The next was as a garden of shrubs with living blossoms and fruit in strange shapes and gaudy colours. Many of the subaqueous plants expanded and retracted their blossoms harmoniously, as if to the strains of music audible only to the mute denizens of the sea—a measured, waving dance, fantastic and wondrously beautiful. Crystalline clearness magnified the detail of the next, the portals of which were coral, dyed extravagantly and variously according to the secret of the sea, with its inexhaustible chemicals. Fish in unimaginable shapes, fantastic hues, and sea-things harmless and educative to the sight, roamed the coral gardens, retiring at will into sapphire-blue caverns or flashing in the clearness with lightning speed and scarce visible effort. Cream and yellow, old gold, blue, pink and lavender, the corals flourished in myriad shapes. Anemones, large as plates, royal blue and greyish-green, and each bristling with thousands of independent activities, embossed snow-white blocks.
Opening out into an oval basin, the inlet was again constricted, the bottle-neck entrance to a perfect haven being guarded by huge masses of limestone, weathered grotesquely, from the crevices of which sprays of peach-coloured orchids quivered, while the flora of land and sea commingled on the lustrous surface. Beyond again, the inlet wound round the base of it cliff vocal with the fugue of birds which flew from flowery parapet to flowery parapet.
Gradually the cliffs retreated, leaving fair banks with shrubs and great trees with branches pendulous over unbroken placidity, and there, on a knoll, stood a palm, rigid and straight as a column, crowned with shimmering fronds which shielded masses of nuts, brown and green, and great sprays of straw-coloured infloresence. More palms beyond, thick-set; and beyond again an avenue in perfect alignment, each tree perfect in stately form, with one blotch of glorious purple—as high and compact as a church—to block the diminished distance.
The boat drifted to the landing never touched by foot of man. Lost in admiration of the imposing and manifold perfections of the Isle, eager to wander at will among those enticing glades, and to make festival with their genial gods, I stepped out—and into nothingness!
Can it be that never again shall be discovered in the Land of Dreams the Lost Isle?
PART II.—THE PASSING FACE
"No ceremony that to great ones 'longs."
Summoned, invited, children, men, women, and piccaninnies assembled to participate in the duties and recreations of the moment.
Message-sticks had been carried into unfamiliar country by nervous boys. One of the organisers at ease with his pen sent to his kin formal and official invitations mingled with social and affectionate greetings. All responded.
The beach sent its silent-footed contingents trailing along the yellow sands, carrying in well-worn dilly-bags oysters and scraps of half-baked fish smeared with smoke, and gritty. All their lives had they trudged along the convenient margin of the sea, where the receding tide leaves a firm, level, springy track. They were familiar with all its moods, and took little heed of any.
The fame of a previous Parliament had spread far and wide, even to that aspect of the Dividing Range which sends its waters to the great shallow gulf to the west. Natives who, though living among the mountains but two days' journey from the coast, had never seen the sea, hastened thither in bee-line, passing through unknown but not unfriendly country. Though the age of tribal feuds was past, special weapons of defence were carried, for did not strange jungles teem with spectral denizens whom imagination endowed with appalling shape, with cunning, and with rending ferocity? Unmolested, the party arrived one evening, to gaze with mute astonishment on the sea. It was almost as incomprehensible, and therefore almost as fearsome, as the phantoms of the bush. Mysterious, vast beyond the range of vision, here grumbling on the sand, there mingling with the sky, the strangers peered at it through the screen of whimpering casuarinas and trembled. The rustle of the subsiding north-easter made for fear. They told one another that the big salt water was alive. It talked in austere tones, while their own sleepy lagoons were silent and tame. Wonderingly, they retreated to the jungle for the night, there to take counsel of the long-shoremen.
"That b-i-g fella salt water, him talk all asame?"
"Yowi! Him sing out plenty. Mak'm b-i-g fella row!"
"That fella him walk about lika that?"
"Yowi! Him walk about. Quiet little bit. Sometime run about splash'm water; mak'm boat capsize. Plenty men drown finis!"
The strangers shivered and longed to return to their cool hills; but the long-shoremen beguiled them with descriptions of the fish and the crabs and oysters the generous sea gave, and told that in the morning it would be "quiet fella" and that they need not be afraid.
With taut-strung nerves, the highlanders approached the sea, which shone in matutinal placidity. When the ripples wavered on the smooth sand and ran in caressing ripples towards their feet, they started and shrunk. The incomprehensible ocean was alive and much to be feared, for was it not so big that no one could see where it ended? They sat and watched its enticing gestures, and, gathering courage, stood tremulously while the tide splashed their feet and retreated. The boldest walked in ankle-deep and danced in daredevilry, and soon young and old were gambolling uncouthly, tasting the sea's quality, shouting and splashing. None ventured more than knee-deep; some crawled and wallowed in the wet sand, too fearful to trust their lives to so big a thing which showed itself to be alive by breathing and moving. The morning was spent in moist frolics, and when the north-easter began to work up a little sea, which spoke in menacing tones, the terrified strangers withdrew.
Late in the afternoon the corroboree began, many of the participators having spent hours in the assumption of the festive costume of the down of sulphur-crested cockatoos plastered to the skin with grease and the blood. It is not to be supposed that white down in the hands of experienced dressers is incapable of variation in style. Several original designs excited the approbation of spectators. The down was arranged in tufts following the perpendiculars of the body from shoulder to shin, or in a series of circles accurately spaced, or in intersecting spirals, while the heads of all performers and combatants were converted into white mops.
And with the clapping of hollowed hands and the clicking of boomerangs the function began. And having danced to their own satisfaction and the delight of the crowd, the warriors with ostentation and bluster recited private grievances and challenged those against whom they had real or fancied wrongs to combat. Most of the noisy declamation was ill-founded. The many had no grievances and no intentions of fighting, but out of the shouting crowd stepped two big men who sought compensation for "another Helen." Though not lovely or winsome or an heiress, she sufficed as the motive for an honourable and public strife, quite as sincere as many of the scuffles without the walls of Troy. Spears and boomerangs were thrown viciously and dodged and evaded skilfully until one of the men found a boomerang sticking fast in his leg. The wound was decisive, and with much hullabaloo the defeated warrior limped away, while the lady, whom niggardly Nature had denied the grace of blushing, passively went to the victor.
Among the strangers to the coast was an old man but a yard and a quarter high, with unkempt, grisly beard, a head which needed not the glorification of cockatoo's down, long, thin arms, huge hands, thick, stump legs, and sprawling feet. No far-reaching crab of the reef just showing its worn brown tusks off-shore was more grotesque of mien and gait. To emphasise his malignant mood, he carried a huge boomerang, which seemed to obey and embody his whims. It sprang from his powerful hands in resolute and impetuous flight, whirred threateningly overhead, and returned to foot, fluttering and purring, as if endowed with affection for its unlovable master. None so mastered the missile; but for all his weird influence over it, he was subject to the restraints of another weapon which seldom left his hands. Is there not a spiritual law which imposes checks on the bombastic tricks of crude and cultured alike, or was it by force of gravity that the point of the dwarf's long and slender spear dipped into the ground, punctuating mock martial struts with perverse irregularity? Prodigious in his own estimation, his jibes and taunts were almost as terrifying as the erratic flights of his boomerang; for the dwarf was a privileged individual, the Thersites of the campaign, and with one advantage over his prototype—he really wanted to fight. So he swaggered, heeding not the reproving spear; he fumed; he mocked; for no warrior affected to notice his vainglorious absurdities. He was as much in earnest as those who fought on account of elemental love, and far more so than any of the blusterers who talked big and looked small. He longed to fight, and for money.
Each warrior was challenged individually, and when none responded he railed against all for cowards and sent the boomerang hissing defiance against the blue sky, to fall with mutter and thud at his feet. In his rage the little man became hysterical, and the more he scolded the less important, while the swaying spear emphasised increasing agitation, but brought him neither humility nor jibe, for the race does not intentionally relieve its drama with comedy.
No more influential personage was present than "Mooty," the crafty, determined, plausible philosopher—the sagest of the counsellors, the most flowery of orators, the most weird of the wizards. Long before he had established his reputation as a medicine-man. A settler had purchased some cast-off goats in a distant town, and had employed a black boy of the district as assistant drover, and the name of the boy was Tom. Since there are many "Toms," a distinguishing surname had to be bestowed, so "Goat" was affixed, and as "Tom Goat" the stranger was known. Having no sweetheart, he made love to several dusky dames, all of whom rejected him because his absurd name made him a figure for fun. Rosey, wife of Jack, was persistently courted, and scornfully she despised her wooer. That individual, however, was not without malignant resource. Rosey complained of a sore throat, and as she got worse her boy became similarly afflicted. The faces and throats of both swelled alarmingly, so that Mooty, who had the cases in hand, gave up hope. Both were resigned, when Mooty, to his own horror and the dismay of everyone, caught the dread disease.
No such illness had ever been known in the district, and since it had not only baffled Mooty's skill, but had irreverently seized him—the only physician of credit and renown—its cause must be supernatural. Thus did he reason, as he began occult investigations. Jack and Rosey lay in their camp passively dying. Mooty prowled about, the sleeves of a discarded shirt tied under his distended jaws. No physical origin for the mysterious disease was found during the two days he devoted to methodic search and secret rite. Then an anticipated discovery rewarded him and made his name thrill among his race. To a condescending white man he told of his skill in these terms:
"Two fella him close up finis. Me bin look out camp belonga two fella. B'mbi me bin find'm little fella fork stick close up alonga groun'. Me frait. My word, me bin pick'm up easy fella. Me look out longa little fella hole. Me bin see hair, too much, belonga Tom Goat. That hair bin mak'm two fella no good. Him mak'm me fella no good. Me catch'm that fella hair along two fella stick. Tchuck'm along ribber. My word! That fella hair no good! Him go phuff! Kill'm fish, too many. B'mbi me fella go alonga camp. Me tell'm two fella, 'You no more mak'm die. Me bin find'm that fella hair belonga Tom Goat.' B'mbi two fella him get up; him no more die; he walk about."
Exasperated by such impropriety, aghast at the consequences, Mooty—doctor alike of laws, of science, and of medicine, and a man of imperative mood—sharpened his tomahawk at the Chinaman's grindstone, theatrically testing its edge with distorted thumb. Tom Goat disappeared as silently as last night's dew, for Mooty does not hesitate to summarily administer his own judgment when his professions are scorned, his family bewitched, his countenance distorted with mumps.
With feasting and fighting, with dancing and storytelling, quarrelling and reconciliations, the assemblage spent a happy week. Then the jungle reabsorbed the nervous hillmen, and beach-combers straggled along the yellow sands.
"Last scene of all, . . . Is second childishness and mere oblivion."
A tottering old man, frail alike in frame and mind, squats dying in an alien camp. His teeth have almost disappeared, worn to the gums by the mastication of food in which sand has been mingled in immoderate proportion. All his life has been spent on the verge of the sea. He has never known smooth food. Before he left his mother's breast grit was on his lips, for in her sleep she snoodled naked in the sand. Hers was the age of bark rugs or none, and was ever lord of the beach who shared with his lady so rare a comfort?
Counterparts of Cassowary's babyhood are extant to this day—milk-bellied, nose-neglected, fumbling-fingered toddlers, who smash with stones almost beyond their strength infant oysters and gulp a mixture of squash and sand.
As he grew up his food, seared on a fire on the beach, was always more or less gritty. Possibly it would hardly have been relished if the accustomed condiment had been absent.
For many a long year Cassowary was a sort of king in the locality of his birth, though this rank brought him no isolation. Now he is without rank and grim in his lonesomeness. True to the sentiments of his race, the men and women who knew him when he was strong and lusty strive to make him comfortable in his dotage; but he is repellent. His surliness does not vex them. They pity and excuse and endeavour to soothe. To strangers whom Cassowary has never loved and would now assault with spear and nulla-nulla, they apologise.
"Poor fella, Cassowary. Him no good. Close up that fella finis."
Then they tell of his strange fantasies. Similar delusions have afflicted notable men of the world, and even to this day are there not apprehensive monarchs whose precautions are similar to those of the age-worn savage? He imagines that he is regarded as a useless encumbrance, and that his fellows would gladly hasten his departure to that country on the bourne of which he painfully lingers. Suspicious of plots to rob him of the poor vestiges of life, he is ever on his guard against poison, his special dread. Rather than run risk he submits to semi-starvation, for the decayed monarch of a narrow strip of shore has no servitor on whom to impose the office of taster of his dishes. A stranger may of his goodwill offer a tribute of tobacco. It is cast away with every manifestation of indignation and haste. He is sure that the one solace of existence has been drugged, and that if he indulges he must die. How marvellous the self-denial! How many of us would purchase half an hour's existence such as his at the cost of declining the one luxury of life!
Flour from his master's hands is served like the stranger's tobacco, though he may not have tasted food for days; nor does he accept a portion of the damper cooked in his presence until he has seen others eat. Then he feeds reluctantly and with extreme caution, not to gratify the palate, but to maintain life.
Was ever monarch or Roman pontiff beset by more vindictive and envious foes than this helpless old savage who possesses nothing save a grimy shirt and the fragments of a blanket?
Cassowary, an old man when I first met him, was of the sort which does not make friends with white men. Silent, resolute, reserved, a man apart, he disdained the race-shattering language his fellows hastened to acquire. His pidgin English, limited to a few words, was almost as unintelligible as his own rude tongue. Once I landed on the beach which was his favourite resort, and as the anchor slipped into the sea, smoke puffed and drifted from the camp and the lonesome man's dogs barked; but by the time the camp was reached the smell of the fire had gone, and all tracks had been obliterated as if by the efficient touch of the wind. The heat of the sand at the entrance of the dome-shaped humpy revealed the site of the covered embers, and the rest was silence.
At the back of the humpy, concealed by carelessly disposed bark and grass, was a bark canoe which Cassowary, fisherman and oyster-eater, was never without. In those days he deserved the reputation of being an unrivalled maker of canoes which, during the first few weeks of their prime, were sound, neat of appearance, quite seaworthy, though of small dimensions and exceedingly light. Others might be expert fishermen and skilful in more exacting sport of turtle and dugong catching, but all acknowledged his special superiority. Though custom had made him a king, Nature had designed him for a canoe-maker, while with that invincible irony with which she rebukes the self-esteem and baffles the ambitions of mortals, she discounted her gift by the bestowal of frank distrust of the sea. He was so impelled to the exercise of the one talent that during youth and manhood his chief occupation and never-ending delight lay therein. That which his right hand had found to do he did with all his might, his frail craft being the admiration of all, while the confidence with which others managed them proved their quality. They toyed with the sea in its placid moods, and were deferential in its ill-humour. But Cassowary never ventured beyond easy hail from the shore, however urgent the occasion or propitious the day.
Fear also restricted his wanderings in the bush, which kept him within sound of the dreaded waves. He was an unaffected beach-comber. Neither the food-bestowing sea nor the safe dry land was for him.
By instinct he seemed to be guided to the best trees for bark, generally selecting "gulgong," though others were equally pliant in his hands. Raw from the tree, he would soak the single sheet in water, and while sodden steam it over a smoky fire, and, as it softened, mould it with hand and knee. Bringing the edges of the end designed for the stem into apposition, using a device on the principle of the harness-maker's clamp, he sewed them together with strips of freshly cut cane. Two stretchers gave to the craft beam, and the necessary sheer and thwart-ship stays of twisted cane stiffness. Gunwales of cane were sewn on, the stitches being cemented with gum made plastic by frequent renderings over the fire on a flat stone, and then the canoe was complete save for the hand-paddles, spoon-bowl-shaped pieces of bark.