Men armed with spears surround and exterminate a shoal detected in shallow water; and the boomerang and the nulla-nulla as well as the spear form the weapons of the solitary fisherman. On one of the islands of the Gulf of Carpentaria the boomerang (I am told) alone is used, the blacks being so expert that little is left to chance.
Though the wommera, or, as it is known locally, the yellamun, is common in the neighbourhood of Dunk Island, it is not employed as an accessory in the spearing of fish. Further north it is so almost universally, a combination of boomerang and wommera being the most popular form. This dual-purpose weapon is merely a boomerang to one of the ends of which is fitted a spur, which engages the socket in the butt of the spear. While on this subject, it is interesting to note that, though the common form of the implement for increasing the velocity and range of the spear is generally considered to be peculiar to Australia, its principle is embodied in a contrivance which was used for a similar purpose in the New Hebrides in Captain Cook's day.
Describing some of the arts of the inhabitants of Tanna, Cook ("Voyages of Captain Cook round the World," vol. i., chapter vi.) says that in the throwing of darts "they make use of the becket, that is, a piece of stiff plaited cord, about six inches long, with an eye in one end and a knot in the other. The eye is fixed on the forefinger of the right hand, and the other end is hitched round the dart where it is nearly on an equipoise. They hold the dart between the thumb and the remaining finger, which serve only to give direction, the velocity being communicated by the becket and forefinger. The former flies off from the dart the instant its velocity becomes greater than that of the hand, but it remains on the finger ready to be used again."
It is obvious that the Australian implement is much the more reliable and effective. Cook mentions that with the dart the Tanna Islanders "are sure of hitting a mark within the compass of the crown of a hat at a distance of eight or ten yards; but at double that distance it is chance if they hit a mark the size of a man's body, though they will throw the weapon sixty or seventy yards." Such a standard of marksmanship would be regarded with contempt by the average black of North Queensland. The use of this becket (introduced very many years ago by the Kanaka) is a fairly common accomplishment among coastal blacks.
In shallow water, too, fish are chased until they become so exhausted and nerve-shaken that they partially bury themselves in the sand, or endeavour to elude observation by concealing themselves beneath stone or coral, or by remaining passive among seaweed, trusting, no doubt, to protective tints and assimilation with their surroundings. Few of these stratagems of the fish are of avail when once a hungry black is on its track. The science of war, we are bidden to believe, is not designed for the slaughter of mankind, but so to impress the enemy with a demonstration of overwhelming power, force, and majesty, that he may become mentally unable or unwilling to offer resistance, because of its obvious futility. So it is with the black in pursuit of a fish or turtle in shallow water. By noise and bluster he works on the senses of the fish until it becomes semi-paralysed. Then he proceeds callously to the killing, which, in the case of fish, if his right hand is encumbered, he generally accomplishes by a crunching bite into the back-bone at the shoulders.
At rare intervals the black varies his tactics by a night attack, which is often highly demoralising. When the moon is on the other side of the world, with spears and flaring torches of paper-bark, he rushes in a band to raid the reef, to the dismay of startled and bewildered fish. Substitute for the gurgling cadences of semi-submerged coral and muteness and universal dimness instant noise and splashing, and dazzling lights here and there and everywhere, and it is not to be considered strange that the fish—tipsy with panic and confusion—fail to exercise their habitual alertness.
At a certain season of the year—November and December in the neighbourhood of Dunk Island—myriads of fish, about the size of a sardine, appear in shoals, an acre or so in area, or encircle the islands with a living, bluish-grey frill yards broad. The blacks bestow on this godsend, popularly known as "sprats"—HARENGULA STEREOLEPIS (Ogilby)—the name of "Oon-gnahr."
How skilfully does Nature dovetail her designs! This great multitude of fish appears when it is most needed. The terns (sea-swallows) are rearing their families, and ever need fresh food in unstinted quantities. The small fry come to an excited and enthusiastic market. Slim, silvery kingfish, grey sharks, and blue bonito, harry the shoals, ripping through them with steel-like flashes, and as the little fish ruffle the surface of sea or emerge therefrom in living silvery spray, in frantic efforts to escape, the terns take all they want, screaming with satisfaction. Then, too, the blacks join in the work of destruction. When the frill of fish lies limp on the beach, they fabricate a seine net, cheap, but admirably suited for the purpose. Long strands of beach trailers and grass and slender twigs are rolled and twisted up—apparently without the slightest art—into a huge loose cable eight inches in diameter. The men run out the cable into the water at right angles to the beach while still the gins, with nervous haste, are adding to its length. If it breaks, a few twists and pokes suffice to repair it. The men at the lead curve in towards the beach, and the gins and piccaninnies wade out in line to meet them. Gradually the cable, shocking in its frailty, is worked in, enclosing a patch of the fish in a perilous coffer dam. Tumult and commotion are almost as necessary contributories to the success of the stratagem as is the cable. But before they realise what has happened, they are in such close company that escape is impossible; dilly-bags are filled in a single dip, and it may take half an hour to pick out those "meshed" in the cable. It is all the work of a few minutes, and the haul often amounts in quantity to a surfeit for the whole camp.
One of these rude seines which was overhauled was composed largely of the long, leafless, twine-like branches of the leafless parasite CASSYTHA FILIFORMIS (which the blacks term "Bungoonno"), IPOMEA PESCAPRAE ("Koree"), Blady-grass ("Jin-dagi"), and the tough sprawling branches of BLAINVILLEA LATIFOLIA ("Gallan-jarrah"), the whole being reinforced with withes of CLERODENDRON IMERME ("Missim"), all of which plants grow on the verge of the sea.
Vast as is the congregation of small fry, it gradually fritters away, martyred to fish, flesh, and fowl. By the time the little terns are thrown upon their own resources the violet frill of the sweet islands is frayed and ragged, and drifts loosely in shabby remnants.
For large fish—groper, the giant perch, king, bonito, rhoombah, sweet-lips, parrot-fish, sea-mullet, and the sting-rays (brown and grey)—a harpoon and long line are used. When iron is not available a point is made of one of the black palms, the barb being strapped on with fibre, the binding being made impervious to water by a liberal coating of a pitch-like substance prepared from the resinous gum of the arral-tree (EVODIA ACCEDENS).
The point is eight or ten inches long, the barbless end being swathed in fibre so that it may fit easily into the socket of the eight or ten feet shaft. A long line is tied to a point above the swathing, and, being drawn taut along the shaft, is secured to the end by a series of clove-hitches. When the fish is struck the point is drawn from the socket, while the shaft acts as a cheek on, and an indicator of, its course when just below the surface. Such harpoons and lines are also used for the capture of dugong and turtle, the line being made of the inner bark (the bast layer) of one of the fig-trees, and is of two strands only. Occasionally the HIBISCUS TILLIACEUS is laid under tribute for ropes and lines, which, however, are not considered as durable as those from the fig. Nets, set and hand, are also made with twine from the fig or hibiscus.
When, at low spring tides, the coral reef is uncovered, small rock-cod, slim eels, parrot-fish, perch, soles, the lovely blue-spotted sting-ray, catfish, flathead, etc., are poked out unceremoniously with spears or sharp-pointed sticks from labyrinthine mazes, or from the concealment afforded by the flabby folds and fringes of the skeleton-less coral (ALCYONARIA), or from among the weeds and stones—a kind of additional sense leading the black to the discovery of fish in places that a white man would never dream of investigating. At this opportune time, too, huge, defiantly armed and brilliantly coloured crayfish are exposed to capture. A statement was published recently that this was the speediest of all marine animals. The assertion is much to be questioned, but there can be no doubt that the crayfish is a wonderful sprinter. Familiar with its lack of staying power, blacks race after it uproariously as it flees face to foe, all the graduated blades of its turbine apparatus beating under high pressure. Two or three rushes and the crayfish pauses, and then the agile black breaks its long, exquisitely sensitive and brittle antennae, deprived of which it becomes less capable of taking care of itself; or it may find its gorgeous armour-plates smashed with a stone or penetrated by a spear. For the most part, however, the crayfish lurks in coral caves, sweeping a considerable frontal radius with ever-shifting antennae—not in pride or conceit of their beautiful tints and wonderful mechanism, but with a pitiful apprehension of danger, for the admirers of the creature are many and ever so much in earnest—the earnestness of unceasing voracity.
Having a decided partiality for eels, the blacks of North Queensland have devised several means of capture, one of which does not call for the exercise of the least skill on the part of the individual whose longing for the dainty becomes imperative. His placid perseverance, too, is of no avail, unless luck favours. Wading in a shallow, mangrove-bordered creek, he blindly probes the bottom with a six-feet length of fencing wire, the modern substitute for the black palm spear. Frequently he trifles thus with coy Fortune for hours, an inch or so separating each prod; and again, in a spasm of indignant impatience, he stabs determinedly into the mud at random. Non-success does not make shipwreck of his faith in the existence of the much-desired food in the black mud, for as far back as his own experience and the camp's traditions go, substantial reason for that faith has been plentifully revealed. He returns to the monotonous occupation until an unlucky eel is impaled, and then it is given no chance of escape.
Pushing his spear a couple of feet through, the boy grips the prize with both hands, or bends the wire into the form of a hook. Fortune may continue to smile, and the boy takes several during the afternoon.
Many boys enhance the charms of solitude by ingeniously tricking eels, Nature presenting them with an efficient engine of deceit and destruction, so designed that neither the agitations of art nor the invention of science could much improve it. About two feet of the thong or lorum of one of the creeping palms (CALAMUS OBSTRUENS) is all that is necessary. These lora are armed with definitely spaced whorls of recurved hooks, keen as needles, true as steel, about one-eighth of an inch long. Three or four of the whorls are removed to provide an unfretful but firm grip. The pot-holes and shallow pools and gullies and trickling creeks are populated by nervous, yet inquisitive, semi-transparent prawns, upon which eels liberally diet. So silent and steady of movement is the boy that even the alert prawns are unaware of, or become accustomed to, his presence; and what is there to warn the eel, enjoying its comfort among the dead leaves in the gloomiest corner of the pool, of danger? Could any but a black boy detect the difference between the brown sodden leaves and the half-inch of body which the eel has unwittingly exposed? The "pig-gee" (as some term the lorum) is used with almost surgical delicacy of touch to hook away two or three of the leaves. Then it is placed parallel to whatever increased length has thus been made visible, and with a decisive twitch the eel is torn from its retreat and killed off-hand.
Even the shy, long-armed little prawns (PALAEMON AUSTRALIS) do not escape special means for their destruction. A pliant rod about four feet long is improvised from the midrib of the creeping palm before mentioned, to the end of which is fastened a slender thread of the same material, split off by using the nails of the thumb and second finger. This strand, which is about four inches long, is delicately noosed. Standing a few feet away from the water-hole, the black so manipulates the line that the noose encircles the tail of the prawn, which, making a retrogressive dart upon alarm, finds itself fatally snared. The prawns are not, as a rule, eaten, being reserved for bait.
In creeks and lagoons thin, hollow logs are submerged. Eels naturally seek such refuges, and in due course the boy dives, and, sealing the ends with his hands, brings log and eel to land. Dr. W. E. Roth mentions that crayfish and a certain fish resembling the rock-cod are similarly captured, and remarks that the log is lifted at an angle, with one hand closing the lower aperture, in which position it is brought to and held above the surface, when the water trickles out between the fingers of the sealing hand.
Yet another method (analogous to "bobbing") is practised for securing eels. Huge worms, found under decaying logs, are threaded by means of a needle formed of a thin strip of cane on a line from ten to twelve feet long until several feet of bait are available. The line is merely doubled, the ends made fast to a stout pole, and the loop dangled in the water. The boy fishes patiently, nor does he strike at the first nibble, but permits the eel to swallow slowly what might be considered an undue proportion of the bait, when it is landed and compelled to disgorge for the benefit of the next comer.
Among coastal blacks—all of whom may be said to be fishermen—some are ardent devotees to the sea. Others of the same camp restrict themselves to unsensational creeks and lagoons. The frog in the well knows nothing of the salt sea, and its aboriginal prototype contents himself with milder and generally less remunerative kind of sport than that in which his bolder cousins revel. Such a man, however, may possess aquatic lore of which the other is admittedly ignorant, and be apt in devices towards which the attitude of the salt-water man is adverse, if not contemptuous. The fresh-water man is skilful in the use of a net shaped something like the secondary wings of a certain species of moth, and expanding and closing similarly. It is made of fine twine (one-inch mesh), preferably from the bark of one of the fig-trees or the brown kurrajong, tightly stretched on two pieces of lawyer-cane each bent to form the half of an irregular ellipse. This net ("moorgaroo") is manipulated by two men working in concert, principally for the capture of eels. They do not wait for the eel to come to them, but by shrewd scrutiny discover its whereabouts under the bank of the creek or among the weeds and roots. Then one silent man holds the net widespread, or adroitly dodges it into intercepting positions, while the other beats the luckless fish in its direction with more or less fluster. The persistency with which the creeks are patrolled by men with spears, netted and poisoned, invites one to marvel that any fish escape, and yet once again quite a haul is made.
That great philosopher, Herbert Spencer, once in his life made a joke and confessed to it, with apologies for its littleness. Lunching at a tavern in the Isle of Wight, he asked: "Oh, is not this a very large chop for such a small island?" Similarly, I have been astonished at the apparent disproportion between the size of the eel and the insignificance of the creek whence the exultant black has hauled it.
An instance of the poor part which the slimmest eel plays when pitted against the Smartness and resourcefulness of the black may be related. A large eel, in a moment of indiscretion, showed itself in a fairly deep creek. Bewailing the absence of his wing-net, or "moorgaroo," the boy hunted the elusive fish hither and thither with cunning determination. At last it disappeared under a log. In most of his activities the black boy sniffs at conventions. Hastily stripping, the boy dived and when he reappeared the eel was vainly squirming in one of the legs of his trousers which had been knotted below the knee.
Another boy, a stranger, brought with him traditions which he successfully materialised in favour of the employment of several light darts instead of a single heavy spear for fishing. The subject was frequently debated, but none of the camp adopted George's theories. His favourite weapons were the dried stems of an all too common weed, which generally grows straight and true. Into the thick end he would insert a four-inch length of No. 10 fencing wire, sharpened to a delicate point, and with a battery of eight or ten of these he would sally forth. His bag averaged high. Often he treated me to practical demonstrations of the success of his methods. A big flathead reposed in two feet of water, half buried in the sand. George had one of his darts fast in a twinkling, and the fish flashed away, the tip indicating its movement. In a few minutes the hapless flathead was carrying no less than six darts, and as such a handicap was absurd it abandoned the race for life.
On another occasion he struck a big sting-ray so full of his impish darts that it resembled an animated pincushion of monstrous proportions. It, too, realised the futility of kicking against so many pricks. On the other hand, Tom, with his heavy shaft and barbed point, relied on a single weapon. It seldom failed, for his right arm was strong and disciplined to a nicety.
On a shallow tidal creek a settler had made a corduroy crossing of the fibrous trunks of the Pandanus palms, which the blacks of the neighbourhood turned to account in the capture of fish. A few frail sticks, artlessly interwoven with grass, formed a primitive weir at the down-stream end of the crossing. Fish which went up with the tide frequently found themselves stranded on the way down, for the water passed freely between the palm-tree trunks without affording them right of way, and the rude weir often stopped for ever belated bream, mullet, and barramundi. This simple trap, though it does not appear to be put into use on the coast generally, seems almost to indicate an instinctive knowledge of a studied design described to me by an observant friend who has travelled into many an odd nook and corner of Queensland. On a deep but narrow tributary of the Georgina River a permanent trap on a large scale was wont to be maintained. A tree had been felled across the stream so that each end of the trunk was supported by the respective bank. Straight stakes were driven firmly into the bed of the creek as closely together as possible, the heads resting against the horizontal tree-trunk. This palisading formed the base of an embankment of packed grass and rubbish, sufficiently tight to raise the level of the stream about three feet. In the middle of the embankment, and about one foot below water-level, a hole about one foot square had been cut. A platform about ten feet long by three feet wide, having a fall of about one foot and formed of a number of straight saplings laid parallel with the stream, and supported by a couple of transverse bearers on four stout forked sticks, received the escape from the sluice. At the lower end of the platform was a rough weir of twisted grass, which was continued up each side for about half its length. Water passed with little hindrance through the platform, while jew-fish, yellow-tail, and bream, were retained in considerable numbers.
Many years have elapsed—peradventure centuries—since the blacks of Missionary Bay, Hinchinbrook Island, built a weir of blocks and boulders of granite which oysters cemented here and there. On the fulness of spring tides fish frolicked over and among the boulders. Those which delayed their exit found themselves in an enclosed pool which at certain seasons of the year runs dry. To this day the sea continues to pay tribute, though the blacks of the locality have passed away, and there is none but the red-backed sea-eagle or the heavy-flighted osprey and a rare and casual white man, to receive it. Among the few emblems of the vanishing race, this persistent weir-taking toll of the fish month after month, year after Year, for the benefit of successive generations of eagles and ospreys, appeals vividly to the imagination.
From what can be ascertained at this late date, pearl shell hooks were very sure and killing, but seem to have been used principally for smaller fish—whiting, perch, bream, flathead, etc.—the occurrence of large hooks being exceedingly rare. Mullet (if tradition is to be credited) were seldom caught by hook and line, but were speared among the mangroves at high tide—a practice which prevails to this day. The Dunk Island examples have a resemblance to one of the forms of pearl-shell hooks used by the Tahitians in Captain Cook's day.
Tortoise-shell hooks capable of holding large kingfish and fair sized sharks are common among the natives of Darnley Island, Torres Straits. During the process of cutting and paring the hooks to the size and design required, the shell is frequently immersed in boiling water, which temporarily overcomes its inherent toughness. Incidentally, it may be pointed out that the evidence derivable from these fish-hooks does not afford proof of Papuan influence on the mind of the Australian aboriginal, except at the extreme north of Cape York Peninsula and a few miles down the eastern coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. This default seems the more remarkable in face of the fact that outrigger canoes, doubtless of Papuan or Malayan origin, were known as far south as the Johnstone River.
To say that the coastal blacks of North Queensland had no knowledge of the use of barbed hooks is misleading. In sheer desperation, when the supply of pearl-shell hooks was exhausted, they were wont to attach bait to their harpoon-points, and they used such unpropitious means successfully, and occasionally made a miniature hook by tying a sharp spur to a thin, straight stick. Recent proof has been obtained of the use of the lorum of one of the creeping palms, from which all the spurs save three at the thicker end were scraped off. With the knowledge of the efficacy of the barb under extraordinary circumstances, is it not the more remarkable that they failed to employ it systematically? Dr. W. E. Roth describes crescentic hooks of coco-nut shell and wooden hooks with bone barb, and also barbs improvised from one of the spines of the catfish. He also mentions as "the most primitive form of hook" the dried tendril of HUGONIA JENKENSII ("pattel-pattel" of the Dunk Island blacks). To anyone familiar with the crescent pearl-shell hooks, the use of the singular tendrils of the Hugonia would immediately be suggested; but my observation, inquiries, and opinion do not support the theory. The shape of the tendril is all that can be said in its favour. It is neither sharp nor tough enough for actual use.
With these barbless hooks the bait was not impaled, but strapped on with shreds of bark.
NARCOTICS AND POISONS.
It is said of the great Mogul Emperor Babur that he boasted of being able to make fish drunk so that he might haul them in shoals, and when "Carathis" pronounced her "barbarous incantations" the fish with one accord thrust forth their heads from the water. Is it generally known that the North Queensland blacks also are expert in the use of narcotics and indifferent to the ethics of sport? The most commonly used of the fish poisons on the coast of North Queensland is likewise employed by the natives of Zambesi Land for a similar purpose. The plant is known botanically as "Derris." Two varieties, "scandens" and "uligijiosa," are known in this State. The aboriginal titles vary in different localities, but "Paggarra" will suit the present purpose. Some blacks are so offensively civilised that they know the plant by the name of "Wild Dynamite." Possibly it owes its popularity among fish poisons to the fact that it is the handiest of all. It trails over the rocks, just out of touch of high-water mark, but not beyond the reach of the spray of surges. With roots investigating inclement crevices, and salt air damping its leaves, the plant flourishes, and flowers prettily in graceful racemes. In the semi-obscurity of the crevices the flowers put on a tinge of pink, literally blushing unseen. The heartless blacks tear up the plant, branches, leaves, flowers and all, coarsely bundle them together, and, wading into an enclosed pool where fish are observed, beat the mass (after dipping it into the water and while held in the left hand) with a nulla-nulla. The action is repeated until the bark and leaves are macerated, and then the bundle is thrown into the pool. In a few minutes the fish rise to the surface, gasping and making extraordinary efforts to get out of the infected water. Death ensues rapidly, but the fish are quite wholesome as food.
Another of the vegetable poisons is known as "Raroo" (CAREYA AUSTRALIS). The bark at the base of the trunk and of the roots contains an effective principle, which is released in a somewhat similar fashion to that employed with "Paggarra."
The fruit of the handsome, shrubby tree known botanically as DIOSPYROS HEBECARPA is also a most effective fish poison. It is oval-shaped, red when ripe, and, as the name implies, covered with soft, fine hair. For all its lofty title and attractive appearance, the fruit is deceptive, for it bites and blisters the lips and tongue like caustic, and on being bruised and thrown into a pool on the reef, all fish are killed outright.
A different and, for a black, singularly complicated process is employed for the extraction of the noxious principle residing in the plant known as "Koie-yan" (FARADAYA SPLENDIDA). This is one of the most rampant and ambitious of the many vines of the jungle.
It combines exceeding vigour with rare gracefulness. The leaves are a light glossy green, ovate, and often a foot long, while the flowers are pure white (resembling slightly the azalea, but free from its fragility), large, and with an elusive scent, sweet and yet indefinite. The fruit, smooth and of porcelain whiteness, varies in size and shape, and is said to be edible, though blacks ignore it. A large marble and an undersized hen's egg may dangle together, or in company with others, from the topmost branches of some tall tree, which has acted as host to the clinging vine. The handsome but inconsiderate plant is turned from its purpose of lending fictitious and fugitive charms to quite commonplace but passive trees to the office of stupefying uncomplaining fish. But the element which holds such deadly enmity to the sense of the fish is not obtainable by the simple primary means successful with other plants. Indeed, the process is quite elaborate, and goes to prove that the Australian aboriginal has to his credit as a chemist the results of successful original research, and that he is also a herbalist from whom it is no condescension to learn. In this detail, at any rate, he is distinctly an accomplished person. Portions of the vine are cut into foot lengths; the outer layer of bark is removed and rejected, the middle layer alone being preserved. This is carefully scraped off and made up into shapely little piles on fresh green leaves. One might imagine that a black boy preparing the deadly "Koie-yan" was really playing at chemist's shop with neat-handed scrupulousness. When a sufficiency is obtained it is rubbed on to stones previously heated by fire. The stones then being thrown into a creek or a little lagoon left by the receding tide, the poison becomes disseminated, with fatal effect to all fish and other marine animals.
It is pointed out, however, by Dr. Hamlyn-Harris that the nature of the active principle of the "Koie yan" does not permit of elaboration by such means. The heating of the shredded bark would, therefore, appear to fall into line with the gibberish of ancient alchemists. It would bewilder the uninitiated without enhancing results.
Many other plants supply the means of killing small fish wholesale, or of reducing them to palsied cripples. The three described are fairly common, and have, therefore, been selected to point a moral. Poisoning fish is a poor sort of sport, perhaps, but there are two classes of fishermen—the hungry and the artistic. The latter use flimsy tackle and complicated gear, and play the game, giving the victims to their wiles a sporting chance. Though not the only representative of the hungry class, the black boy generally fishes on an empty stomach, and his demeanour coincides. No slobbering sentiment affects him. Yet he is not so cruel as the mean white who throws a plug of dynamite into the river while the fish are enjoying their crowded hour, though he will with as little taint upon his conscience poison a pool full of fish as drag with hooked stick a reluctant crab piecemeal from its burrow among the mangrove roots. But then he is responding to the appeals of a clamant and not over-particular stomach, while your dynamitard is occasionally a well-fed barbarian with a queasy palate.
The neatest and most artistic method by which the blacks kill fish necessitates the employment of a particular species of spider known to the learned as NEPHILA MACULATA PISCATORUM. This spider was discovered on Dunk Island by Macgillivray, the naturalist of the expedition of H.M.S. RATTLESNAKE in 1848. It has a large ovate abdomen of olive-green bespangled with golden dust; black thorax, with coral-red mandibles; and long, slender legs, glossy black, and tricked out at the joints with golden touches. A fine creature, gentle and stately in demeanour, it spins a large web, strong enough to hold the biggest of beetles and other insects, and, to harmonise with the superior air of the manufacturer, the gossamer is of golden-green. The great spider at the focus of the resplendent web is a frequent and conspicuous ornament to the edges of the jungle, and having no fear, and no indocility of temper, it undergoes the ordeal of admiration with an assumption of disdainful coquettism. The local name of this comely creature is "Karan-jamara." Shameless polyandrist, she maintains several consorts—from three to five seems to be the average number—and they, semi-transparent, feeble, meek, subdued little fellows, maintain precarious isolated existences in the outskirts of the web.
Though my own experience is negative, direct incontrovertible evidence is extant to the effect that birds often meet their fate by blundering into the web, to be devoured by the nimble and gaily decorated owner. I have frequently seen karan-jamara disposing of hard-shelled beetles as big in bulk as some birds, and the strongest of butterflies, once entangled, is powerless. The long-legged spider leaps on the struggling prey and stills its beating wings with one pinch of powerful red mandibles. March flies form the most frequent diet. One has been observed to dispose of fourteen of the great stupid flies in a single evening, and if the flies could reason they might, while whimpering because of the existence of such voracious spiders, acknowledge that they design their webs in a very perplexing and masterly manner.
In pursuance of inquiries—the results of which are herein recorded—a casual black boy, a stranger to these parts, and therefore unfamiliar with the local name and the special purpose to which the spider is put, was cross-examined. At first he failed to recognise the photograph, but when it was explained by the pointed allusion to a living Maltese-cross spider close at hand, a gleam of intelligence brightened his bewildered face, and he delivered a self-satisfied dissertation on the order Arachnida that is worth quoting:
"That fella Oo-boo-boo. That fella mammy belonga 'nother fella altogether. You no savee, come close up—that fella ply way. You no savee, come close up, that fella no good; that fella vite."
And the boy looked gravely sagacious and smiled the wide, wise smile betokening proud superiority of information. Had Macgillivray but known that the "Oo-boo-boo" was the parent of all the many species, and that it belongs to the discreetly valorous class that "vites" and flies away, and lives to "vite" another day, he might have achieved renown of a more popular kind than is the reward of the unromantic naturalist who discovers merely a superior spider.
This spider is used on some of the rivers as a lure, virtues almost irresistible being ascribed to it. Experiments in salt water, though not absolutely negative in their results, have not afforded any specially exciting sport; but possibly the fascination of the lure is more efficient in fresh than in salt water, and is influential over the habitual caution throughout a certain species of fish only. The trick is worked in the following manner:
The angler takes a light, thin switch and entangles one end in the web, which, by dexterous waving action, is converted (without being touched with the fingers) into a strand about two feet long. The spider is secured and squashed, and the end of the line moistened in the juices of the body, some of the fragments of which are reserved for bait, and also to be thrown into the water as a preliminary charm. These buoyant titbits attract shoals of small fish, among which the line, with its extract of spider, is delicately trailed; a fish rises to the lure, the gossamer becomes entangled in its teeth, and it is landed by a brisk yet easy movement of the wrist. A great angler recently said that throwing a fly is an act of feeling or instinct rather than reason. So the black boy with a careless flourish fills his dilly-bag, while he smiles at the serious attempts of the white man to imitate his skill.
Owing to the brevity and the frailness of the line, the catch is limited to fish under the recognised standard as to size. Tests prove that the breaking strain of the line is nearly three-quarters of a pound, but the weight of the individual is of no great consideration, since numbers are caught quickly. The gossamer is singularly sticky. The viscid substance with which it is coated is not readily dissolvable in water; indeed, water seems to have the effect of hardening it, so that the line' wears longer than might be expected. Piquant morsels of the spider are entangled in the frayed end of the line as its original potency becomes non-effective.
A friend for whose edification this novel method was demonstrated thus writes it:
"It did not take the boy long to get ready. They simply broke a switch about three feet long and attached a portion of the web about six inches long to the end; squeezed out on to a leaf the fluid internals of the spider, into which they dipped the end of the line, started a rather melodious chant, and put the line in shallow water. I was only a few feet away and could see no fish at first, but they came very soon. They were very small, about one and a half inches long. They fasten their teeth in the web, and are lifted out quite slowly. Some require to be pulled off the line after being landed. I watched for about ten minutes, during which time seventeen were caught."
Sir William Macgreggor, ex-Governor of Queensland, has described the Papuan art of fishing by means of kites, the lure being a tassel of the web of a spider of the Nephila species. No doubt the blacks here made an independent and original discovery, and in their simplicity applied it in a different, but none the less effective, style from that of the advanced Papuan.
Thus, to use the web and the fragments of a spider for fly-fishing is certainly meting out poetic justice to the spider on account of the many ensnared flies; and the black angler never pauses to reflect whether the comminuted remains of a spider can possibly be construed into a fair fly.
WHAT IS A PEARL?
What is a pearl? The substance of a sensation—the consolidation of discomfort on the part of an oyster or other nacre-secreting mollusc. It is a globular deposit of carbonate of lime, with a very small proportion of water, generally enclosing a trifle which is its cause and core and, so to speak, is a waste product of the body's chemistry. In the restricted, scientific sense, "true pearls are bodies consisting of calcareous material with an organic basis." Similar bodies having cores of sand grains or other foreign substance are known as "blisters."
Science, which peers and probes into the innermost affairs of oysters, and speaks of them in terms of uneasy familiarity, asserts that pearls are frequently caused by a parasite to which they are subject.
It would ill become one who has no scientific pretensions to suggest other definitions, though he may claim to be among the few who have been privileged to observe a pearl in the making, or, rather, to watch Nature's finishing touches.
In the case of the oyster the radical home cure for the living irritant or insoluble substance which had gained entrance between its valves is an encasement of pearl-film. If this encasement is globular or pear-shaped, or takes the form of a button and is lucid, lustrous, flawless, and of large size, it may be of almost inestimable worth.
Does the proud beauty who glories in the possession of a pearl condescend to imagine that she flaunts on her bosom just so many tombs containing the dust of the germs of a parasite? Does she not rather love to think of the gems as emblems of almost celestial purity, and to dwell on the fable of the Persians rather than the audacious modern fact?
Addison has set the fable in imperishable gold: A drop of water fell out of a cloud into the sea, and finding herself lost in such immensity of fluid matter, broke out into the following reflection: "Alas! What an inconsiderable creature am I in this prodigious ocean of waters; my existence is of no concern to the universe; I am reduced to a kind of nothing, and am less than the least of the works of God." It so happened that an oyster which lay in the neighbourhood chanced to gape and swallow it up in the midst of this its humble soliloquy. The drop, says the fable, lay a great while hardening in the shell, until by degrees it was ripened into a pearl, which, falling into the hands of a diver after a long series of adventures, is at present that famous pearl which is affixed on the top of the Persian diadem.
Though one may count his pearls by the score, the hoard may be valueless. Upon such examples entertaining, if not valuable, experiments may be made without affectation or giving hostages to fortune. In all the little deformed specimens thus dissected the core has been found to consist of a foreign substance, generally what seemed under a microscope of limited power a speck of dirt. The heart of one was a blob of mud, which gave off a most baleful vapour. This was the result of the house-cleaning of a common, edible rock oyster, and the pearl, dirty green and lustreless, merely a thin casket, for the noisome mud had not solidified. The care with which the impurity had been rendered innocuous demonstrated the correct ideas of the oyster on sanitation. No doubt the germ of the special form of tape-worm which troubles oysters, irritates to pearl-making, and passes through other transformations in other hosts, and completes its cycle in the body of a shark, would be too minute for inexpert detection. The fact that molluscs do intern foreign and obnoxious substances is testimony to their decency and love of cleanliness, and so may the pearl be still accepted as the embodiment of purity. Though all its little soul be dirt, the pearl is pure, and but for the dirt or the germ of a filthy ailment it would not be pearl.
So many molluscs produce pearls that it would be absurd for the great oyster family to set up exclusive rights. They do not, for your oyster is ever humble even when tenanted with a rivalless pearl. On the coast of North Queensland, within the Great Barrier Reef, pinnas of at least two species are among the producing agents, which, covering a wide range, seem to meet in two distinct genera, far apart in appearance and habit. There is the frail, flat, translucent "window-shell" (Placuna), the valves of which fit so closely that the poor little inhabitant is squeezed to a wafer, a film, a fragment of muscle. Yet in some localities nearly every individual has a pearl, pretty in tint, but too minute to be of value. An allied species is common on the coast of China, where the pearls are collected for export to India, to be reduced to lime by calcination for the use of luxurious betel-nut chewers. These almost microscopic pearls are also burnt in the mouths of the dead who have been influential and wealthy.
Coal-black pearls occur in one of the pinnas, the interior of which is sooty, shot with iridescent purple, and since the pearl, whether produced by oyster, mussel, pinna, or window-shell, is generally more brilliant than the containing shell, that of the black pinna, with the high lights of its environment concentrated, may be a gem of surpassing novelty and beauty. But the habitual product of this pinna is small, dull, mud-tinted or brown, and of no value whatever. Another of the genera grows "seed" of excellent lustre, corresponding with the azure brightness of the shell.
The chief source of orient pearls on the coast of North Queensland is the gold-lip mother-of-pearl PINCTADA MAXIMA, while the black lip PINCTADA MARGARITIFERA occasionally yields fine and flawless specimens of a silvery lustre. One which is still lovingly remembered was of pale blue and wonderfully lighted. The commonest of the giant clams TRIDACNA GIGAS sometimes betrays evidence of past internal trouble by the presence of a concretion of porcelain whiteness and of porcellaneous texture, but such are not to be described as pearls and to be prized as rarities only.
That some huge molluscs produced pearls before man, with his faculty for admiration, came on the scene is proved by their existence as fossils in chalk. Hemispherical specimens have been found on the inner surface of a shell which has no living representative—viz., the Inoceramus (some of which attained a length of two feet)—and spherical ones of the same prismatical structure occur detached in the chalk. It were curious to let the imagination run over the fact that the hosts of these uncommended gems died ages before the advent of man. The best of modern prizes may be puny in comparison with those which caused distress to the giant molluscs of the age when the Ichthyosaurus, Plesiosaurus, and Pterodactylus were the aristocrats of the animal world. Such gems have gone for ever, and even during this age of insatiable and adventurous search man does not secure a tithe of the ocean's tribute, for, since a pearl is a source of discomfort to its host, the unceasing effort of the animal is towards expulsion. The greatest and possibly the most magnificent are cast out as rubbish on the ocean floor, or are retained within the valves when the animal dies of old age.
So-called pearls have been found in elephants' tusks and semi-adherent to the bones of fish, and concretions—hard, smooth, and round, and of the flat hue of skimmed milk—in coconuts and in the cavities of bamboos; but in the production of the real gem neither oyster nor mussel nor pinna need fear the rivalry of anything on the earth's surface. The pearl belongs to the sea.
Completely spherical pearls can be formed only loose in the mantle or soft parts of the body of the animal; but intrusions incite a deposit of nacre in the form of a projection on the interior, which projection, often a mere bubble, but sometimes semi-detached, may take the shape and dimensions of the foreign substance. Or an inoffensive mollusc may be goaded by the piercing of its shell from the exterior to create that for which men venture into the depths of the sea. If a pearl-secreting oyster be inherently robust, its defence against assault from without may consist of the strengthening of the interior at the point of attack by deposits of nacre. Thus, a slight protuberance arises which becomes the base of a blister or button or the starting-point of a pear-shaped gem. Many a lovely gem is, therefore, nothing more than the imperishable record of aggression on the part of a flabby sponge on a resourceful oyster. Occasionally valuable pearls are found within huge blisters. Such pearls originate, no doubt, in the ordinary way, but, becoming an intolerable nuisance on account of increasing size, are confined in nacre.
One of the accompanying illustrations shows the fate which befell an infant chiton upon intrusion on a small black-lip oyster, and coincidentally the origin of a blister. The chiton family being notorious for stolidity, the infant could not have realised the risks of its trespass until the strait-jacket made its retirement impossible. The nacre has reproduced the details of the chiton's exterior with the fidelity of a casting, and further reveals the fact that it was alive when entombed, for its struggles to escape are solidified.
This deliberate act of the oyster may not stand comparison with the stone of Pyrrhus's ring, which had the figure of Apollo and the nine Muses in the veins of it produced by the spontaneous handiwork of Nature without any help from art. The marvellous stone belonged to the fabulous past; the imprisoned chiton to the prosaic present.
Another illustration is that of an accumulation of nacre which has assumed accidental resemblance to a miniature shark. It was found in a gold-lip pearl shell in Torres Straits. The like quantity in globular shape would represent a pearl of great value.
A PEARL IN THE MAKING.
On a calm and luminous day I waded, disrobed, in shallow water as limpid as the fictitious stream which legend says King Solomon improvised at the foot of his throne when the Queen of Sheba attended his court. Lifting her robes—for she imagined the crossing of the water to be a ceremonial device—the gorgeous Queen displayed her shapely calves. The water resting on the verge of the lovely Isle was as delusively clear, but was not deceptive.
It revealed living coral, good to avoid by the barefooted; clams with patterned mantles of various tints—grey, slate-blue, sea-green, brown, and buff; anemones in many shapes, some like spikes of lavender, and irritant and repellent to the touch; some platter-shaped and cobalt-blue; some as living vases with the opalescent tints of Venetian glass, which, abhorring the hand of man, retreat into the sand until only an inconspicuous fringe of neutral tint is visible. Sea-slugs in almost endless form and variety of hue, and many other strange sea things, were among the inhabitants of the reef—a closely packed arena of never-ceasing slaughter.
In the middle of a clump of brown seaweed, which had fallen apart like the neatly dressed hair of a woman, was a black streak, signifying the gape of a wedge-shaped mollusc known as a pinna. The gape was about as long as the parting of a woman's hair and about thrice as wide. As I crouched to note the functions of the animal, my shadow intervened and the caution of the creature was roused, the valves closing so that no sign of the presence of the shell was distinguishable among the slightly wavering, minute particles of alga. Changing my position, so that the pinna might not be deprived of its share of the rays of the sun, the valves soon furtively opened. A slight movement on my part and they closed again, without having revealed any hidden charms.
After a few minutes, a certain confidence being established between us, the pinna emerged from its retirement, in so far as such creatures are permitted by Nature. The mantle of this particular species is shown as a delicate fringe of lace in old gold and black. It ripples along the upper edges of the confining valves, which are intensely black with a pearly lustre. The pretty movements of the mantle—like the swinging of the skirts of a well-apparelled damsel—attracted admiration, and on peering into the shell a glimpse of something precious was obtained.
Tossed and twirled about just below the old gold fringe was a black pearl about the size of a pea. The prize was safe. Without risk of loss it could be watched in its unceasing revolutions. It seemed as if the animal, with automatic perseverance, attempted to eject the incubus, the weight of which kept it about an inch below the aperture of the valves. Such motion would naturally tend to perfection. Whatsoever its lustre, it would certainly be a sphere. Besides, it was a pearl in the making. As long as it remained within the pinna and it could not be voluntarily rejected, its size would inevitably increase. It was the rolling stone to which time and the secretions of the animal would add weight and, peradventure, beauty.
Was mortal ever before privileged to watch over the growth of a black pearl? The activities of the mantle, a blending of enticing colour and poetic motion, were slow, free, and light-attracting. The ancients believed that some pearls were constituted by flashes of lightning playing on bubbles within the oyster. A relative of the family here seemed to be wooing the tropic sun of its beams, if not to vitalise, at least to burnish its treasure.
Close scrutiny showed that the pearl was not absolutely free. It was enclosed in a transparent membrane, the merest film, which confined it to a particular position in the mantle, while it seemed to possess independent actions—vertical and revolutionary. Perhaps the rays of light which fell unequally on it through the water created the illusion of revolutions, but it is certain that the pearl seemed to be playing a game of hide-and-seek.
Was it possible for human nature to deny itself so easily gotten and pretty a prize? I confess, though the possibility of the pearl increasing in size and loveliness was obvious, that the fact that pinnas are subject to ills, chances, and mishaps, was also recognised. Left to be slowly tossed about, the pearl would become greater; but size, though an important feature, is not the only desirable quality. And while it grew might not another barefooted beach-comber discover it? Or might not one of the many unintelligent admirers of the pinna itself find entrance by drilling or by the violent crushing of the valves, and, ignoring the treasure, destroy the organs and the substance by and from which it was being delicately elaborated? Suppose, I argued, I remove the gaping shell, I shall no longer be able to enjoy the rare, the unique pleasure of presiding over the gradual perfection of a pearl, an aesthetic advantage to which I alone had been made free. Could present possession of a little sphere of carbonate of lime, polished and sooty black, compensate for the continuance of the chaste joy of watching one of the most covert and intimate processes of Nature? Balancing the immediate material gain against the inevitable moral loss, I was almost persuaded to self-denial, when, with a sudden impulse, begot of the consciousness of rightful acquisition, the pinna was forcibly yet carefully drawn out of the sand in which it was deeply embedded and in which it was anchored by toughened byssus. Directly the valves were prised apart the pearl fell into my hand. Never before had I seen one so loosely retained within its shell. Generally, in the case of the pinna, pearls are embedded in the muscles or soft parts, and are not primarily discernible, but have to be sought for by passing the "meat" through the fingers. On this occasion all previous experience had been set at naught, so that it might seem that the prize had been presented by the animal as its perfect and most opulent work.
The engaging theory of the ancients that pearls were made of glutinous dewdrops condensed by the sun's heat does not take into account the fact that some of the rarest, though not the most valuable, have assumed contrary and fantastic shape. Fish, crabs, and marine insects have proved a common origin of pearly developments while they have been regarded by some as almost miraculous conceptions on the part of the afflicted mollusc.
Hamed of Jeddah, the stubby Arab who deals in fish and oysters, and who professes to have groped over in his youth a considerable extent of the Red Sea for coral and pearls, relates many experiences in which the popular gem takes pride of place. Oriental that he is, he loves exaggeration, and while lending a propitious car to the stories in which he enshrines his prime, when he could dive deep and long, and when the precious red coral was "thick" and every shell contained a pearl, it is discreet to disregard obvious breaks and bulges along the prim path of truth. The very crudeness of his embellishments invests with kind of comic relief some of his fables, which end invariably with insipid uniformity. All the pearls which have slipped through Hamed's rough hands have been valued at five hundred pounds, never more or less. It is not for me to rub the gilt off the innocent inventions of the emotional Arab, but merely to relate one of his time-beguiling tales, and one which, probably, is of clean-cut truth.
A huge gold-lip, found four fathoms deep, where the sea grass sways indolently long, contained a tinted pearl like:
"That fella sitting down along a tree and sing out along night time."
"Flying fox?" I guessed grimly.
"No!" snapped Hamed indignantly. "'Nother fella."
"That bird which says 'chump, chump, chump?'" I meekly asked.
Again Hamed sneered ironically. "No bird. No bird carn get along oyster. Little fella-green like leaf. Sing out 'Ko-rog, ko-rog, ko-rog!'"
"Yes. Like frog. Me call him 'ghouk' along my country. That fella inside gold-lip. One inch long. Leg, hand, mouth, eyes all asame. I bin get five hundred pounds for that fella."
Azure pearls in the similitude of tiny fish can be vouched for by people far more careful of their facts than Hamed—fish which have intruded themselves on the oysters and have been encased in nacre. Probably the rarity which fell into Hamed's hands was the pearly presentment of a crustacean, for marine frogs are infinitely rarer than pearls. Several molluscs admit tenants, one particular species a rotund crab; but in the case in point the wrong mansion was entered and, so to speak, the obtruder was transformed.
A common and neat industry in China is the production of fraudulent pearls, pretty and in accordance with submitted design, in which the co-operation of the obedient but frail mussel is necessary. If a round pearl is desired, a naked shot is introduced between the valves so much to the discomfort of the animal that it proceeds to cover it decently with layer after layer of pearl-film, the bulk of which depends upon the length of life granted to the mussel. Sometimes little josses are stamped out in thin uncorrosive metal, which, being presented to the mussel, are faithfully modelled, the thrifty Chinese obtaining in course of time quaint pearly gods—as potent as the best—without money and without price.
Not so long as a quarter of a century ago a spirit-bottle full of pearls—buttons, blisters, and chips of all sorts, sizes, and shapes—was purchased in North Queensland by one who had but the crudest ideas as to the value of such gems. The vendor was a whity-brown man, thin, and thinly clad in cotton. The complexion of the buyer was ruddier than the cherry, for the tropic sun had beamed ardently on his peachy Scotch skin, proclaiming him a new-chum, a bright and shining new-chum. Because he was new he was alert to the value of money. Had he not come, as all new-chums do, to Tom Tiddler's ground to pick up gold and silver? Hence, when the hatless, spare, whity-brown man in soiled cotton offered for sale the odd-shaped beads in a besmeared whisky-bottle for five pounds, his national trait expressed itself in a scoff.
The whity-brown man's seriousness, his confidentiality, his keen desire to sell, his mysticism and misty English, the ruddy young man interpreted as manifestations of the arts and wiles by means of which innocent strangers from far away lands are tempted into bankruptcy bargains. The seller, anxious to dispossess himself of ill-gotten gains prejudicial to his love of liberty, pursued the Scotch youth almost tearfully, until the bottle changed hands, but at a considerable reduction on the price originally demanded. Shortly after a friend enlightened the youth as to the probable value of the collection, and gave him some cheap advice, especially on the desirableness of secrecy. The youth accepted the advice so literally that the story ends. No one ever knew how, when, where, and for what consideration, he disposed of his embarrassments. Fresh from the land of his birth, and with the text of Burns's poetic letter in his mind, he kept that something to himself.
The days of such sensational deals are past. The primal crop has long since been harvested. Science is now bidden to stimulate the docile oyster, for the rage for pearls is as the rage of the heathen. Is it not the wish of every woman, old and young, to possess pearls? And while subject man, flushed with hope, ventures to the "utmost port, washed by the furthest sea," for such merchandise at the caprice of woman, Science plods sedately after man, beguiling him with the hope of some less risky and laborious means of acquiring the gems, while at the same time she soothes the irrepressible passion of every damsel with strings of artistic counterfeits manufactured from the scales of silvery fish, and as pleasant to glance at as many an orient.
The Spaniards say that a paper cigarette, a glass of water, and the kiss of a pretty girl, will sustain a man for a day without eating. But what is a man to do who has no tobacco, only stale water, who is separated from the nearest girl by seventy miles of perilous seas forlorn, and whose appetite sickens at the sight of the coarse fare of a beche-de-mer boat? There is but one resource for such a martyr. He must do "a perisher." That is precisely what the master of a lonely boat in an odd angle of the Coral Sea was doing when a joyful sail appeared—a dove-like messenger from civilisation and shops. It was a pitiable famine. No one had had a smoke for a week. The black boys had broken up their nicotine-saturated clay pipes and masticated them to pulp, and still treasured the quids, while the "Boss" pondered cigars during the day and dreamt them at night. But relief was at hand. The master of the strange craft, though well stocked, was not disposed to be generous, until tempted by the sight of a lovely yellow pearl, about the size of a small marble and of satiny lustre—sweet to look upon, sweeter still to possess. Aware of the other man's agonising needs, he drove a hard bargain, and the gem became his at the cost of a box of tobacco. He hugged himself for joy, and after a decent lapse, during which he acted the part of the virtuous who had relieved another's necessities out of sheer goodwill (for the pearl was only a curio, was it not?), he set sail for the nearest port.
Certain that fortune had at last beamed upon him, he laid up his lugger, wound up his affairs, and hurried off to Sydney, secretly, to dispose of his prize first-hand. An expert weighed the treasure, scrutinised it shrewdly through a microscope, and handed it back with a casual remark that it was a pretty curio, but that its market value was about half a crown. "It has been exposed to great heat, and may crumble to pieces at a change of temperature. Get me one like that uncooked and I'll give you twelve hundred pounds."
Some time after, the grasping man discovered that the pearl had been found in the "meat" of a "helmet" shell which had been roasted by a hungry and tobaccoless boy.
Without appearing to suggest anything beyond a trifling blemish in this story, replete as it is with edifying illustrations of the frailties of human nature, it would be well to remember that the helmet shell (CASSIS FLAMMEA) is not nacreous and could not therefore produce a true pearl, but merely g porcellaneous concretion, which, however, might possess a most attractive tint, possibly pale salmon or orange. Such a gem might be valuable.
Great pearls are not generally found on shallow reefs. He who would search for them systematically must dive, and if he does not possess the proper costume and accessories his trips below are but brief, and not always profitable. When a diver boasts that he can remain under water two or three minutes—and the boast is very common—he has gauged his endurance by his sensations, not by the clock. Once an expert was timed, a coloured gentleman who had great repute among his companions, all capable divers. He made a special and supreme effort, and though the watch recorded barely seventy seconds, he was much distressed. Recovery was, however, speedy; of ten subsequent minutes he spent more than half out of sight. It is not argued that human beings cannot remain voluntarily under water more than seventy seconds, but the feat is so rare that those who accomplish it are not usually pearl-divers.
The natives of some parts of Borneo declare that the valves of the oysters containing the largest pearls are always open, and that by peering into the water the pearls may be seen. They tell a story of a gigantic pearl which was thus discovered by the men of old and actually brought while within the oyster into a canoe, but had slipped from the fingers of a careless holder into deep water.
Spencer St. John, author of "Life in the Forests of the Far East," had among his friends a chief who ventured most of his possessions in a pearling cruise. Disaster attended the enterprise, but without subduing his faith in luck; mortgaging everything, even to his wife and child, he went out to woo fortune again. His slave-boy was preparing to dive one day when he started back, touched his master's hand, and with signs of great emotion pointed into the water. The chief looked, and there, seven fathoms below, lay an oyster with an enormous pearl distinctly visible. Without a moment's reflection he plunged in, and, diving with skill and speed, reached the shell before it closed, his fingers being caught between the valves. He quickly rose to the surface, and was helped into the boat by his anxious follower. Upon the oyster being forced open, a pearl, unsurpassed in size and of extraordinary beauty, was revealed. Returning to his native village, the chief sold all his smaller pearls, and having redeemed his wife and child, set sail for Manila, where lived an English friend who advanced him money, to whom he said: "Take this pearl, clear off my debt, give me what you like in return. I shall be satisfied." The author adds: "The merchant took the pearl, gave him what he considered its value—at all events enough to make Sulu ring with his generosity—and sent the pearl to China; but what became of it afterwards I could never distinctly trace; but I learned that a pearl in Bengal called 'The Mermaid' originally came from China, and as the one found in Sulu was said to be shaped like a woman's bust, it is probably the same."
Possibly the golden age of the pearl is passing as the golden age of the reptile has passed, for can it not be imagined that, in those far-back days when oysters attained a length of two feet and better deserved the title of Tridacna (three bites) than the present clams, pearls of corresponding magnificence of size were produced? Or are robust pearlless oysters to be accepted as the type of the strong era, and small oysters and pearls merely as signs of degeneracy? The largest of modern pearls measured two inches long by a circumference of four inches and weighed eighteen hundred grains. The containing shell may have been big only in comparison with its contemporaries. A very small man has been known to be afflicted with a disproportioned goitre, and there are some who argue that the goitre may be but the prototype of the pearl.
Is fact or fable to claim the most glorious of pearl stories? Some verily believe that Cleopatra did quaff the costliest beverage the world has ever known. The incident is so faithful to the character of "that rare Egyptian" that all sober record shall not discount delight in its transcendent sumptuousness. Though the pearl may have been worth eighty thousand pounds of our money, though Cleopatra was gay, though her extravagance was impious, she was a glorious woman, and she had at least one glorious, if nauseating, drink. The pearl decoction was merely an episode in her policy, which was to fascinate Antony—Antony who had called her to account for having aided his enemies in their war against him. And what was an eighty thousand pound bauble in the high affairs of State? "She was at the age when a woman's beauty is at its prime, and she was also of the best judgment. So she furnished herself with a world of gifts, stores of gold and silver, and of riches and other sumptuous ornaments as is credible she might bring from so great a house and from so wealthy and rich a realm as Egypt. But yet she carried nothing with her wherein she trusted more than herself, and in the charms and enchantment of her surpassing beauty and grace."
And then the supper following the magnificent pageant! Anything less than an eighty thousand pound pearl would have been an anti-climax, a mean and clumsy culmination of a "gaudy night." That soul-delighting gem which vanished in foam told of a superb Cleopatra's "calm felicity and power."
Some say that, the jewel—cast away so majestically was one of a pair which Cleopatra wore as ear-rings, and that when Antony restrained his hostess from a repetition of the draught, she presented the now matchless pearl to him. Another version implies that the ear-ring^ had been originally one monster pearl, which Cleopatra had caused to be sawn in two to gratify her lust for unique and lavish ornament.
It is said, too, that the pearl was dissolved in wine. By a simple practical test and at the sacrifice of a small quantity of baroque, proof was obtained that ordinary culinary vinegar is a solvent of pearls. The experiment also yielded these notable conclusions—that either the wine of Cleopatra's age was much more corrosive than the vinegar of ours, or that the costly beverage was prepared beforehand, or that the stately banquet was long-drawn-out while the inestimable gem spluttered and simmered in the goblet. The dissolution of such a large pearl must have been slow, and the product far from nice, but it was one of the effects by which a sovereign woman conquered the "most courteous lord" of his day.
A curious superstition prevails in some parts of the East Indies, it being believed that if gold and pearls are placed by themselves in a packet they will certainly decrease in quantity or number, and in the end totally disappear; but, if a few grains of rice are added, the treasure is safe. Rice is thought not only to preserve the original number of pearls, but to actually cause increase.
Tarnished pearls are occasionally submitted to the process of "skinning"—the removal with fine steel files under a magnifying glass of the outer 'layer, on the chance of the existence of a better underneath. The ancients treated lustreless gems differently, placing them before doves, under the belief that they could be polished by being pecked and played with by the gentle birds.
In some respects pearls are superior to all other gems. They are emblematic of serenity, and serenity is often power in the highest manifestation. None ever said an unkind word of pearls; no dubious legend clings to them, making the timid afraid. They come to us perfectly fashioned. No coarse handiwork has touched them, no soulless machine ground them to conventional pattern. The last diamond may be, the. last pearl never, until the sea gives up more than its dead, its very being. Pearls may begin and end in foam; but the beginning is now and always, and the ending rare, for the Cleopatras are gone. Emblems of purity, refinement, and peace, they are truly the gems for woman. Queenly or demure, they become her, and she bestows on them a quality hard to define, but singularly sweet and acceptable. Gold and precious stones may occupy billions of years in the making, or may be the product of—
"The war of elements, The wrecks of matter, and the crash of worlds."
Once we find these hard, cold things and take hold of and seize them, we know that we have, to use a homely simile, eaten our cake. The supply of pearls is continuous, and under the control of the cruel ingenuity of man they grow to an ordinary size in less than a decade.
Many years ago an opinion was expressed that the increasing knowledge 'of the mollusc and its habits would enable man literally to sow the sea with pearls as he sows a field with grain, and that the harvest would be certain. Under natural conditions not one oyster in a hundred is troubled with a pearl, and not one pearl in the hundred is of any real value. It is demanded that unsuspecting oysters shall be inflicted with a kind of plague, so that there shall be not one but several pearls in every suffering individual, and in the greater number chance will contrive a larger proportion of orients. Every oyster has its potentialities; Science seeks to convert potentialities into certainties.
PEARLS AND HIGH TRAGEDY.
Such merchandise has ever provoked the spirit of adventure in hardy, healthy men, and pearls have claimed the lives of the best among them. The health and figure of the friend who beguiled many an evening were sacrificed to the lustrous gem so prized of women. A model of stalwart manhood of the Viking strain, he died early, worn out with the stress with which he sought the most serene of personal adornments. There may have been some slight exaggeration in the popular belief that he had walked along the bottom of the sea from one end of the Great Barrier Reef to the other, a stretch of over one thousand miles; but that he had accomplished more than that distance in the aggregate of his submarine wanderings may be quite credible. Probably there was no human being who possessed such intimate knowledge of the character of the ocean floor within the living bounds of the Great Barrier; and since he was silent, reserved, and self-contained to all save friends of long standing, was never guilty of boasting, and ever reluctant to tell of his adventures, the world is little the wiser from his work, though at the best time of his life most of his days were spent under water in fairyland-like scenes. It may seem absurd to associate fairyland with the depths of the sea; but the shy explorer of many a coral grove has been heard to say that the scenes fulfilled his ideals of what the realms of the fairies might be like.
Pearl-divers are more susceptible to the charms of wayward Fortune than those who have not realised tile thrill of expectancy with which a huge goldlip, encrusted with coral and swathed with seaweed, is seized. It may contain a gem worth a king's ransom, or but an animal which, though it may be crossed in love, is not engaging in appearance or in any feature or quality commendable. There is the chance; and it appeals to most rational men. Secretive Fortune lures on, promising the bubble pearl 'and proffering that which satisfieth not, until the stress and perils of the avocation tell on the enthusiast, who finds himself not exuberant as wont; that Fortune has been tricking him; that in the pursuit of pearls Chance is oft repellent; and that the prize which seemed impossible to avoid has eluded the most devoted seekers.
It may be that my captain did not seek his pearls with zeal beyond that which is common to the calling the world over; but that his enthusiasm beguiled him into remote and odd parts of the Barrier, that he became familiar with rare scenes (denied to all save submarine adventurers in tropical waters), that he was oft in peril of his life, and that he could pause in the midst of strenuous, nerve-racking work to watch the never-ceasing hostilities of the denizens of the sea, may not be questioned.
Not long before he passed away he told of one of his adventures in a few hurried words, after the manner of one who loves not to dwell on personal reminiscences, save as a text for the rectification of popular error in respect of sensational happenings. The story is here repeated, for it throws light on an incident which sent one ship of warfare on dubious patrol, and reveals the manner of the men who sought pearls in the old days.
"Have you found that pearl?" he asked smilingly; for we had often talked of the possibility of being rewarded with a fortune-bestowing gem.
"Yes, indeed, I have; and a real beauty. I very much doubt if you, for all your experience, ever saw such perfect shape and fine lustre. Here is an instance of the perversity of Chance. You, tied up in a rubber bag, rake the floor of the Barrier, fighting sharks and being hustled by turtle, and never find anything out of the way. I stroll about the beaches, and see what Fortune bestows!"
The size of a small marble, it lay swathed in white wadding. Minute furrows sculptured the surface in radiating lines from pole to pole, enhancing rare radiance.
The captain took the little casket in his hand that he might gloat over the treasure, as, his eyes shining, he said:
"You lucky fellow! Where did you get it? I never saw a finer pearl, and I have seen a few in my days. Fair numbers have passed through my hands; but—you fraud!"
He lifted it, revealing a counterfeit, which had once ornamented a hatpin.
In good-humour he settled down on a lounge and gradually drifted into reminiscences.
"About two years before what I am going to tell you happened, I heard of a patch of shell off an island Sud-Est way; I kept the tip to myself, determined to work the spot on my own account if ever I got the chance. I waited till I saved a few pounds, and, taking in a mate, fitted out a craft, and with a crew of very fair boys sailed away. I found the spot all right; but—my usual luck—someone had been there before me. Strange to say, the spot was by no means worked out, though it was fairly good ground and easy working, and the shell large. We did good business for a while, until one day I got a proper start. The life-line fouled on something, and I found that it had taken a turn round the bowsprit of a wreck. I got on top pretty quick, and, having had a talk with my mate, went down again. Very soon I knew the boat. It was the ——, and she had belonged to a man I had known very well. The strange part about the business was that the boat had been burned. Her deck was gone; she had burned to the water's edge and had sunk, and there she rested on her keel. I knew that the owner had left port some months before on a secret cruise. Someone must have given him the. tip, too. He was well known and liked, and generally did good business. My mate and I talked over the business. We wanted to clean up that patch, so decided to remain a few days longer before clearing out to report. I was convinced that murder had been committed-that the natives of the island had massacred the party and had sunk the lugger.
"While I was below next day an urgent message came down. I bobbed up pretty quickly. A boat was sneaking out from the beach, apparently with the plan of cutting us off from our lugger, which was anchored some distance off, with only a couple of boys on board. You bet, we got up steam pretty quickly. When we got on board we reached for our rifles, and then felt safe.
"The boat was then making straight for us, and it appeared to be crowded with darkies. We had been off the island for four days, and had not seen the sight of a native. I knew there were plenty, and the fact that they had kept away had made me a bit suspicious. As the boat came along I was sure they meant mischief, and was determined, no matter how friendly they wanted to be, not to let one of the beggars on deck.
"About half a mile away we saw one of them, who appeared to be a bit lighter in colour than the rest, stand up in the bow and wave a kind of message. He kept one arm going like a semaphore. Then we saw that he carried under the other arm a basket—a peace-offering of yams and fruit, no doubt. He had only a shirt on, and still he kept his right arm working. When he got within hailing distance, the man in the bows shouted my name. He was a brawny chap. I thought to myself that if it came to a row I would pot him first, for he was ringleader.
"All the rest were naked. His scanty uniform marked him out. Probably he got that shirt from the owner of the sunken lugger. I wetted my lips with my tongue as I thought it might be my duty to wipe him out. Then my name was shouted out again, and, recognising the voice, I discovered the man in the shirt to be a well-known character who goes under the name of ——.
"I've got something nice for you, captain! Don't look so nasty with that rifle to an old friend!'
"Still keeping our rifles ready, we let the boat come alongside and the tinted man passed up the basket, It was native-made, and all the top was covered with green leaves. Thinking of fresh yams and fruit, I pulled off the leaves, and there—poof!—the head of a man-an old man who must have died a violent death about two days before.
"The man in the shirt laughed loud and long at the disgust in my face, and, coming on board, soon told of the tragedy of which the awful head was a symbol of retaliation.
"The owner of the sunken lugger had fitted her out with unusual care. His crew consisted of natives of the island off which we were lying. As a special inducement to one of the boys, whose name was Massai, he had promised a rifle, but designedly withheld the gift until towards the end of the term of agreement. Massai had persistently begged for the rifle, and it having become necessary for the Boss' to take a trip to the port, he had definitely, promised to bring it with him. Again he designedly forgot. Massai became morose. Things went on calmly enough until one day, when the mate was below, the 'Boss' was suddenly thrown overboard. As he floundered on the surface one of the boys struck at him with a tomahawk, and then he must have realised that his life was at stake.
"Diving until well clear of the boat, he swam off to the lugger, about a quarter of a mile away. As his master came up, Massai leaned over the side, his master's rifle in his hand.
"'Don't shoot me, Massai,' he shouted. 'I give you good rifle belonga yourself.'
"Massai shouted back, 'Me catch 'em plenty riple! You no good!' and fired. The bullet splashed over the man's head. The next struck him fair in the forehead, and he sank.
"In the meantime Massai's confederates were sporting with the diver, hauling him up to the surface, pumping sufficient air to keep him alive, shutting it off until he must have been nearly suffocated, reviving him with fresh supplies, and with joy prolonging life until the fun of the thing ceased; then they had cut the pipe so that he might drown.
"The lugger having been ransacked, she was fired, and she had sunk at her anchorage.
"A few days after the man with the shirt arrived at the island, and since these simple children of Nature cannot keep their doings to themselves, he very soon was made a confidant, learning the whole details of the tragedy by pidgin English and expressive pantomime, and obtaining as proof the coat of the reckless man who had made a promise to Massai which, possibly, he had never intended to fulfil. The plot of the revenge and murder had been hatched out ashore at the instigation of Massai's mother.
"Fortified with full information, he sailed away to a neighbouring port, where he exhibited the coat of the murdered 'Boss.' Being impressed, the official representing the majesty of the law gave some vague commission to the man, who now wears other clothes than a shirt, and he sailed away for ports unknown.
"Interpreting his commission to make further inquiries very broadly, he appeared off the island, and received a cordial welcome, for he was 'Hail fellow well met' with the inhabitants of many a remote isle. He made himself very friendly, and the frank natives rather gloried than otherwise in the recitation of evidence which condemned them.
"Then he made plans for unauthorised punishment. Having disarmed suspicion—just as the boat's crew had done in the case of his friend—he waited, and one dark night surrounded the village with a well-armed, hostile force. These Papuan villages are fortified in a certain sense. Some of the exits are set with traps and spring spears, and none but those in the secret dares venture along a track when the village has been made secure for the night.
"The man with the shirt posted his forces so that the exits were commanded, and waited for dawn, his instructions being that no demonstration was to be made until he gave the signal. Before the designed time a shot was fired, and the conscience-stricken community fled, all save one old man and infant, who met their fate.
"The village was spoiled and fired, and thus retributive justice done to those who had wantonly murdered two white men and destroyed their property.
"Once again," said the captain, "my luck was out. Goodness knows! There might have been a big pearl in that patch. We didn't wait to find it!"
SNAKE AND FROG PRATTLE
"Surely, then, it interests us to know the lot of other animal creatures. However far below us, they are still the sole created things which share with us the capability of pleasure and the susceptibility to pain."—HUXLEY.
It may be edifying to confess a particular interest in man's first enemy-not such interest as the man of science displays when he seeks to add to the knowledge of the world, but a kind of social concern. None of us is likely to forget that on the authority of Holy Writ the serpent became familiar with mankind very shortly after his appearance on earth, and whispered injurious secrets into guileless ears. Ever since the scene in the Garden of Eden, war between man and the serpent has prevailed, and now, if we are to credit the sayings of the wise, the end of all reptiles, if not actually in view, cannot be long postponed. Is it not mete, therefore, to take fair opportunity of studying the characteristics and qualities of an animal, closely associated with us by fable and in fact, which is doomed to extinction by the ruthless strides of civilisation, which is regarded by some as cleanly and decent, and by others as repulsive and direful? Plain, unromantic, unsensational statements make for the acquirement of knowledge illustrative of the habits and faculties of the creature against which the hand of the average man is raised with a mixture of wrath, vengeance, and fear.
By study and observation one may come to understand the higher principles of Nature, and so learn how to withstand influences inimical to his interests without upsetting laws which tend to his welfare.
Occasionally quite casual happenings and bare and slight matters of fact show that those who study natural history first-hand acquire information not to be obtained from authoritative works. Let one instance concerning the varied diet of the death adder be quoted, since it confounds the experience of one of the most learned men in Australia on the subject. On the beach just at high-water mark, beneath an overhanging shrub, several birds sounded an alarm, notifying by peculiar and persistent screeching the presence of an enemy. After a few minutes' search, for the strained attitudes of the birds indicated the direction, a death adder was seen gliding among thickly strewn brown leaves with a limp bird between its jaws. It was quickly killed, and then the bird, a dusky honey-cater, was seen to be dead. Dusky honey-eaters generally spend their days among the topmost sprays of flowering trees and shrubs, while death adders habitually seek the seclusion of the shadiest places on the surface of the soil. In this case the adder was small, so small that it seemed to be a vain if not impossible feat for it to swallow the bird.
Hitherto the food of the adder had been deemed to be frogs, lizards, beetles, and such game of the ground. Was it curiosity which brought the sun-loving bird within reach of the shade-loving snake? Upon the incident being referred to Mr. Dudley Le Souef, who has quite an uneasy familiarity with Australian snakes, dating from the days of ardent youth, when he was wont to carry some species about with him in his pockets, that authority wrote: "I did not know that death adders ever killed birds; I did not think they were active enough, their usual prey being frogs, lizards, etc. The honey-eater must have been taken unawares."
Though scientifically regarded as "the most dangerous and probably the most deadly" of Australian snakes, the death adder has to its credit many everyday proofs to the contrary: so many, indeed, that some are inclined to class it as comparatively harmless, the reasons for such opinion being—(1) the small size of the creature, reducing the risks of its being interfered with inadvertently; (2) its amiability; (3) the fact that unless the sensitive membrane at the end of the tail, to which the curved spine is the culminating-point, is trodden on or otherwise insulted, the chances are that there will be, no active resentment. While adopting all precautions, accepting no risks, and being very eager to reduce the number by all and every possible means, it is well to avoid overexcitement; for though the reptilian age is passing away, those who live in the bush are too often reminded that snakes are still numerous, and some of them decidedly vicious.
To disappoint the snake and at the same time to discredit its reputation, calmness on the part of the individual who may happen to be bitten is counselled. He should behave as a neighbour who one dark night stepped off his verandah barefooted on to nearly cleared land. As he strode along the scarcely distinguishable track, he trod on something other than a half-burnt stick. Almost instantaneously the Scripture was fulfilled—the serpent had bruised the man's heel. Now, this man has been in many strange, not to say fear-provoking, situations, and has listened to more than one close call without spoiling the occasion by anticipatory and hideous outcry. He does not smoke or drink whisky or give way to any nerve-affecting habit. He lives within hearing of the soothing lullaby of the sea. When his heel was gripped he did not jump or offend the air with unmanly plaint and ineffectual clamour, or otherwise fluster his heart with pernicious apprehension. With calm deliberation he put his hand into his pocket and drew forth—no! not a razor-edged knife, with which to slash the region of the punctures, but a box of matches, so that the scene might temporarily be surveyed. He saw, not the expected death adder, not a deadly copper head, not the venomous black which flattens and distends the neck like a cobra when its passions are roused, not the great red pugnacious beast which has been known to kill off-hand a big horse, but a shame-faced carpet snake, which, though innocent and inoffensive, will, like the worm, turn if rudely trodden on. The snake was quite ready to apologise for impulsive and graceless misbehaviour; but it seemed fascinated by the sudden light—how little of brightness bewilders such lovers of darkness—and maintained its repentant attitude until the sacred law was finally vindicated by the fatal bruising of its head.
Many years ago a locality a few miles away suffered from a raid by bush rats, which congregated in great numbers. Similar plagues have often been recorded from the western downs; but the coastal visitation was singular, for it was associated with death adders, which seemed to be on good terms with the rats. One of the settlers was growing sweet-potatoes on a fairly large scale for pig food, the plough being used for the harvesting of the crop. Seldom was a furrow run for the full length of the field without turning up both adders and rats. Suddenly the rats migrated, and then the death adders disappeared, few of either being seen for a decade, when the association between them was again sensationally illustrated. The daughter of a settler rose at dawn, and with others ran off to the vegetable garden for salads for breakfast. While she was looking for a seemly cucumber, a rat was disturbed, and almost immediately after she was bitten by a death adder which had lain inert at the very spot whence the rat had fled. The child recovered, while the deceptive snake, which will not submit to have its tail saluted even by the airiest of treads, was killed. Not only have we here another proof of the non-fatal character of the bite of an adder, but a singular instance of association between an adder and a rat. Why and for what purpose does this apparent amicability exist?
Sometimes mankind is startled by the unexpected appearance of a snake. Will credit be given to an almost magic disappearance? Those who hearken to the voices of birds learn to discriminate between the language of content and happiness and love and that of dismay and terror. A number of loud and pleasant-noted fasciating honey-eaters suddenly changed their tune to that indicative of fear. They were, gathered on a thick-leaved tree on the edge of the jungle in a crude circle, with heads pointing to a common centre. It was simplicity to conclude that a snake was present, but not at all easy to see it, for the flustered birds began to change their manoeuvres directly help was at hand. Eventually a thin brown snake was seen doubled up and apparently sound asleep among the branchlets The gun was called for, and two others hastened to the scene, each of whom distinctly saw the snake. When the shot was fired, a peephole was made through dense leafage just where the snake had reposed, but with the report it had 'disappeared. Fragments of twigs and leaves came to Mother Earth, but even a smart black tracker failed to find a trace of the snake, though the force of the explosion must have carried portions out into the open. The point of this artless narrative is that the black boy formed the firm opinion that that which he and two others had concluded to be a snake must have been "'Nother kind. Him no good. Close up 'debil-debil!'" To him a visible snake was quite commonplace; but one that vanished under the impulse of a charge of shot represented a mystery which called for caution and hasty departure, and the boy strode away with the suggestion of hot bricks below. But the tell-tale birds, suspicious of the material only, returned, stared at the vacancy, and fluttered off with—was it?—a note of thankfulness.