The serpent has one infallible, perhaps because it is automatic, regard for its own comfort and well-being—it cannot be induced to tie itself into a knot. It is in mind that once in the old country a very long and very cold lethargic boa constrictor became benumbed and forgot the primal instinct of the family, and paid for its absent-mindedness with its life. But the ordinary snake under extraordinary conditions, whatsoever its length, is most careful to disentangle itself even when knots are designed for the special purpose of embarrassing it. Though the head of a snake be battered until all apparent sense is obliterated, the lithe body will cleverly evade attempts to cause it to disregard the great law. However tight the corner into which it may squeeze or narrow the quarters into which it may be driven, and though head and tail may be close together and in the midst of a complication of coils, and the twisting and writhing may appear to be without method, yet the snake emerges a triumph of single purpose.
A complication was presented to a 6 foot 8 inch specimen, and truth bids me say that the snake did not seem in the least bewildered. From a nest of eggs six had disappeared in one night. The loss was debited to a snake, and it being calculated that the meal would suffice for several days, no particular zeal was displayed in tracing out the thief. Experience has taught that snakes do not wander very far when good and nutritious food is to be obtained by intrusion on the cosy quarters of a pet hen., Three days were permitted to pass, and then in the nest a rat trap was placed baited with two eggs, the door being secured with wire. The bait proved to be irresistible and the trap effective. In the morning the trap was crowded with snake, which had thrust its head between the wires, swallowed the eggs, and was a prisoner until they were dissolved by the processes of digestion or the door was unbolted. The natural process was not complete when the discovery was made, but the snake had managed to make itself as comfortable as possible in its temporary habitation. The trap seemed almost suffocatingly full, and when the occupant thrust its head and more than half its length between the bars, only to be checked by the hard-hearted eggs, it was thought that possibly, in its confusion, the snake might entangle itself; but invariably it retired into the trap without putting itself into any false position. It was killed, the executioner justly reflecting that a snake has mental limitations. Nothing could induce it to tie itself into a knot, and yet, wilfully and with its eyes open, it had entered a trap from which there was no possibility of escape until in the course of nature it had digested the bait.
Is it generally known that a snake does everything with its eyes open—that it is denied the privilege of closing its eyes? Such is the indisputable fact. 'But without presuming to trespass on the preserves of men of science, the belief may be expressed that some species, if not in possession of a movable eyelid, have some means of suspending the faculty of sight. Indeed, there is evidence in support of the view that one species has a membranous eyelid similar to, but slighter than, that of a bird. It is not to be doubted that another reptile—the green turtle—is thus endowed, and that the "winking membrane" is found in many animals at the inner angle or beneath the lower lid of the eye. This membrane is represented in animals by a rudiment only. In the eyes of human beings the small reddish patch in the corner corresponds to the winking membrane—indeed, is the vestige of it. In monkeys, and in most mammals below them, there is present in this vestige a small piece of cartilage, and this is found occasionally in man. In white races it is very rare, occurring, as far as observations have shown, in less than one per cent. Recent investigations by Dr. Paul Bartels show that in twenty-five South African natives whom he had examined it occurred in twelve. Another investigation found it five times in twenty-five Japanese. It is curious to find that vestige more common in certain races, as it shows that in this small point they are less advanced than the white race.
This quotation from a forgotten source supplies important links in the chain of evidence in favour of the theory that certain species of snakes may have the winking muscle, which exists in marine reptiles and is present in some human beings. Apart from theory, it has been my good-fortune to see a sleeping snake the eyes of which were obscured by a greyish film, giving it the appearance of being "wall-eyed." Being satisfied that it was blind, for it betrayed no uneasiness at a threatening demonstration, a determination was made to preserve it for critical examination. As soon as the snake was touched the cloudy veils were withdrawn, and the eyes flashed with the fire of malignity. It appeared to be spiteful because it had been caught napping. The specimen was not preserved, although it was bottled.
The blacks of this district are more nervous about adders than any other snake, with the exception of that known to them as the "Wat-tam" (pronounce the "a" as in cat), and believed to belong to the same genus as the brown snake. This is a large snake, reddish-brown in colour, the underside, for about half the length, being bright orange, the tint gradually subsiding to pale yellow towards the tail. Post-mortem examination of the first specimen detected on this Island cleared up a bush tragedy. A nest had been built in a conspicuous spot by a pair of shrike thrushes, which the blacks, according to locality, know as "Moorgoody" and "Too-dring." The birds are the sweetest-voiced of all natives, and become wondrous tame and confiding. After the big spotted and blotched eggs were hatched, the hen would perch on the side of the nest within a foot of admirers, accepting compliments with tilted head and bright and twinkling eyes. One night the brood disappeared, and desperate things were held in store if ever a snake were found in the neighbourhood. Two days after, the alert dog gave tongue, his language demanding urgency and extreme caution. Within twenty yards of the site of the violated nest he was found "setting" at a big snake, which had raised the forepart of its body and appeared to be concentrating its strength and agility on one fatal and perfidious spring. But the faithful dog was watchful too, and agile, as he crouched fearlessly across the track of man's first enemy, with its crafty pose and glittering eyes. The black boys stood afar off, for the "Wat-tam" is so arrogant and pugnacious that it does not hesitate to attack a man, invariably with fatal results if great vigilance be not exercised—at least, such is their belief. Science, however, shows that though the snake has poison fangs, they are located so far back in the jaws as to be practically ineffective. Its fierce demeanour is probably, therefore, assumed for the purposes of intimidation. The gun speedily put the wicked-looking snake out of action, and a bulge in the body indicated the site of the last meal—the confiding thrush and her fledgeless brood. The incident illustrates another favourite theory—viz., that venomous snakes have a specific, distinctive odour, which warns animals likely to be attacked of their presence. The dog kills green tree, ordinary whip snakes, and the black, white-bellied species fond of reposing in the mounds of scrub hens, without ceremony and with all the zest and enthusiasm of a good sport; but in the case of venomous species so far he has not failed to call for help, but if assistance be delayed he takes the law into his own hands.
Be it far from me to cast doubt on the truth of that which follows. The record is found in "Memoirs of the Queensland Museum," vol. ii., page 43: "Although the scientific worker is hopelessly handicapped by the vividly imaginative journalist when snake stories are told, yet occasionally there are noticed incidents startling enough in their way. During the cooler months a young and lithe DIEMENIA PSAMMOPHIS, Schleg, popularly known as a 'whip snake,' usually retired under a piece of bark placed in its case, and it was only to be tempted out on warm and sunny days. On one occasion a small skink lizard was introduced, and the snake commenced a lively chase. The lizard ran under the bark, and on reaching the other side scampered back over the top, closely pursued by the snake. Again the lizard entered the bark tunnel, through which the tail of the snake was rapidly disappearing, making a spurt to keep up with the main body. The snake darted for the lizard, missed it, and then seized its own retreating tail about two inches from the tip. With characteristic pertinacity it held on, and apparently the classic episode of a snake swallowing itself was to be attempted. It was not until the snake was taken, out of the case and forcibly handled that it let go, there being apparently no distinction to the ophidian palate between its own flesh and that of its favourite lizard." The only comment that an unversed student of Nature may presume to make on this incident is that, possibly, the snake retained its tail because it could not do otherwise. Are not the jaws and teeth of some snakes so constructed, that the privilege of rejection is denied? The interests alike of science and the speculative world demanded that in the circumstances Nature should not have been balked. Why deprive the serpent of having its own blundering way with its own tail?
There is no doubt that man does directly benefit by the conflicts which rage continuously between living things lower in the scale of life than himself; but the common slaughter is at times so cruel and so inexplicable that it is not given the average intellect to discover good and sufficient cause, though he may observe the more obvious habits and appetites of frogs and snakes. The former oft implore aid against the attacks of green tree snakes and of a big light brown lizard, fond of sleeping in hollow logs, and since one does not understand from the beseeching tones of the frog whether it is being molested by the universal enemy or not, he often hastens to the rescue, laboriously cuts down to the scene, to find, instead of a snake, a lizard, perhaps more useful in the harmony of Nature than a frog, and certainly more endearing, since it possesses the habit of silence. Unless the frog is past recovery it has become a practice to scare the lizard, and to suggest to the frog the sanctuary of another hollow.
But frogs are not always considerate of other and gayer creatures. A friend who possessed a pet canary noticed that one morning in the cage of his pet there sat a panting frog, blinking in the sunlight. Thinking that the intruder had entered the cage to assuage his thirst, he did not eject it. It was the habit of the canary to hail the smiling morn with cheerful carol. In a few minutes unaccustomed silence prevailed, and then it was noticed that the frog was distended to a degree which must have caused it infinite satisfaction, while the canary had vanished. The conclusion was obvious and damning. Being accustomed to post mortems, my friend settled the point forthwith, the warm canary being revealed, with but slightly disarrayed feathers.
A further illustration of the capacious and criminal appetite of the frog may be quoted. The wet season had been generous and prolonged, the crop of frogs prolific. The verge of a lagoon was crowded with active and lusty creatures, belonging, if colour was to be accepted as evidence, to different species, in fairly equal numbers. A casual glance inspired the thought that the occasion was nothing more than a vast assembly of greys and greens enjoying the pastime which boys imitate. All round were leaping frogs engaged in contests—greys against greens. Suspecting no evil intent, it was interesting thus to note the derivation of the game we have all played in sportful youth; but closer inspection proved that, instead of a friendly tournament on the grand scale, the rival frogs were indulging in shocking cannibalism. A grey frog would approach a green, when each would appear to become fascinated by the appearance of the other. Thus would they squat for several minutes, contemplating each other's proportions and perfections. Then both would leap high with mouths agape, and that which timed the feat to the best advantage, or had the widest gape, seized the less fortunate, and slowly and with much straining and little apparent joy swallowed it. Often the rivals would not meet in mid air, and the lapse provided the delusion of innocent play. There were hundreds of examples of absorption of the least fit by the fittest to survive, and the chronicling of the cannibal feast would be incomplete if a singular detail were unrelated. The participators seemed of like size. Complexion alone varied and foppish discrimination was exercised, for since dog does not in a general way eat dog, greys did not eat greys or greens greens. With unswerving decision, greys swallowed greens and greens greys, and extreme corpulency was the inevitable result. Does this not smack of the snake story? It certainly does, but it has the virtue of being unexaggerated, and why shrink from the telling of the plain truth?
An unwitnessed tragedy may be told in a very few words. About twenty-five feet above high-water mark was the shaft of a white sand-crab. The site was not common, for the crabs are in the habit of burrowing well within the range of the tide. For two or three days—for the spot was at the back of the boat-shed and under daily observation—the alert creature was oft disturbed by my coming and going. One morning it remained motionless on the verge of its retreat. It seemed to be on guard, and as a companionable feeling had been aroused, I was careful as I passed not to unduly affright it. The statuesque position being abnormally retained, I stooped down, to find the crab dead, with the froth still on the complicated lips, while beside it was a huge wolf spider, "tremendous still in death," with head crushed to pulp. One may theorise that the spider invaded the crab's burrow and was promptly evicted; a fight took place for possession of the retreat, resulting in untoned tragedy. Venom and ponderous weapon each had done its work. Each participant had been victorious, each a victim.
A still more singular bush conflict was witnessed by a friend. He heard, and not without concern, the pleading of a frog from the assaults of an enemy, but having far too many of them about the premises decided on noninterference, thinking that the hungry snake would soon silence the clamour. But the cries becoming shriller and more piteous, he investigated, finding among the leaves of a creeper on the verandah a large green Mantis—religiosa, too—voraciously making a meal off the hind-leg of a little green frog, which it grasped firmly. Almost the whole of the flesh of the limb had been eaten, and the observer was of opinion from the rapacity of the insect that there would have been little left of the screaming frog if he had not interfered.
THE BUSH TRACK
"They trade with Nature and the earth—a trade by which all that breathe upon the earth live."—RALEIGH.
It has no beginning. It ends—who shall say where Every high tide smooths away the footprints of those who use it now, just as it did the erratic tramplings of the host of the past. In those free, unregulated days piccaninnies sprawled and scampered hard, glistening beach; young men and girls there; men lazed and fought on its convenient spaces; women wandered on the serious business of food-getting. The camps stood a pace or two above high-water mark in the meagre shelter of sighing casuarinas, and were often changed, for there were six miles of gently curving, ripple-embroidered shore on which to rest. To this day most of the traffic is regulated by the tide. High water drives the wayfarer to the loose, impeding sand, over which the great convolvulus sends its tireless tentacles, to be thrown back twisted and burnt by salt surges.
The ebb discovers a broad space, firm and wellnigh unimpresslonable. The barefooted traveller may walk for miles and be trackless, so tough and elastic the moist sand. It is not an officious thoroughfare, made formal and precise by coarse hands working to plans correct to a hair, but subject to economic deviations of some soulless contractor. It was not laid with the foundation of the earth, and compacted by heat and stress. It is still in the making, and sand, coral, and shell-grit ground to pollen-like fineness and certain chemicals from the reef outside are among its component parts. One other element invokes perpetual thanksgiving—the flaked mica, which glistens delusively with hues of silver and gold, and gives to the tide-swept track that singular pliancy which resists the stamp of passing generations.
Midway between high and low water is a zone sensible to the airiest tread, being fitted for such temporary effect by a mechanical operation. Millions of the smallest of crabs, sand-tinted, delicate, apprehensive and alert, possess this area, working out their destiny by digging circular shafts. Obedient agents in the execution of the imperative ordinances of Nature, they have the quality of compacting the almost fluid spoil and carrying it to the surface in pellets complementary to the size of the individual, and such pellets retain their rotundity. They are scattered about, not without design, as may be seen if the industrious workers are closely observed, and in such profusion that the feet of the user of a crab-infested zone must press them flat. Then it is that the track becomes visible as far as the eyes reach. But the incoming wavelets, babbling in unison, dissolve the myriads of laboriously lifted pellets, effacing the record of the passing of man. As the tides ebb, the crabs begin their work again, preparing for the next-coming wayfarer. There is something almost incomprehensively great in the tireless activities of the nervous crabs, for not only do they carry compacted sand from their burrows, but they seem to spend odd moments in forming similar globes from material gathered from the surface. Digging, furrowing the surface in stellate patterns, moulding pellets which to the tenderest ripple are but the plaything of a moment, so are the lives of the shy crustaceans spent. What may be the motive for the perpetual labour, as useless, apparently, as the rolling of Sisyphus's stone? For part of the year the beach is the resort of the red-necked sandpiper, which has an enormous appetite for the small, live things of the sea's margin. To bewilder the birds and so reduce the risk to life, Nature imposes the task upon the crabs of forming replicas of themselves not readily distinguishable in size and tint, which represent labour unconsciously expended as life insurance, and serve the subsidiary purpose of detecting the passing of man.
What material has been left by the wayside for the history, not to be altogether despised because of its rusticity, of the unstable ways of one of the ancient peoples of the world, now few in numbers, forgetful of the past, estranged from the customs of their fathers, and dying without mourners and without records? Search the sites of camps the track passes, and there is naught to tell of the manner of those who recently occupied them save a tomahawk or a rare domestic implement of stone, and such stones do not preach thrilling but distinctive sermons. Why hurry along this pleasant way? Is not the one domestic appliance of the long-deserted camps worthy of passing notice? There it rests, half buried in the sand—a worn stone, with two others complementary to it to be had for the searching. It is meet that the most primitive of mills should be examined, and that one of the several and slow processes by which a poisonous, repugnant, and intractable nut was wont to be converted into food should be cited to the credit of the economic forethought of the most thriftless of people.
On adjacent flats and slopes grow survivals from one of the most ancient of all plants—a Cycad, that botanical paradox, combining some of the characteristics of the lie palm and of the pine with the appearance of a tree-fern, while being of distinctive order, which flourished during the age when the Iguanodon and the Polacanthus and other monstrous and ungainly reptiles roamed the land.
Let us rest awhile reviewing the earlier operations by which its nuts were rendered innocuous, and while the ghosts of the past make and bake their bread.
The fresh nuts of the plant (CYCAS MEDIA) known as Kim-alo, were roasted, and while hot bruised between two stones, the upper (Ookara) a sphere flattened at the poles into which the use of ages wore thumb and finger indentations, the nether (Diban) flat with a saucerlike depression. Fragments of the husks were carefully eliminated. The coarse meal was put into a dilly-bag and placed in running water below a slight fall, from the lip of which fluming, improvised from the leaf of native ginger, conducted a gentle stream. Two days were sufficient to leach the poisonous principle; but if the initial process of roasting the nuts was omitted—as in some districts—the meal was submitted to the purification of water for as long as two months, when it would be tasteless. It was then ground on the nether stone by the Moo-ki (almost a perfect sphere), used with a rotary action, until reduced to flour-like fineness, when it was made into flat or sausage-shaped cakes, wrapped in green leaves and baked. The intractability of the Cycad is such that if cattle eat the leaves they die or become permanently afflicted with a disease of the nature of rickets. To the human palate the fresh nuts-are inflammatory, and are said to cause intense pain ending with death. That the blacks discovered the means of converting such a substance into desirable food proves that they were often enterprisingly, daringly hungry.
Let us push on, there is far to go. Chance rather than principle, it has been said, turned the paths of old England into roads. Here may be studied the germ of the primal path worn by the tread of the least reflective and least mobile of human beings, the causes of its erratic course, and the transitions by which, with amendments due to the irrefutable facts of topography, it becomes formal and authoritative—a highway for the usurping race.
Leaving the shore, one branch of the track crosses the high-water fold, follows the bend of a mangrove creek, through which it Makes a muddy ford, and is firmly impressed through forest country where every tree is orchid-encumbered, and where the eager soil produces its own varieties. It wriggles up and along a ridge, with the glaucous spathes of grass trees standing like spears on each hand, and where wattle and tough she-oaks grow leanly out of hard soil, thickly strewn with buckshot gravel, rust-coloured.
Soon it descends into a low valley and through a belt of fan-palms and jungle bordering an ever-flowering stream the banks of which are knee-deep in fat, rich loam. Huge tea-trees stand in the water, where the fibrous roots are matted like peat.
Out of the moist coolness the track abruptly ascends to a pleasant forest, and thence drops almost imperceptibly to tea-tree flats intersected by Pandanus creeks, which bulge here and there into sedge-margined lagoons. In this "devil-devil" country it is barely the width of the foot, and it wanders sinuously like the trail of a lazy snake. Sometimes it is barely more discernible than such a trail, and again in the soft places it broadens and deepens, for the man with boots has taken the place of the original soft-footed traveller, and horses and cattle are ever fond of the short-cuts which their owners design.
Here a distinct branch is made towards a river, across which Nature, the first of bridge-builders, many a generation ago afforded an easy, dry passage by throwing down a huge tree. It spans from bank to bank, and the wood is worn to slippery smoothness by the passing of shoeless feet. Thence it leads through forest and jungle and mangrove belts to another river, and away south.
The western branch keeps to forest and jungle, following, generally, the ridges, for in the wet season the grass lands are flooded, when the track is but a silvery grey ribbon on a carpet of green. With careless indecision it trends west, with here an angle and there a curve, dipping and twisting, crossing gullies and creeping up slopes. The men whose feet made it in ancient days knew all the landmarks. Mostly it keeps to sound ground, albeit its wanderings perpetuate wayward impulses.
Imagination may follow the blacks of bygone days as they swung past, a fallen tree; where sportful youths wandered a few yards to throw grass-tree spears at white-ants' nests on bloodwood-trees; where they turned aside for a drink from the palm creek. Possibly the track deviated to follow the run of a scrub turkey, or because the boys knew of a scrub hen's mound, where the rich pink eggs were raked out by the gins. It was gin's work to overhaul the mounds; the boys did not like to do the digging with their hands, for often little snakes bedded themselves in the warm compost—snakes, though they bite not to the death, make one's hands big and sore. Why incur any risk when there was a well-disciplined woman to take it? There was a turn off (which was officially followed) leading to a huge tree where in the hollow bees had hived; and another straggled up the creek to the pool where eels secrete themselves in the moist, decaying leaves.
Six or seven miles from the beach, where the scarcely discernible crabs, with persistency as eternal as the sea, are strewing the way with millions of tell-tale pellets, the track, skirting swamps, following the bends of a river, passing through forest and jungle, is lost in vagueness and indecision.
When it was ordained that roads should be defined in the interests of settlers, it was natural that the original track as it then existed—broadened and amended and bridged by the good bushmen who had used it for practical purposes—should be followed. On the plan the formal road runs a strangely erratic course, for in many places it is faithful to the footpad. Some of the zigzags of the long past, some of its elbows and angles, its stringent lines and curves, have been copied and confirmed, for the bush track is one of the fundamental things, bearing the stamp of Nature, and no more to be obliterated by the trivialities of art than is the sand of the shore and the illimitable crabs.
THE LITTLE BROWN MAN
"Care, that troubles all the world, was forgotten in his composition."—CHARLES LAMB.
If you chance to visit the Chief Protector of Aborigines on board his yacht the MELBIDIR, one of the first to greet you, be you an old acquaintance or a stranger, may be "Jimmy," the cook.
He is a little brown man who wears blue shoes, which are also socks, and a perpetual smile. The shoes, which are of some soft material, have a separate compartment for the great-toe, and hook down the heel. The Chief Protector has a similar pair of combination shoes—a gift from "Jimmy"—and is given to smiling; but he does not pretend to compete with his cook in that quality. "Jimmy's" smile is almost a fixture. It is set, yet not professional. It is the smile of a happy man, and of one who is a diplomat as well as a ship's cook. His customary costume is of holland. When on duty he wears an exaggerated bib, and "Jimmy" without his bib would be as little conceivable as "Jimmy" without his smile. He may discard it when he puts on his sky-blue pyjamas for the night, but that he smiles in his sleep is sure. The honourable wrinkles on his mahogany-hued face forbid him to relax the appearance of unceasing good-humour, and who would suggest that his serenity is artificial?
When he takes a hand with the whole of the ship's company to get up sail or hoist the dinghy on board, he whistles as well as smiles, and then the black boys laugh, and life on the trim ship is more buoyant than ever. He goes down into the doll's-house galley backwards, smiling. Now, it is no smiling matter to be jambed up against a hot stove on a hot day when the seas run high and the yacht digs her crescent nose into the blue and washes her own decks with Neptune's suds. But "Jimmy" will bob up again in due season with a plate of hot cakes or, perhaps, even cool cakes—and the smile. He has been smiling to the oven, which is inclined to gymnastics, only it is restrained by effectual bolts. "Jimmy" is a gymnast, and his free great-toes enable him to cook under circumstances and conditions which others not so equipped would profane.
Smiles are his antidote for all injurious mental ferments, and how many diseases of the mind are there which are not to be alleviated by such apt physic?
It has been said that "Jimmy" is a diplomat. He certainly is. The MELBIDIR had run within hailing distance of another yacht, the owner and commander of which is an old friend of the Protector and "Jimmy." When we did hail, a silvery head and a sunburnt pair of shoulders popped up from below, and with a comprehensive wave of sunburnt arms—the red type—vanished. Soon the same head and the same shoulders, decently but loosely clad in blue and followed by the rest of the hearty body, emerged, and in a few minutes friends were gripping each other's hands and talking furiously about a particular island, pilots, pearls, and Torres Straits "Jimmy" passed, and the florid man in blue said, nudging his friend, "I seem to know that boy."
"Of course you do," replied the Protector; "that's 'Jimmy' from T. I."
When "Jimmy" next appeared he had a jug of water in his hand and a bigger smile than ever.
"Well, 'Jimmy,' you haven't forgotten me?" suggested the big man in blue.
"No. You capitain! My word, you young fellow now!"
And we all laughed, for though the years had been tender to the man in blue, still, they had come and gone by the decade since the previous meeting. "Jimmy's" smiles became vocal. Professional diplomats use the great gift of speech, it is said, to delude the enemies of their country. "Jimmy's" adroit compliment was the more delicate in that it was not official and he cannot possess an enemy.
When he puckers his lips to whistle, "Jimmy's" smiles are singularly infectious. The Protector's yacht is not a missionary, but merely, as her name signifies, a messenger; but the Protector does not forbid the hymnal. "Jimmy" has one, and as he studies the pious poems, for he reads fluently, whistles appropriately. While we lolled on deck, familiar tunes wooed my wandering thoughts. "Jesu, Lover of my Soul," came line after line, verse after verse, precisely, though the tone was soft. Was the black boy thus accompanying his work at the pump? No; for the strokes were not in time, and the boy occasionally chatted with his chum. I asked, and was told that "'Jimmy' mak'm good fellow corroboree." Presently he came up—smiling, and with the last notes of "Abide with Me" on his lips. Then I questioned him, and for a space we discussed our favourite hymns and hummed them, or rather I did, for "Jimmy" was too shy to do more than nod in time before a stranger. He confided, almost in a whisper, that when he was alone he learned the words of the hymns, and afterwards picked up the tunes. Is it not pretty to think of the wrinkled Japanese in bunk beside the hot and clamorous engine conning hymnal—a trifle blotched with grease here and there—and whistling softly those endearing tunes on which so many of us were brought up?
Long may "Jimmy" cook and wear blue shoes a modestly supplicate "For those in Peril on the Sea"! That he may smile to the last would be a superfluous prayer. He cannot do else.
UP AND AWAY
"Man is the merriest species of creation; all above and below him are serious."—ADDISON.
"Let's up and away, Bill," said Breezy Jim, as he started to his feet. "I'm dog tired of this game. We're just working for tucker for the boys and nothing—not even a smoke—for ourselves."
"Don't be in such a flurry. We might drop on a patch yet. I vote we stay for another week. The anchorage is all right, and the season's young. The little bit of fish we've got ain't too stinking. It'll pay expenses." Placid and patient, the half-caste Solomon Islander, Billy Boolah, kept cheek on his impetuous partner, whose restless disposition forbade him to continue long in one stay unless circumstances were essentially favourable.
Certainly fish were not too plentiful, but the aboriginal crew worked well, and were lighthearted almost to a fault. They had had no credit to pledge for the season's stores. They had merely to pick up inert and unresisting beche-de-mer from among the coral five fathoms down, where the deceptive sea looked no more than ten feet deep under the squalid flatties; to smoke and jabber in idle moments; to eat and to sleep, and to listen to Mammerroo's version of the opening phrases of "The Last Rose of Summer" on a mouth-organ worn with inveterate usage to the bold brass. The tune was not quite beyond recognition, and no musician was ever more in earnest, ever more soul-tied to an elusive, unwritten air than the black boy who wore little else than his own unwashed complexion and a strip of red Turkey twill. For long months he had pursued it with all the fervour of his simple soul, and though it said him nay, still did he hope and woo. Out of his scanty earnings he bought mouth-organs by the dozen, for he believed that owing to some defect on the part of such instruments the tune was impossible save to one. Would he ever obtain that prize? The organ which could play that tune as he had once heard it when his boss took him to a concert at Cairns had to be discovered, and to earn money to buy it Mammerroo shipped on these detestable beche-de-mer cruises. In the meantime he would play with all his energies and with endless repetition the halting, nerve-disturbing notes he knew to be incorrect.
"That boy will drive me mad. He bought ten mouth-organs at Cooktown, and he hasn't got the one that plays the tune yet. Does this smell like 'The Last Rose of Summer'? Why, you can hear those fish of yours humming! What with hardly any fish, the stink of the whole boat, and that maddening mouth-organ, I feel almost inclined to jump overboard and marry a mermaid. Let's chuck it."
"It's you as got the bad breath, Jim. Every man when he gets nasty temper he gets bad breath. That tune it's little bit close up. He can play right up to the 'left blooming alone' sometimes."
"He's taken four months to get up to the 'left blooming alone'! At that rate it will be years before he gets to the finish. I'll be mad if he stays on this hooker another month. I'll chuck the three of them—organ, boy, and tune—overboard."
"If you make yourself a fool like that, no more work from that boy. Don't be a fool and spoil this game. We're out till November. Let's make the best of it."
It was not clean work. The reek of the fish-raw, cooked, smoked, and drying in the sun-saturated everything, even the damper. The brown, shrivelled things were scattered in orderly profusion wherever the sun could catch them to top them off prior to bagging. The bitter, eye-searing smoke from the red mangrove fire in the hold, where the meagre catch of yesterday was lying on a couple of trays, stung the nostrils. The odour was as interminable as the half-accomplished tune, and Breezy Bill writhed. He was not new to the game, but bad luck had been the portion of the ship from the start, and small things irritated him, rasping his far from sensitive soul.
"I think you are going to catch fever, Jim. That's what's the matter with you. At the mission I used to read about that bird you call the brain-fever bird. It just keeps on whistling the same old thing, and white men go mad. That 'Last Rose of Summer,' it's got hold of you. Don't be a fool! It's only a good tune half done. It won't kill anybody—at any rate, a tough old shell-back like you!"
"Oh, bother! Stinks and rotten 'Last Rose of Summer' are driving me mad. I could stand lots of both if we were doing well. They might be forty overproof and played by forty bands, and every darned piccolo of them out of tune, if only we were making money. Come, let's up stick and away. We can't do worse and we might do better on that bit of 'reef Mammerroo talks about. Here, Mammerroo, stop that blasted corroboree! Come and tell us where that little fella reef sit down."
Mammerroo shuffled down to the hatchway covering and traced a chart of the locality with a grimy forefinger.
"That fella reef sit down 'nother side Red Hill alongside mainlan'. No deep water. Plenty mangrove—my word full up pigeon. Reef him little fella. Full up tit fish, calla-calla, mainlan' black. Fill'um up boat. Take'm alonga Thors'dilan'. Come back. Fill'm up one time more. Too much. Full up."
"The same old yarn. I've been all over that ground. There's no reef there, and if there had been it would have been found and skinned years ago," said dogmatic Billy, with a sneer.
"I see," said Jim; "the season's over as far as you are concerned. You can go where you like. I'm sick of it now."
The next morning saw the NAUTILUS scudding before a strong south-east breeze, Jim, true to his name, sulky as a toad-fish. The good wind harped on the rigging as Mammerroo tirelessly lagged after the ever evasive tune. Jim heard him not. Billy, in a rage, was inclined to bundle the boy and his battered instrument overboard, for he saw in the race north nothing but a waste of time.
Three days later the NAUTILUS anchored to the north of Red Hill under the lee of a low mangrove island uproarious with nutmeg pigeons.
All hands turned out to prospect, with Mammerroo as pilot. He was not long in locating the reef—a forgotten and neglected patch that teemed with fish. Beche-de-mer lay in shallow water, thick and big, by the ton.. The reef, with its clear sandy patches, seemed to be the gathering-ground, the metropolis, the parliament of the curious creature which makes feeble eddies with its distended gills, moves with infinite and mysterious deliberation, and which, though it may be two feet long and three inches thick, can pass through a half-inch space, constricting its bulging body during the progress.
The mangroves of the islet provided the best of fuels for the preservative smoke. The fortnightly steamer passed not so very far out, so that it would be possible to send away a couple of tons at a time without leaving the locality or suspending work for more than an hour or two.
With cheerfulness and enthusiastic haste all started to work. No irritating odour, no vexing tune, was perceptible or audible. Boys brought in such quantities of fish that the mates could hardly cook and cure them. Money was being coined, and the making of money begat dreams. Seamen do not invariably build castles in the air. They devise aerial fleets. They build bigger, better, and faster boats to sail on bluer seas into more prosperous and happy havens than belong to this too substantial world. Each sketches out the boat of his desire, and fits her with wondrous comfort and conveniences. He glances, approving head thrown back, up her tall, tapering, well-oiled masts, silver-topped with golden trucks. He paints her in rival colours, rigs her with silken sails, names her after a sweetheart, and sails away to lands fairer than any of the isles of the Pacific—those isles of dreams where in coral groves the gold-lip is embarrassed with pearls of ineffable lustre and of excessive size.
As they day-dreamed they gathered in actual riches, for the lazy fish were big and almost overlying each other in their crowded spaces.
Never was there a happier beche-de-mer cruise, for the prospects of good wages soon and a quick return to accustomed camps overladen with the spoils of the Cooktown stores made each boy as joyful as a cherub and as industrious as a scrub hen. Mammerroo saw visions of mouth-organs, one of which was sure to contain the coveted tune. Little deaf Antony thought of tobacco unlimited, a silver-mounted pipe, and plenty of unforbidden rum. Indeed, most of the boys contented themselves with these ingredients to fill the cup of happiness. But big lazy Johnnie's fancy went to a small jockey's cap of red and yellow, to be worn with a football jersey of orange and green in stripes, and blue trousers. This gorgeous costume was to compensate for present pains and humiliation, for he had nothing but a scanty and dirty loin-cloth, a necklace of grass beads, and a chip of lustrous black-lip pearl-shell stuck in one ear. As they worked they let their fancies range, and thus was the toil eased and the bags of dried fish safely stowed in the hold. With twenty-eight bags in prime condition, the NAULITUS sailed out to intercept the steamer—the LAVA KAVA. The honest stuff was sent off to the agent at the Island post, and back the stout little vessel went to the reef.
"As good as a gold-mine," said Breezy Jim, who every day became breezier, so that he threatened to develop into a gale of good humour.
"Better than splitting coco-nuts at the Mission Station," said Billy Boolah.
"Do you ever feel like chucking Mammerroo overboard now?"
Another fortnight saw another big load on the way to the agents. Mammerroo poured out his soul in fervency over the limping phrases of his besetting tune, and even Boisterous Jim applauded his persistency.
"That boy will catch 'The Last Rose of Summer' some day if the mouth-organ market holds out. I'll give him the best to be got in Cooktown, and I'm bothered if I don't teach him the tune!"
Late one afternoon a strange sail came into view. Slowly the big cutter made for the anchorage, for the wind, busy elsewhere, could spare only a few idle puffs for her business.
"That's a dago, I bet," said Bill. "And I know who it is! Why, it's that humbug, Black Charley!"
"We'll have to be pretty spry, or he'll have some of this patch. We'll head him off, and ship what we've got to-morrow."
A flattie slid over the side of the cutter and plopped into the water, and Black Charley, with a couple of downcast boys, came alongside the NAUTILUS.
"Hullo, Bill! Hullo, Jim! How's yous getting on? Yous drop on good place. I see yous boys picking up fish like a hen picking up corn."
"Not much," replied Jim. "It was pretty thick, but it was only a small patch, and we've pretty well cleaned it up. Sent away half a dozen bags, mostly mainlan' black. Too close in to be much good."
"Well, I suppose you'se no objection to me anchoring here for a bit and 'seeing what I can do with the leavings?" said Black Charley.
"We found the patch, and it's too small for two boats. We'd be better friends if you cleared off and left it to us," replied Jim. "But if you're up to dirty tricks stay where you are. We don't want sneaks on board this craft."
"It's no good being nasty. All the fish on the Barrier don't belong to yous. I got a ton and more on board now, and I'm going to run out with it to-morrow."
"So are we. Come on board and have a drink"
It was late in the afternoon when the smoke of the LAVA KAVA showed south-east. Both boats were waiting as she slowed down in her course, and while they made fast transhipment began. Then she steamed slowly ahead.
"Better send you'se boys back with the NAUTILUS," suggested Black Charley, "and me and my mate will take yous back when we've had a drink and a bit to eat. It's a long time since I've had a decent feed, and Captain Andrews, he won't mind."
Breezy Jim and Bill agreeing, the NAUTILUS cast off, with instructions to anchor at the old spot and to work until the bosses returned.
There was more than one drink as the steamer forged ahead, with Black Charley's cutter romping and curtseying behind. Then tea-time came, and the captain asked his guests to remain. Black Charley had had so many refreshments that he was scarcely fit company for the saloon, so he offered his excuses and they were accepted with politely veiled relief.
The mates told of their bad luck down at the Barnards and the Palms; how they had been driven away by the unmusical black boy in desperate pursuit of "The Last Rose of Summer," and of their great stroke of luck on the reef of which he had told.
There's plenty more fish on it yet. We'll be troubling you to stop for a couple of months yet."
"You won't be making a very early start to-morrow if we jerk your boat much further," remarked Captain Andrews, with a smile.
"Come," urged Bill. "We'll hunt up Charley and cut away back."
The well-contented partners strolled on deck, anticipating a very tipsy Charley, whom neither steward nor bo'sun could discover.
The sun had just set. A bewildering blank astern excited a wide and comprehensive survey, and there in the blue-grey of the south-east Black Charley's big white-winged cutter was fast fading from view.
When the partners got back to the reef, via Thursday Island and Cooktown, a fortnight later, the boys were there, looking somewhat jaded. The NAUTILUS was as trim as ever, for which the owners were sufficiently thankful; but cute Black Charley, working both crews day and night like galley slaves, had mopped up the patch as clean as the floor of a hospital ward.
"We've bin had proper, Bill, old fellow. Let's up and away for Cooktown. Mammerroo moans for that mouth-organ!"
And the Christian in Billy Boolah. smiled as he hummed "Left blooming Alone."
"PASSETH ALL UNDERSTANDING"
"Whence has the man the balm that brightens all?" BROWNING.
Though not popular, perhaps Tsing Hi was the best known of his contemporaries on the tableland through which the Palmer River wanders a hundred miles from the Gulf of Carpentaria. Short, slimly made as a fourteen-year-old boy, nimble, fussy, plausible, he stood out from among his countrymen as one having authority, while he posed among the Europeans as a kind of diplomatic agent, explaining away misunderstandings, conciliating grievances, and generally comporting himself as the chartered representative of the horde of yellow new-chums which invaded the most sensational of all Australian goldfields. He appeared to have cousins among every fresh shipload from China, as well as among the hundreds who ferreted in the gullies. There was not a white man, from the Police Magistrate to Frank Deester's off-sider, with whom he was not on terms of easy familiarity.
Had he not often confidentially consulted the Warden when a cousin had blundered into the hands of the police, embarrassing that flustered official with torrents of half intelligible speech, the purport of which generally was to flout the proceedings with evidence of indubitable alibi? All this he translated to his countrymen as proof of personal influence with court authorities, and, what was more to the point, made them pay for it.
No case in which a Chinaman was concerned as the accused, or plaintiff, or disinterested witness, but Tsing Hi took, if not an official, an officious part. Every new-comer from the Flowery Land passed through his hands. He knew what personal property each possessed, and the value of the gold of the lucky departing ones. That he prospered exceedingly was evident. The fact was expressed in his costume. Beyond the court fees as interpreter, the merry, chirping little fellow had really no lawful, visible means of support. Yet he glistened and gleamed with emblems of riches. He was a dandy from the soles of his shiny elastic-side boots to the crown of his jaunty hard-hitter. Across a yellow waistcoat hung a very aggressive chain, from which dangled a huge masonic jewel in gold-and-blue enamel, and the frequently consulted watch—a big, bold-faced lever—ticked with snappy determination. Tsing Hi had much more to live up to than the huge watch, the chain, and the emblem; but they seemed to constitute special and peculiar insignia. They were always to the front. He was one of the men of his day and scene—to be admired, feared, and to be conciliated by his fellow-countrymen all along the traffic-torn road.
The dust from that tortuous road rose in an earth adhering cloud from out which honest, clean-souled men came like pain-distorted spectres, wearing grey tear stained masks with pink-rimmed eyeholes and mud edged mouths. But the dust was less distressing than that which Tsing Hi threw in the eyes of bewildered mankind by this burst and gusts of speech.
In the heyday of his fame and prosperity Tsing Hi disappeared. His absences were customary, for did he not flit here, there, and everywhere? The police were not troubled to make inquiries. They knew where he was, and the reason for his sudden retirement from accustomed scenes. The next day all Byerstown knew also.
Tsing Hi, within the rough-hewn walls of the lock-up, was sad and silent. He had been arrested for gold-stealing.
It was a clear case. Hundreds of complaints had been made. Dozens of suspects had been shadowed, until a quick-witted detective intuitively fastened the responsibility on the court interpreter, who, on the instant of arrest, had become dumb.
The ransacking of his hut revealed a magazine of riches, the earthen floor beneath the bunk being honeycombed with pits containing easily portable but valuable property. In a jam-tin were several nuggets, among them the very specimen which Bill Haddon had given to Mrs. Sinclair, landlady of the Carriers' Arms—a plane of crystal from which rose a wonderfully true pyramid of gold. It had been admired by hundreds, and could be sworn to by everyone who had seen it. There was the white sapphire, with a tell-tale flaw running down the middle, which had been found in the hopperings at Revolver Point (where fighting Cameron made his pile) by Sam Kickford, and likewise bestowed on Mrs. Sinclair as a "curio," and because that bounteous lady had mothered the unlucky Sam and nursed him through the fever which took him to the very gates of a filthy hell. Dozens could swear to it, but ever so many more were capable of bearing witness against Tsing Hi on account of the specimen which Sam's mate, who had died of the fever, had given to Mrs. Sinclair, having picked it out from the face of his drive. It was a slug of rough gold in the shape of a tiny canoe, with an upright splinter of white quartz at each end. Sam's mate had intended it for a girl down at Ballarat, and she eventually got it—an emblem of what might have been. Dozens of fancy slugs were brought to light, in addition to two hundred ounces of fine gold against which no one could make good claim.
Another tin held six rings, two of decidedly suspicious metal, the others genuine and with good stones. A fine pearl was wrapped in a fragment of silk. A pale green jade amulet, with three sets of. Chinese toilet contrivances—ear-cleaners, tongue-scrapers, back-scratchers—in ivory, were in a box with two rolls of gold-embroidered silk illustrated with weirdly indecent scenes. Three gold watches wrapped in silk handkerchiefs were stuffed into a ginger-jar. The sordid hut was a mine of wealth, and the buzzing town became furious. It had accepted Tsing Hi as a character, but not as a bad one. Being deceived, it swerved from tolerance to righteous indignation and absolute wrath. The quaking thief, not too comfortable, for the bloodwood slabs seemed too frail a partition against the virtuous anger of the crowd, was condemned forthwith.
All the identifiable gold and other property was handed over to those who successfully established claims, and Tsing Hi, limp and dejected, passed into the custody of Tim Mullane for escort to Cooktown.
Tim was rough and raw, teeming with good-nature and blessed with a brogue as thick as the soles of the massive boots made for him by his cousin Terence at misty Ballinrobe. The once perky Tsing Hi slunk alongside the far-striding Tim, and Tim looked down at him and was half ashamed of such a "wee scrap of a Chinkee" as his first prisoner.
"Come away wid ye, me little fella—come away. Doan give me trouble, and ye'll fin' me gintle wid ye. Thry to maake a fool af me, and be the Holy Saints ye'll have occasion to be sorrowful." And he picked Tsing Hi up with one hand and set him down again with as big a jolt as such a fag-end of humanity could expect to produce. Tsing Hi remained meek. The crowd was unanimously against him. Big Tim might jolt him again and again rather than he would take the risk of venturing among his recent friends, for tales of his thieving, his acceptance of bribes, and imposition of levies, were coming in so fast and thick that the crowd would have relished adding something on its own account.
Before daylight next morning Tim left with his disconsolate captive, who wore handcuffs and was manacled to the "D's" in the saddle of the horse which he bestrode manifestly ill at case. In front of him was a huge swag containing the unidentifiable gold, three watches, three rings, silk stuffs, three pairs of elastic-side boots., several pairs of puce-coloured socks, flash neckties, four hats, three suits of clothes, and other clothing., All this was his own, to be handed over at the expiration of the sentence. Tim merely held the inventory. There was some sort of gratification for ill-doing, for the swag contained a fortune. He savagely reflected that six months would soon pass. He would then vanish from "Qee'lan," to enjoy himself for the rest of his days. The sadness which had stagnated during the past week began to dissolve. He sought to make a friend of his escort.
"I tink we cam' harp way to-ni', Tim."
"Shut up, you implicating tadpole! Wasn't I ordhered to hold convarse wid me prisoner? Spake win Ye're spoke ter and be civil, Or I'll jolt the teeth troo your hat!"
Tim jogged on, and the led horse bearing Tsing Hi jogged after. Tsing Hi bumped until he was fain to lean heavily on his precious swag, trying to discover by sensation an' unbruised part of his body on which to jolt.
"Hi! hi!" he shouted. "Horsey, him no goo'! You l'me walk!"
Tim whistled and jogged. Tsing Hi jolted and whimpered. The hot miles wriggled slowly past. Dust lay a foot deep on the track. It was a windless day. Tsing Hi, gripping with fearful intensity his swag, could not lift a finger to wipe the stains which stood for many tears and coursed down his cheeks in tiny rivulets, making puddles on his cramped hands. He, the dandy, smothered in dust, weeping, sore in every bone, blistered and scalded, pondered over his petty sins, moaned continuously, and longed for the hard floor of the gaol.
He, a disciple of Confucius, found no present relief in the tags of the master's philosophy that he could call to mind. Tears made him a grim spectacle. The beautiful yellow waistcoat was indistinguishable beneath dirt and dust. His carefully tended queue shook out in disordered loops, and finally dangled, dust-soiled, behind. His trousers worked and wrinkled up to the knees, chafed his unaccustomed skin, and still Tim in a cloud of dust jogged on singing:
"Until that day, plase God, I'll shtick To the wearin' o' the green."
It was a poor little prisoner, but his first and his own, and Tim was elated, and when a true Irishman is happy he becomes poetically patriotic. But happy though he undoubtedly was, even Tim was not sorry when the chance came of stretching his legs and incidentally sluicing down the dust. The halfway house looked cool and clean to him. In fact it was neither. It must have appeared a celestial scene to moaning Tsing Hi. The rough upright slabs (once rich yellow, now dingy) promised some sort of refuge from the dust, and the narrow strip of verandah a thin slice of shade. The mound of broken bottles at the rear betokened the drinks of the past, while the mind dwelt lovingly on those of the present. Three panting goats, all aslant, but tressed themselves determinedly against the end of the house, and two boys, long since dust immune, occasionally hunted the goats into the sun and away among the ant-hills. But when Tsing Hi slid from the horse and into the shade, he felt like a saint in bliss. They gave him water, and he wailed until Tim silenced him with threats of jolts and locked the manacles round the middle post.
Tim sighed profoundly as he scented beer. "I do belave I'm dhry, Jerry. Give's a long un. I've swallowed mud by the bucket. Give the wee little divil outside a pannikin o' tay. Maybe it'll revoive, him!"
Tim drank long and well.
"I've heard about the case," Jerry said, as he filled the thick glass a third time. "Fancy the little beggar, an' him commin' and goin' as flash as ye make 'ern, and pickin' and thavin' all the time. Maybe he got the ear-rings the missis is after missin'."
"Nawthin' o' the sort's in the swag we took with the raskil."
A bit of dinner in the back room waited, for Jerry believed in keeping well in with the force. Tim fed heartily, and, in spite of dust, heat, and the chatter of the children, dozed, to wake with a start.
"Me sowl to glory! It's aslape I've bin! Let's hav' a look at the little fella and be off."
The horses stood limply, as much out of the shade as in, the big swag leaned against the wall, the handcuffs lay half buried in the dust, but Tsing Hi had vanished.
"Me sowl to glory! The little divil's scooted! It's a ruined man I am! In the name of the Saints, why is blasted Chinkees made with han's an' 'em like a 'possum? Look at the wee han's on 'em to slip out of darbies like the same. He's slipped out as aisily as meself out of a horse-collar, and the face a' him as bould and as big as the hill o' hope! I'm the ruined man, I am!"
"Off after him," advised Jerry. "There's his tracks."
"Just none o' your blasted interfarances! Lave 'm to me. He's away back to hell, an' I'll folly him! How much does I owe yer, Jerry!"
"Nothing at all, sure, Tim. 'Tis little ye've had, and yer welcome as posies in May, though it's little we see of 'em here. And good luck. Shall I tell him away, back to look out V'
"Say nothing and be damned to yer! Keep your mout closed and lave me to do the bizinis me own road," shouted Tim as he disappeared in the dust, led horse, swag and all.
A mile and a half back and a bit off the road lay the narrow, sheltered flat between two forbiddingly barren ridges which Hu Dra, the gardener, had converted into an oasis. Thin-leaved tea-trees fringed the little dam whence the industrious fellow hauled water for his vegetables. Drought-stricken, broad, blue-leaved, scented ironbarks stood in envious array on the steep sides of the ridges, and grass-trees, blackened at the butts, struggled with loose boulders for foothold. The muddy water which the forethought of Hu Dra had conserved created the green patch which insulted the aridity of the ridge. He was a proud and happy man, a follower of the healing Buddha, a new-churn with scarce a word of English, and a gardener. He had a way with vegetables. They prospered under his hands, and he also prospered, for next to gold, vegetables were highly prized in that dry, almost verdureless country. Just now he swayed along with a pair of heavy baskets slung on a bamboo all the way from Wu Shu, as the pilgrim under his load of sin, and as he swayed he sang in a weak falsetto a ditty which sounded like—
"Nam mo pen shih shih chia Man tan lai lei tsun fo; Hu fa chu t'ien p'u sa, An fu ssu, Li she tzn."
His baskets, each screened with languid gum-leaves, held the week's output of his garden, representing in money value at least two pounds. It wag not likely to yield half as much, for, being a new-chum, he was fair game, and it was considered smart to impose on his good-nature. He also paid through an agent a weekly levy to Tsing Hi, which he understood purchased the tolerance, if not goodwill, under all and every circumstance of the dreaded police and the populace generally. It was a tax; but Hu Dra was patient under such exactions, as all his ancestors had been. They were unavoidable, inevitable, a part of the mystery of life, and consequently to be endured, if not with complacency, at least without murmur. His profits for the week might total one pound, a princely sum considering the scene and circumstances of his birth and upbringing in far Li-Chiang, where his father had reared a large family in a shed over a sewer, and had never possessed property or estate worth more than five shillings. Soon, if this money-making business continued to thrive, he would return thither. He might—for had he not been reared to the art of living in such places?—resume the sewer habit; but with three hundred pounds in good English gold what sewer in Li-Chiang could not be transformed into Paradise?
One basket contained a huge fruit which he understood his white customers to term "plonkn"; with it was a broad-bladed knife, with which he would slice off slabs according to demand. That one item might bring him in more money than his revered father's fortune. Wrapped in day-dreams, he hummed again his chant, dwelling on the refrain with lyrical gladness—
"Li she tzu."
Perhaps it was the name of the maiden he proposed to ask to share his fortune and his portion of the sewer, and so he repeated—
—-"Li she t——!"
A big, strong, authoritative hand had gripped him by the shoulder.
He screamed. The baskets sat down plump.
"Come away wid ye! I've cotched yer! I'll tache ye to escape from lawful custody!"
"No savee! No savee!" screamed Hu Dra.
"I'll tache ye, thin V' shouted Tim, and Hu Dra reeled under the severity of the first lesson—a back-hander across the face.
"Wha' for?" asked Hu Dra, still staggering.
"Come on! You know wha' for! I'll stan' none o' yer wha' for's!"
Hu Dra clung to the basket-stick threateningly.
"Fwhat! Resisting the pollis in the execution of dooty. Me bhoy, ye're a new-chum or yer niver wad be so bould. It is sarious bizinis." The stick flew out of Hu Dra's hands, and, as if by magic, he found his hands clamped in iron bands, which pinched his wrists excruciatingly.
He yelled with vexation, fear, and pain.
"Ye can holler as much as ye have the moind ter. Be jabers, the next haythen Chinkee that gits out of the darbies I clap on'm 'll be a slippery, slathery eel, and meself after fergittin' to maake a knot in his taale! Come quiet, me good haythen, and I'll dale aisy wid yer."
Hu Dra securely manacled to a scented gum, Tim dealt with the baskets, capsizing the contents and belabouring them with the bamboo until they looked as if they had been the playthings of a baboon. Hu Dra watched the foundation of his fortune vanish. He wailed.
"Come away, me bhoy! I arrest ye, Tsing Hi, fer escaping from lawful custody. Ye may be charged also with resisting the pollis in the execution of dooty. It's a sarious charge. If ye come quiet I'll maake it aisy fer ye. If ye maake it a haard job for me, be gorra I'll inuake ye sorryful!"
Hu Dra gathered that it was a case of mistaken identity. He endeavoured to explain that he was Hu Dra, and not Tsing Hi. Tim curtly informed him that he was none other than Tsing Hi, that he had been convicted of stealing gold, and while on the way to Cooktown had wilfully and with malice aforethought escaped from legal custody. He would be taken to Cooktown at once. Hu Dra understood but little of the harangue, but being a pious Buddhist, having once climbed the Holy Mountain to gain merit, and being in the hands of a strong man armed, he accepted the fate of the moment. Meekly he followed Tim to the spot where the horses had been left, and was hoisted into the saddle and manacled. It was all a dreadful mystery, but he was sage enough to accept hard facts.
"Me Hu Dra," he explained over and over again, in vain repetition.
"Ye're Tsing Hi, I tell yer. Ye're Tsing Hi in the name of Her Majesty. Haven't I arrested ye as sich?"
"Me Hu Dra," reiterated the captive as they jogged on. "Me come Coo'tow' one yar."
"Shut yer mout! Didn't I tell yer before that ye're Tsing Hi? Didn't yer wilfully and knowingly escaape from me whin I was having a bite to ate, and I had yer tied to the post at the shanty back beyant there! Naw, I'll hear no more of yer Hu Rahin'. Kape a civil tongue betune yer taath, or, be gorra, worse 'll happen yer."
Hu Dra was patient. He thought of his pilgrimage long ago to the top of Mount Omei. Was this the reward he had gained?
He solaced his soul by murmuring the pious invocation which all pilgrims to the Sacred Mount have perpetually on their lips—"Om mane padme om!"
Torn from his secluded garden and happy and profitable toil, bruised and manacled, bundled on to a fear-provoking horse, hurried off he knew not whither, through a drought-stricken land under a searing sun, the road reeking with dust—what a plight for a devout Buddhist, who had sought to avert calamity and prolong life by the ascent of the chill mount where, alone in all the world, is revealed the "Glory of Buddha."
Mystic that he was, he found sure comfort in pious meditations. Present pains of body and mind vanished as with half-shut eyes he drifted into the chill realm where he hearkened to chants of priests, the tinkling of the temple bells, the fervent response of hundreds of pilgrims as meek as himself—"Om mane padme om!"
Such was the potency of the mechanical repetition of the all-healing words that Tim presently found himself echoing them, and brought himself up with a jerk.
"It's all haythen rubbish and cussing. The pore fule's daft wid the hate and the dust and the welt I give him. Shure it's the way I have to be sorry for the crature."
Like the refrain of an infectious song, the musical phrase would not be banished from Tim's mind and lips, and so the tough, rough Irishman and the gentle exile from the Flowery Land went on their way, scarce conscious of the grimy miles, both dreamingly hailing the jewel in the lotus.
Three days later the travel-stained pair arrived at Cooktown, where Hu Dra—henceforth to be known officially and authoritatively, and in spite of all protest, as Tsing Hi—was duly consigned to the custody of the lock-up keeper, to await escort to the town where his sentence was to be served.
"He's that quare in his hid," Tim informed Jock Egan, who now had charge. "He's bin Tsing Hi-in and Hu Rah-in' and Paddy Om-in' (d'ye know the maan, Jock?) all along the thrack till it's fair fascinated I am. And barrin' him bein' the very thafe o' the wurrld, it's a poor honest body he be. Shure it's little enough truble he give me, and me all alone be meself. An! the swag of him! Glory be to God, I dunno but it's wort five hundred pounds if it's wort a sint! Yirra! but it's weery I am. It's little slape I've had. Shure the whole beesely thrack be lousy wid shnaakes; and show me the man as cud slape shweet wid maybe four of the varmint all ascroodging and squaaking nath his blanket!"
"It's quare in yer head yerself," ye're exclaimed Jock. "Be off to bed wid ye. If the sargint gets ye a-talkin' like that, he'll be afther thinkin' ye're in dhrink."
"Then, me sowl to glory; he'll jist be thinkin' fwhat I'm wishful for. It's that farefull dhry up there on the Palmer I could dhrain a bucket."
"Get to bed, yer fool! Ye're talkin' that wild, ye'll have no care for yerself. It's meself that'll git the good woman beyant there to git ye a cup o' biling hot tay."
With that Jock got him out, with papers all in order.
Hu Dra had disappeared from the tableland as suddenly but not as' tracklessly as a phantom. Lonely men in their tents and three or four mothers of families in their slab humpies looked out vainly for him for three days, anticipating necessary vegetables, and, being disappointed, slandered him courageously, while they found consolation in the reflection that if he ever came his round again they would distress and vex him by withholding payments for the vegetables of the past. Not a customer but owed him something. His country men gave notice of his disappearance to the police, and black-trackers off-hand told a graphic and obvious story. Hu Dra had begun his weekly round when he had been attacked by myalls. They had capsized his baskets and wantonly battered them to pieces. For him had been reserved the customary fate. He had been hustled off to the gorges contiguous to Hell's Gates, to be killed and eaten in peace and comfort. His hut, his cherished garden were forthwith occupied and tended by another of the race-claiming cousinship. The newcomer even demanded payment of debts owing to his unfortunate relation, but the whole population sniffed with such vigour that the claim was not persisted in. Once a Chinaman had left the district unceremoniously, more especially at the forcible persuasion of flesh-hungry blacks, his dues lapsed by unanimous consent. He became merely a fragrant remembrance. It is so still, and the virtue is as virile as the odour of musk.
To himself Hu Dra was always so. Be his official and authoritative title for the time being what it might, he was determined not to sacrifice his identity.
The gaoler found him a docile and obedient creature with an abiding affection for plants, which sprang up under his hands like magic. Within two months corners of the desert yard began to blossom, to bear cucumbers and radishes, and to be fragrant with shallots.
The pride of the gentle gardener lay in a few plants of zinnias close to a dripping tap. In bright red, gold, and white, he accepted them as substitutes for the sacred lotus, and prison flowers never flaunted more freely. As innocent as they, he deftly, tirelessly trained each plant, caressed each opening bud, cherished it as if it were a jewel, and found surcease of the pangs of exile, easement for the restraints upon liberty, and blissful consolation. Tendance upon the garden under the strait shadow of wall was to him, not a duty, not a pastime, but a ritual. The captive was happy, for here was the end of his pilgrimage.
Exemplary conduct, combined with the art with which he forced salads from the boorish soils, found him favour and earned privileges and concessions.
Hu Dra kept no count of the passing months. What was time to a contemplative Buddhist whose being was permeated with the hope of release from delusions and sorrow and of attaining final sanctification?
One morning he was summarily marched into the presence of the big loud-voiced man whose orders were obeyed with instant smartness, who told him, to his amazement and despair, that he must depart with his property. the seals of a sack were broken before him, and its contents displayed and duly accounted for—a sleeping-mat, a small red blanket, the elastic-side boots, two scrolls of sinfully painted silk, a hard round hat stuffed with gaudy handkerchiefs, three watches and varied jewellery in a ginger-jar, the quaintly carved toilet devices, the jam-tin full of nuggets, and a chamois-leather bag delusively heavy with fine gold.
The same authority which had ordered his affairs ever since he had been torn from the burnt hills now commanded him to begone.
For nigh upon two years he had dwelt passively in dream-land. This was but another wonderment entrancingly agreeable. Without endeavouring to elucidate the incomprehensible, he accepted the gifts of the gods, and asked for a yellow zinnia. It was a reality, a guarantee, an assurance.
Good, though gruff, the gaoler was wont to say that his departing guest gazed on the flower with almost religious fervour and mumbled over it a prayer; and the gaoler's insight was true, for in comparison with a flower, the masonic emblem, the pride of Tsing Hi's life was to Hu Dra but tinsel.
It passed all understanding.,
Hastening to escape from the land of bewilderment and easily gotten riches, Hu Dra-the quietest, the happiest, the wealthiest of a great company of his fellows boarded a steamer for Hong-Kong.
Many a long year after, Tim, who had blossomed into a sub-inspector, had retired on pension, and had lost most of his brogue in the process, confided in me the whole story.
"You see, my friend, it was either the sack or Chinkee for me. I got the Chinkee. There were plenty of 'em!"
"The more cleer and the more shynynge that Fortune is, the more brutil and the sooner breketh she."—CHAUCER.
High up on the auspicious shoulder of the Island mountain stands the Sentinel, a coarse, truncated pinnacle of granite, roughened and wrinkled by the toll of the moist breezes, alternating with the scorching flames of the sun. It overlooks the league-long sweep of the treacherous bay, with its soft and smothering sands, the string of islets of the Yacka Eebah group, while Bli and Coobie lie close under foot, set in a swirling sea.
One aspect of the Sentinel commands all the map-like detail of Pun-nul Bay, with its labyrinthian creeks among a flat density of mangroves, like lustrous, uncertain byways in a sombre field, erratic of shape, magnificent of proportion. Beyond are many islets—dark blue on a lighter plain. In the distance, on the other hand, islands and islets trail away until lost in the vague blending of sea and sky; and for a background is all Australia. In front alone does the Sentinel peer over uninterrupted space, and not always, for at times patches of white filigree mark the outliers of the Great Barrier Reef.
Looking up from Pun-nul Bay before sunrise, the base of the Sentinel 'was swathed in white—night's rumpled draperies not yet tossed aside. As the east glowed it stained the mist pink, and so warmed it that it parted into patches of luminous fluff which floated up and dissolved into crystalline air, and the great lumbering rock stood naked and bold in the sunshine.
Then it was that the apex of a splintered peak beyond the Sentinel glittered, and that Chutter-murra Wylo, the one survivor of the truculent natives, told once more of the wonderful stone for which many had ventured, which had caused the disappearance of several, which decoyed man and beast, and stored their bones close to the awful hole whence issued the smoke which made the rain, and the dread lightning, and the thunder.
None ever ventured there now; but sometimes in the early morning the stone twinkled for a moment like a malignant sprite, watchful all night, but abashed yet impudent to the authoritative sun.
Chutter-murra Wylo had so often indicated the exact locality of the stone, and had described its dire influence with such sincerity that, when it twinkled, a resolution which had been long in the back of my mind became wilful and imperative. He said that it was "on top, along oo-nang-mugil"—a gloomy place among rocks—and that the old men of the country had been wont to say that this particular "oo-nang-mugil" was the favourite resort of the "debil-debil," the to whose arrogance and awful deeds the bones of man and beast bore terrifying testimony.
Between the Sentinel and a spur to the south is a narrow ravine, from which in the rainy season mist rises like jets of steam, and this was the very spot whence the lightning and thunder ranged when the "debil-debil" lifted the mighty stone which blocked the entrance to the cave of the winds. All about was fantastic ground, peopled by evil spirits who resented the intrusion of human beings and inflicted upon trespassers peculiar punishments. Ill befell everyone who invaded that remote, almost inaccessible, uninviting region, at the very centre of which the alluring stone glittered. Of those who rashly determined to gaze at the prodigy at close quarters, some never returned. Those who did come back were vexed with burning and smarting pains; they suffered illnesses; their skin broke out into blotches; they became old and enfeebled prematurely. and all, whether they survived for a few irritating weeks or a few sad years, wore to the end a startled, awe-struck air. "That fella no more sit down quiet; him frait all time," Wylo explained. And the stone was good to look at. Sometimes it was white like water; sometimes blue, like the sea; sometimes red, like "carrie-wy-in-gin" (sunrise). Sometimes it shook, and then it became so bright that the eyes were dazzled. The star-like stone had been on the rock for all time, protected by distance and mystery. Was it not, indeed, the eye of the "debil-debil" who had custody of the lightning and thunder imps, and could it not be elevated or depressed like the eye of a sand-crab? No intruder had ever escaped its vigil or the consequences of his temerity.
We were camped under the lee of a low sand-dune, the top of which commanded Pun-nul Bay. As the wind swayed its scalp-lock of twisted shrubs, the dune quivered, and rivulets of singing sand, almost as fluid and as unstable as water, trickled down, for it was one of the rubbish-heaps of the sea, over the brink of which waste was unceasingly shot.
The maze of mangroves whence weird hoots and bubbling cries and sharp clicks came at night, the stealthy sand marching over the land, the barren slopes of the mountain, and the misshapen rock, gave one's thoughts a twist in the direction of the vague and mysterious. Wylo's continual harping on the wonderful stone renewed the old longing for adventure. He had seen it from a safe distance, but from the present aspect only the indecorous glint at sunrise was visible.
The stone was a crystallised fact, but why had the blacks invested it with such ill omen? Here was a worthy quest—a beautiful if not precious crystal betokening the actual presence of a wary demon guardant over the mouldering skeletons of Wylo's forefathers! What quest could be more sensational or likely to be so famously rewarded?
Wylo was prepared to climb the mountain to the base of the Sentinel, but no higher. Secrets hidden from his intemperate, insistent gaze must surely be inconsequent. Once and for all, the legend of the crystal might be disposed of at the cost of two or three hours' climbing. I would bring it back to prove to Wylo that no irreverent "debil-debil" would ever again blink at the sun from that particular spot. As for the skeletons, they were, without doubt, as mythical as the evil spirit, and in any case a few old bones were not to scare me from venturing to the boldly obvious summit of the mountain.
Wylo went wellnigh naked, carrying a day's provisions and the rifle. I, too, was lightly clad, but wore thick-soled boots, freely studded, and with a tomahawk felt efficiently armed.
Beyond the entanglement of the beach scrub the way was open, though rough, with granite boulders half hidden among rampant blady grass. The country was decidedly hostile to the climber, though far from actually forbidding, and with Wylo in the lead—for I held myself in reserve for the final clamber up the ravine, to which the ascent to the base of the Sentinel was merely a prelude—the pace was respectable and sure. Closer acquaintance forced a certain sort of respect for the Sentinel, which was more massive, more venerable and time-worn than could be imagined from afar off, while all the scene below seemed softer and smoother and more fairyland-like than in reality.
Having indicated what he deemed to be the direct route, and firmly resolving to take no risks by peering into the domain of the "debil-debil," Wylo sat in the shadow of a huge boulder whence he could command a view of the entrance to the rock-bestrewn gorge. Not more than eight hundred feet separated the spot from the summit of the peak. A couple of hours at most and I would be down again, and, semi-seriously, I counselled Wylo to stop where he was until late in the afternoon, and if I had not then appeared to return to the camp, where he was to remain for a couple of days, when he would be at liberty to make his way to the head of the mangrove creek where the boat was anchored, with the design of bringing help to kill the "debil-debil" that detained me in his clutches. He was not too cheerful in his parting injunctions. "No good you fight'm that fella. Suppose he catch'm you, he kill you one time—finis. No good me come back. Me clear out quick!"
In all seriousness he undertook to "sit down" for two days, and finally imparted advice which might enable me to out-manoeuvre the "debil-debil," and either curb him or throw him out from his lair "with wondrous potency." Up the gorge I would find a prickly bush, from which I was to cut a leafy branch as a frontal shield. Then, when the fiend swooped upon me, its long arms and pliant hands, furnished with needle-like nails, would become embarrassed by the "nails," of the branch, and while it howled and danced I could "kill'm alonga leg" with the tomahawk. I was to be careful not to look up, for the eye of the "debil-debil" was so bright and hot that it burnt up mortal sight, leaving the intruder a blind and hopeless victim.
Discreetly valorous, Wylo was quite enthusiastic, anxious, indeed, that the quest should be accomplished by an audacious white man and at no risk to himself. Therefore did I accept his counsel gravely, and in parting promised to bring down one of the hands of the long-standing terror of the mountain as proof that I had exacted the last penalty for many demonic deeds.
Thus, good-humouredly, I began to clamber up the ravine through a perplexity of shrubs growing among loosely packed stones, thankful for strong boots and hands toughened by the sun. Overhanging trees and shrubs almost converted the ravine into a tunnel, but here and there a greenish light wrought changeful patterns on the gloomy rocks, and ferns of sombre green with unfolding fronds of ruddy brown occupied crannies and crowned rocks favoured by drips. No sound of animal life came to my cars, but an ever-increasing current of air was perceptible as the walls closed in and became almost precipitous.
The narrow footway was swept bare of loose stones and vegetable rubbish, save where the wet-season torrents had scooped out basins, or where a ledge of resisting rock made a wet-season water fall. Such places had to be discreetly scaled, for the rock was worn to polished smoothness and hand and foot holds were few and far between. Aerial roots, thin as whipcord, hung from the branches of trees crowding on the brink of the ravine, and with tasselled terminals sopped up moisture. A melancholy, humming monotone pervaded the ravine, seeming to increase in remonstrance and warning the higher I ascended. Wylo had told of the noise like a steamer's whistle a long way off. His local knowledge was being authenticated at every step. Such a sound was almost uncouth in such a locality; and there, overhanging a jutting angle of red rock, was the predicted bush with keen prickles thickset on limber branches. Half amused, I climbed to the spot, and, clinging precariously to the principal stem, cut off a branch which, falling into the ravine, slipped several yards down the smooth floor. It was not worth recovering, but a certain half-humorous sense of obedience to the black boy's cautions induced me to return for it; and as I trimmed off some of the prickles that it might be grasped comfortably, a stone clattered down, bouncing on the rock almost at my feet.