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- The Confessions of a Beachcomber - 10/57 -


CHAPTER II

BEACHCOMBING

"For the Beachcomber, when not a mere ruffian, is the poor relation of the artist."

In justification of the assumption of the title of "Beachcomber," it must be said that, having made good and sufficient provision against the advent of the wet season (which begins, as a rule, during the Christmas holidays), the major portion of each week was spent in first formal and official calls, and then friendly and familiar visits to the neighbouring islands and the mainland.

Duty and inclination constrained me to find out what were the states and moods of all the bays and coves of all the isles; the location and form of rocks and reefs; the character of shrubs and trees; the nature of the jungle-covered hilltops; the features of bluffs and precipices; to understand the style and manner and the conversation of unfamiliar birds; to discover where the turtle most do congregate; the favourite haunts of fishes. I was in a hurry to partake freely of the novel, and yearned for pleasure of the absolute freedom of isles uninhabited, shores untrodden; eager to know how Nature, not under the microscope, behaved; what were her maiden fancies, what the art with which she allures.

But there was an excuse, rather an imperious command, for all the apparent waste of time. Before the rains came thundering on the iron roof of our little hut, the washed-out and enfeebled town dweller who gave way to bitter reflections on the first evening of his new career, could hardly have been recognised, thanks to the robustious, wholesome effects of the free and vitalising life. Fourteen, frequently sixteen, hours of the twenty-four were spent in the open air, ashore and afloat.

What a glowing and absolutely authentic testimonial could be written as to the tonic influence of the misrepresented climate of the rainy belt of North Queensland on constitutions that have run down? According to popular opinion, malaria ought to have discovered an exceptionally easy prey. Ague, if the expected had happened, should have gripped and shaken me until my teeth rattled; and after alternations of raging fever and arctic cold, I ought to have gone to my long home with the fearful shapes of delirium yelling in my ears. But there are places other than Judee where they do not know everything. At the fraction of the fee of a fashionable doctor, and of the cost of following his fashionable and pleasing advice--a change to one of the Southern States--in three months one of the compelling causes for the desertion of town life had been disposed of by agreeable processes. None of the bitter, after-taste of physic remained. I knew my island, and was on terms of friendly admiration--born of knowledge of beauty spots--with all the others. I had become a citizen of the universe.

During this period of utter abandonment of all serious claims upon time and exertion came the conviction that the career of the Beachcomber, the closest possible "return to Nature" now popularly advocated, has charms none other possesses. Then it was that the lotus-blossom was first eaten.

Unfettered by the laws of society, with the means at hand of acquiring the few necessaries of life that Nature in this generous part of her domain fails to provide readymade, a Beachcomber of virtuous instinct, and a due perception of the decency of things, may enjoy a happy life. Should, however, he be of the type that demands a wreck or so every month to maintain his supplies of rum or gin, and other articles of his true religion, and is prepared if wrecks do not come with regularity, to assist tardy Nature by means of false lights on the shore, he will find no scope whatever among these orderly isles.

The Beachcomber of tradition parades his coral islet barefooted, bullying guileless natives out of their copra, coco-nut oil and pearl-shell; his chief diet, turtle and turtle eggs and fish; his drink, rum and coco-nut milk--the latter only when the former is impossible. When a wreck happens he becomes a potentate in pyjamas, and with his dusky wives, dressed in bright vestiture, fares sumptuously. And though the ships from the isles do not meet to "pour the wealth of ocean in tribute at his feet," he can still "rush out of his lodgings and eat oysters in regular desperation." A whack on his hardened head from the club of a jealous native is the time-honoured fate of the typical Beachcomber.

Flotsam and jetsam make another class of Beachcomber by stimulating the gaming instincts. Is there a human being, taking part in the rough and tumble of the world, who can honestly make confession and say that he has completely suffocated those inherent instincts of savagedom--joy and patience in the chase, the longing for excitement and surprise, the crude selfishness, the delight in getting something for nothing? Society journals have informed me that titled dames have been known to sit out long and wearisome evenings that they may obtain some paltry favour in a cotillon. And when the sea casts up its gifts on these radiant shores, I boldly and with glee give way to my beachcombing instincts and pick and choose. Never ever up to the present have I found anything of real value; but am I not buoyed up by pious hopes and sanguine expectations? Is not the game as diverting and as innocent as many others that are played to greater profit? It is a game, too, that cannot be forced, and therefore cannot become demoralising; and having no nice feelings nor fine shades, I rejoice and am glad in it.

And then what strange and varied things one sees! Once a "harness-cask," hostile to every sense, came trundled by waves eager to expel it from the vicinity of these oxless but scented isles. It overcame us as we sailed by, 20 yards off, and the general necessity for temperate diet and restricted dishes came as a sweet and a comforting reflection. No marvel if the ship whence it was ejected was in bad odour among the sailors. Leaving, as it lurched along, a greasy, foul stain on the sea, it may have poisoned multitudes of uncomplaining fishes during its evil course.

Occasionally a case of fruit, washed from the decks of a labouring steamer, drifts ashore. One was the means of introducing a valuable addition to the products of the island. It gave demonstration of how man may unwittingly, and even in opposition to his wit, assist in scattering and multiplying blessings on a smiling land--blessings to last for all time, and perhaps to amend or ameliorate the environment of a budding nation.

Many years ago--in 1878, to speak precisely--a ship laden with fragrant cedar logs from the valley of the Daintree River--140 miles to the north-- touched on Kennedy Shoal, 20 miles to the south-east of Dunk Island. Crippled though she was she managed to make Cardwell, where she was temporarily patched up, and whence she set sail for Melbourne. It was the critical month of March, and the MERCHANT--clumsy and cumbersome, but a good and safe ship given ample sea-room--before sailing many miles on her course, was caught in the coils of a cyclone, the violence of which is well remembered by old residents on the coast to this day, and was lost with all hands. She is supposed to have struck on a reef to the southward of the Palm Islands, as the bulk of her cargo was cast ashore in Ramsay Bay, Hinchinbrook Island. Portions of the wreckage were found on the Brook Islands; her figurehead--the spread eagle of the United States--and a seaman's chest were picked up on the beach here. Her windlass, with a child's pinafore entangled with it--for the skipper had taken his wife and two children to bear him company--drifted on the South Franklands, 40 miles to the north, and a large portion of the shattered hulk on a reef eastward of Fitzroy Island, 25 miles still farther up the coast. Fate did her worst for the poor MERCHANT, and not yet content, relentlessly pursued two (if not more) of the vessels which sought to recover her cedar, strewn on the treacherous sands of Ramsay Bay. Some of the logs, however, drifted to our quiet coves, and portions remain sound to this day. One more promising and accessible we beachcombed. It provided planks for a punt, besides various articles of furniture, and gave me some most practical homilies on contentment. Having found and duly salvaged that log, it was necessary to cut it up; and then I began to be thankful that pit-sawing was not forced upon me as a profession in the days of inexperienced youth. Pit-sawing is deceptive. It has the appearance of being easy, though not genteel, when others are the toilers, and in the red dust, torn by the polished steel teeth from out the heart of the dull log, do you not "inhale the balmy smells of nard and cassia which the musky wings of the zephyrs scatter through the cedared groves of the Hesperides?" Is not that fragrance sufficient compensation for your toil, with the clean red planks profit over and above legitimate earnings? Yet that long saw tugs at our very heart-strings, and you know that to get a real, not merely sentimental, liking for the craft of the sawyer, you must take to it very young, before the possibilities of other occupations and pastimes have distorted your genius. This worthy lesson comes from the gentle art of Beachcombing.

Again, a German barque, driven out of its course, found unexpectedly a detached portion of the Great Barrier Reef 200 miles away to the south. When the south-easters came, they pounded away so vigorously with the heavy runs of the sea that in a brief space nothing was left of the big ship save some distorted fragments of iron jammed in among the nigger-heads of coral and the crevices of the rocks. A few weeks after, portions of the wreck were deposited on Dunk Island, and the beach of the mainland for miles was strewn with timber. That wreck was the greatest favour bestowed me in my profession of Beachcomber. Long and heavy pieces of angle-iron came bolted to raft-like sections of the deck; various kinds of timber proved useful in a variety of ways. What? was I to leave it all, unclaimed and unregarded--in excess of morality and modesty--on the beach, to be honey-combed by white ants or to rot? or to honestly own up to that sentiment which is the most human of all? Without affectation or apology, I confess that I was overjoyed--that my instincts, pregnant with original sin, received a most delightful fillip. I wallowed for the time being in the luxury of beachcombing.

Upon sober reflection, I cannot say that I am of one mind with the pastor of the Shetland Isles who never omitted this petition from his long prayer--"Lord, if it be Thy holy will to send shipwrecks, do not forget our island"; nor yet with the Breton fishermen, who to this day are of opinion that wreckage is the gift of God, and who therefore take everything that comes in a reverential spirit, as a Divine favour, whether casks of wine or bales of merchandise. But, after all, who am I that I should claim a finer shade of morality than those, with their sturdy widespread hands and perpetual blessing? My inherent powers of resistance to such temptations as the winds and tides of Providence put in their way have never been subject to proof. Does virtue go by default where there is no opportunity to be otherwise than virtuous? The very first pipe of port, or aum of Rhenish, or bale of silk, which comes rolling along may wrestle with my morality and so wrench and twist it as to incapacitate it for ordinary usage for months, or may even permanently disable it. And must not I, venturing to regard myself as a truthful historian, frankly admit a sense allied to disappointment when the white blazing beaches are destitute of the most trivial of temptations?

No, the grating of the battered barque, upon which many a wet and weary steersman had stood, now fulfils placid duty as a front gate. No more to be trampled and stamped upon with shifty, sloppy feet--no more to be scrubbed and scored with sand and holystone; painted white, it creaks gratefully every time it swings--the symbol of security, the first outward and visible sign of home, the guardian of the sacred rights of private property, the embodiment of the exclusive. Better so than lying


The Confessions of a Beachcomber - 10/57

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