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- The Confessions of a Beachcomber - 40/57 -


When the pair meet, what time the fancies of butterflies lightly turn to thoughts of love, he swoops impetuously towards her and rises in a graceful curve, seeming to enchant her with the display of his colours. She forthwith amends her staid behaviour, and begins a quivering, fluttering flight, rising and falling with gentle, rhythmical grace. He, hovering about with rapid wing movements, harmoniously responds to her undulations. Still maintaining her coy contours she floats over the tree-tops, or descends among the ferns or bushes, past the blue berries of the native ginger, while with quaint courtliness he pays his compliments and bewilders by his audacity. As the amorous dalliance proceeds, he flits in brilliant spirals round and before her, and again resumes his tremulous flight, consonant with her emotional flutterings. However intricate, however long the dance she leads, he follows, blithesomeness and confidence in all his poses. Exhausting work this aerial flirtation. The bride alights among the red knobs of the umbrella-tree for refreshment. Her wings quiver as she sips, while her admirer poises a yard in the air above her, flashes hither and thither, briefly steadying his flight in positions whence all his loveliness may be advantageously revealed; poises again a yard above her; gyrates with the air of a dandy of over-weening assurance, vanity, and pride; swoops until his wings in their down-strokes salute her; and then the dainty pair dance into the sunless mazes of the jungle.

It is all a vivid but soundless symphony--a concord of tender harmonies and sprightly trills and passionate phrases.

THE GREED OF THE SNAKE

In another place in these artless chronicles proof has been given of the fact that though serpents were long enough ago declared to be the most subtle of the beasts of the field, they may be imposed upon. I would like now to cite an instance of their greed and their grasping nature. Our chicken coops were made snake-proof, but a more than ordinarily, crafty individual burglariously broke into one, and the hen and chickens sounded the alarm. It was night, and the lantern revealed the snake. The affrighted chickens with their anxious parent issued forth as soon as the door was opened, all save two, one at each end of the snake. A gunshot through the open door divided the snake. When the coop was lifted away, each end retained tightly a dead chicken, one partially swallowed, the other throttled and held by three encircling coils of the tail. Apart from the gunshot there was a tragic element in this case. When once it has firmly seized with its teeth its prey, a snake must swallow it whole or burst in the attempt. Nature has denied some species the privilege of rejection. Now the chicks were several sizes too large for the snake, and consequently the sides of its mouth, its neck and body, for a length of about 4 inches, had been ripped in the vain endeavour to perform an impossibility.

A SWALLOWING FEAT

Everyone knows that small snakes are capable of swallowing comparatively large eggs. But is the way in which the feat is accomplished generally understood? That is the question. No doubt a big snake glides jauntily to a moderately-sized egg, grips it with its in-curved teeth, the jaws loosen and begin their alternating movement, and unhook themselves at the bases to permit of the eggs passing down the throat. That is easy. But how does a small snake, the neck of which is an inch and a half in circumference, swallow whole an egg 5 inches and more in circumference? Actual observation enables me to explain. If the snake were to begin the act straightforwardly, the egg, presenting but little resistance, would be continuously pushed away. The snake slides its head and neck over the egg, and pressing downward upon it with that part of its body which for the present purpose may be termed the bosom, prevents it moving. The head turns over as if the snake was preparing for a somersault; the jaws fit over the end of the egg, the upper below and the lower above, and begin to work. Presently the upper and lower jaws become entirely disassociated, the egg is encompassed and forced down into the throat. The process seems a most distressing one to the snake, for so great is the distension of the flesh tissues and the skin that they become semitransparent, revealing the colour of the egg. When the egg is safe in the stomach, the shell submits to the action of the gastric juices, and the meal is digested. That is if it is a hen's egg. A porcelain counterfeit, which the most subtle snake cannot distinguish from a natural egg, passes on its way unblemished,

PART II

STONE AGE FOLKS

CHAPTER I

PASSING AWAY

Some investigators tell us that the aborigines of Australia came out of Egypt carrying with them their ancient signs and totemic ceremonies; others, that they are representatives of the Neolithic Age; others assert that Australia is the cradle of the human race, the primitive inhabitants the stock whence all sprung.

Without pausing to hazard an opinion upon any of these theories, it may be said that stone axes, shell knives, and fish-hooks of pearl and tortoiseshell now in use are among the credentials of a people whose attributes and conditions are in line with those who, in other parts of the world, had their day and fulfilled their destiny ages upon ages ago, leaving as history etchings on ivory of the mammoth and the bone of the reindeer. Implements similar to those which are relics of a remote past elsewhere are here of everyday use and application. The Stone Age still exists.

To speculate upon those phases of aboriginal life and character which go to establish the antiquity of the race and its profound unprogressiveness, is no part of the present purpose, which is merely to relate commonplace incidents and the humours of to-day. Much of that which follows is necessarily matter of common knowledge among those who have studied the blacks of the coast.

There is nothing obscure, and but little that concerns even the immediate past, in the philosophy of those natives of North Queensland with whom I am in touch. With the black, to-day is--"to be, contents his natural desire!" The past is not worth thinking about, if not entirely forgotten; the future unembarrassed by problems. Crafts and artifices, common enough a few years ago, are fast passing away. New acquirements are generally saddening proofs of the unfitness of the aboriginal for the battle of life when once his primitive condition is disturbed by the wonder-working whites. Bent wire represents a cheap and effective substitute for fish-hooks of pearl-shell, which cost so much in skill and time, and ever so shabby and worn a blanket more comfortable and to the purpose than the finest beaten out of the bark of a fig-tree.

Many of the wants of the race are supplied through the agency of the whites, and there are so many new tasks and occupations and novelties generally to occupy attention, that the decent and often ingenious handicrafts lapse and are lost. Our blacks still decorate rocks and the bark of trees with rude charcoal drawings; but the art of making stone axes is lost, though trees yet exhibit marks of those handled by the fathers of the present generation.

In passing, an example of the difficulties that must inevitably be faced by inquirers a few years hence who may seek information first hand may be cited. The grandfathers of the blacks of Hinchinbrook Island and the islands of Rockingham Bay have been popularly credited with the art of making out-rigger canoes, such as were common a few miles to the north. One living representative of the race gave me a detailed description of this style of canoe, and pointed out with pride the particular tree whence it was invariably fashioned, by hollowing out a section of the trunk, leaving the ends solid and shaping them. A different and very buoyant timber, according to him, was used for the out-rigger. This boy had travelled. He had seen the canoes further north as well as those of New Guinea, and it was found on investigation that his description of the local craft was quite imaginary. Captain Philip P. King, who came hither from Sydney in 1818, anchoring at Goold Island, thus describes the canoe of the period--"Their canoes were not more than five feet long, and generally too small for two people; two small strips of bark five or six inches square serves the darkie's purpose of paddling and for baling the water out, which they are constantly obliged to do to prevent their canoes from sinking." These details are applicable to the canoes of the present day.

As a matter of fact, out-rigger canoes were not known in this locality, though but 20 miles to the north hollowed logs with out-riggers of the stems of banana plants were common. This fact definitely fixes the point--geographical and also historical--at which the advanced ideas of the Papuan in the science of boat-building ceased to influence the tardy Australian. Ere knowledge of the counterbalance crept further south, the advent of the arbitrary white man brought its progress to a full and final stop. Fragile single canoes of bark were the only means of navigation here, and not many men in these degenerate days can successfully imitate the work of their fathers. Owing to disuse, the talent in that direction has almost been lost. Lost, too, are many of the legends which were wont to be handed down from one generation to another, and forgotten the very names of common objects. But these investigations do not pretend to depth, nor are they presented in any authoritative manner. No attempt is made to discuss the Australian aboriginal in general nor from any particular standpoint. A few side-shows and character sketches, are offered in the attempt to interest and entertain.

In some respects our blacks, said to be among the finest physically in Queensland, and desperately deceitful, are cute and as independent of artificial aids as ever.

TURTLE AND SUCKERS

Generally unprogressive and uninventive, the aboriginals of the coast of North Queensland apply practically the result of the observation of a certain fact in the life-history of a fish in obtaining food. By them the sucker (REMORA) is not regarded as an interesting example of a fish which depends largely upon turtle, dugong, sharks and porpoises for locomotion, but as a ready means of effecting the capture of the two first-mentioned animals, always eagerly hunted for their flesh.

In the days of hoary antiquity it was believed that this strange fish was wont to affix itself to the bottom of a ship, and was able of its malice to hold it stationary in a stiff breeze though all sails were


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