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- The Confessions of a Beachcomber - 50/57 -


mile from the anchorage of the schooner completed the love-story.

This intrigue took place many years ago, but Charley was so deeply mortified that he hates Tom to this day, and Tom is an uncomfortable fellow for anyone disposed to resentfulness.

We know, because he says so, that Tom fought for her, and that Nelly gladly accepted the protection of the staunchest man of the district. Tom, in his surly moments, is exquisitely cruel; but Nelly's devotion is unaffected. Her vanity led her to flaunt her gaudy hat in the hut. Tom reproved such flashness--he invariably selects the gayest shirts himself--by burning the hat and all the newly-acquired finery. Nelly struck back, and Tom, as her eyes were big and ablaze with fury, threw--at the cost of burnt fingers--a handful of hot sand and ashes into her face. From Tom's point of view it was a splendid feat--one of those bold and effective master-strokes that only a ready and determined sportsman could conceive and on the instant carry into effect. Nelly's eyes were closed for weeks--well-nigh for ever--and the skin peeled off her face; but she consented to the cruel punishment without a murmur after the first shriek of agony, and won Tom to good temper and tolerance of her vanity by all sorts of happy concessions.

How many such tiffs--tough and smart--has poor Nelly borne? Her grief has been so sore that she has torn her hair out by the roots in frenzy and stamped upon it; but Tom, surly and impassive Tom, is her lord as well as her most exacting master, and in their own way they are devoted to one another.

The roughest cross Nelly was called upon to bear was the presence of Tom's third wife--"Little Jinny"--the manner of whose wooing and home-coming is to be told.

News came from Lucinda Point to Clump Point--passed from one to another--that Tom's half-brother (a purely fictional relationship) had died, leaving a young widow. According to Tom's rendering of the matrimonial laws, he was the rightful heir. The widow was all that his half-brother had left that was of the slightest consequence.

Tom, telling the circumstances, asked for a holiday that he might personally lay claim to his inheritance. Reminded that he had one wife, he frankly declared in Nelly's presence, and she seemed to acquiesce, that she was no good; but that the other one was a "good fella" in every respect, even to washing plates and scrubbing floors.

His holiday was granted. He went away with money in his pockets, blankets, several changes of raiment--among them Nelly's best dress and hat, dilly-bags brightly coloured, and weapons--boomerang, two black palm spears, a great wooden sword, a shield decorated with a complicated pattern in red and white earth, and a flashing new tomahawk.

So he departed, with Nelly's best wishes, and full of hope and expectation, promising to return in two weeks.

Two months slipped past, and one evening a forlorn, ragged, lean scarecrow of a black boy--without a hat, unshaven, without a blanket, and even destitute of a pipe, clambered over the side of the steamer, and dropped into the boat without a word. It was Tom!

In shreds and patches the history of his experience was related. He had arrived at Lucinda, had charmed "Little Jinny" with his manly presence and spruceness and the amount of his personal property, supplemented by the display and free bestowal of Nelly's choicest finery, and had, as a matter of course, been compelled to fight for her. He had been beaten, terribly beaten. One ear had been viciously "marked," a triangular slice being missing (a subsequent combat removed all trace of this mark), and he showed the meritorious scar of a spear-wound on the arm.

Having failed in the stand-up fight, he had resorted to stratagem, had been foiled, and forced to flee, abandoning everything, even to that last vestige of independence--his pipe.

We knew that he had been hard pressed, for on going gaily away he had volunteered to bring a fat young pig from one of the wild herds of Hinchinbrook, and he came back empty-handed. He talks of the pig--how fat and very young it was--even to this day. He came with his life--that was all, and a threadbare sort of life it was at that.

Several months went by--a black boy recovers condition in a day or two as does a starved dog--and Tom had saved money. He never forgets, never swerves from a purpose. He is as determined as a dung-beetle.

Another leave of absence was granted. A second raid was made upon Nelly's wardrobe--two big bailer shells. Elated, freshly shaved and smiling, he was a different sort from the individual who had shamefacedly slipped over the side of the steamer, bereft of everything but life.

He said he would be back in two weeks, and to the day he appeared. His youthful third wife he handed down into the boat, and the boat was full of their luggage. Ah, that desolated camp at Lucinda! The young lady's trousseau was complete even to lingerie. He had won the fight, and the bride and the spoils were his.

Poor Nelly! She welcomed "Little Jinny" effusively, and "Little Jinny" gave her a dress and a second-best hat. Life for a couple of days at the camp was idyllic. Then they took back the gifts of clothing, and turned Nelly out of the hut. She built a separate establishment--a dome of dried grass on bent sticks, and in it she wept and upbraided, and fired up frequently under the torments of jealousy.

Shrill squabbles were of daily occurrence, until the great Peacemaker removed Tom's favourite wife. And who more sorely grieved than Nelly!

Will the title bear a few words as to Tom the hunter? Was ever a keener, a more patient, a more self-possessed, and consequently a more successful, sportsman? He it was who, from a cranky punt (no white man would venture out to sea in such a craft,) at three o'clock one windy afternoon, harpooned an immense bull-turtle, which towed him towards the Barrier Reef, into the track of the big steamers 4 miles to the east. He battled with the game all the afternoon and evening, overcame it at "the dead waste and middle of the night," and towed it back to the beach, landing after thirteen hours' continuous work. Tom accomplished the feat in a strong breeze and with a turtle diving and tugging, when he might have cut the line at any moment and paddled home comfortably.

He is as much at home on the top of a bloodwood tree, hanging round a swaying limb while cutting out a "bee nest," as in a frail bark canoe among the sharks on the skirts of a shoal of bonito.

As we neared the beach one day a big sea-mullet came into view. Without a moment's hesitation, and as it flashed past the boat, Tom, using the oar as a spear, hit the slippery fish with such precision and force as to impale it. He will harpoon a turtle as it rushes away from the boat, 5 feet beneath the surface, with the coolness of a billiard-player, and with unerring accuracy "taking off" for the speed of the boat and the refraction of the water. All the ways and habits of fish, and their favourite feeding-grounds, are to him as pages of an open book.

A groper, more voracious and bolder than usual, followed a safely-hooked perch from the dim coral garden, worrying it like a bull-dog. As the struggling fish splashed on the surface the groper, abandoning its illegitimate prey, swerved swiftly downwards. The retreat was a second too late, for Tom had seized the, harpoon lying athwart the boat, and though the fish appeared through a fathom and a half of water, a vague, fleeting, contorted shadow, he reached it. The barbed point passed through it, carrying a foot or two of the line, and a 30-pounder was added to our catch at one stroke and without a tremor of excitement on Tom's part.

He sailed his punt--12 feet long and 4 feet wide--6 miles, loaded with eight adults, eight piccaninnies, five dogs, a cat, blankets for the crowd, and all the frowsy miscellanea of a black's camp. It was not a boatload that landed on the beach: it was a procession. But Tom would go to sea on a chip. His skill as a sailor of small boats is largely a manifestation of characteristic caution, his precept being--"Subpose big seas come one, one--all right. Subpose come two, two--look out!"

"LITTLE JINNY"

In Life and In Death

She was called "Little Jinny" to distinguish her from another of the blacks about the place--a great, good-natured, giggling creature who laughs perpetually and grows ever fatter. There was nothing in common between the two. Indeed they frequently had differences, for "Jinny" proper is industrious, obliging, cheerful, and full of fun, while she, "Little Jinny," was silent, sulky, and ever averse from toil.

Tom, her man, alternately petted and beat her. She, no doubt, deserved both, for she was proud and haughty for a black gin, and as venomous at times as a scorpion. His hand is heavy, and when he lifted it in anger poor "Little Jinny" suffered--but suffered in silence. Her chastisements were not frequent, but they seemed to increase her loyalty towards her lord and master.

From a European standpoint, "Little Jinny" had little of which to be vain. She had a fuzzy head of hair. Some, like fur, crept down across her brows, giving her face a singularly unbecoming cast. I did not notice this peculiar uncomeliness until she was dying, and I felt then more than ever that she was not to be judged in accordance with our standard of beauty--though she had many of our little weaknesses. Her ignorance of civilised ways was pathetic, yet she was vain and coquettish as the fairest of her sex. And her besetting vanity was endeavouring to be a "lady." Work was sordid, for she wore garments which made her the leader of fashion. She possessed a pair of--well, a bifurcated garment--and her whole life was spent in trying to live up to it--or them. She succeeded to a certain extent. Her ways were mincing and precise, and she lazed away her days quite artistically. A can of water was too heavy for her to carry, less than two hours "spell" at a time quite an offence to her ideal of the amount of repose that a lady wearing the bifurcated garment should permit herself. She was wont to sit in the shade of the mango-tree and pretend to do a little gardening. It was all pretence. What she really loved to do was to wander among the bloodwoods--with Tom, of course--with next to nothing on, the next to nothing being the drawers. There, you have them. Then you saw her at her best--or rather worst, for she was a thin sapling of a girl, of a dull coppery colour, and the garment was not always snowy-white.

Hers, after all, was an ideal existence. She had plenty to eat, as much tobacco as was good for her, and outer raiment that in gaudiness outrivalled the flame-tree and the yellow hibiscus. She was the favourite of two consorts, and only when her pride and scorpion-like attributes got the better of her was she corrected.


The Confessions of a Beachcomber - 50/57

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