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- My Tropic Isle - 3/40 -
A preponderant part of the furniture of our abode is the work of my own unskilled hands--tables, chairs, bookshelves, cupboards, &c. There is much pleasure and there are also, many aches and pains in the designing and fashioning serviceable chairs from odd kinds of bush timber.
In the making of a chair, as in the building of a boat by one who has had no training in any branch of carpentry, there is scope for the personal element. Though the parts have been cut and trimmed with minute care and all possible precision, each, according to requirements, being the duplicate of the other, when they come to be assembled obstructive obstinacy prevails. One of the most fiendish things the art of man contrives is a chair out of the routine design made by a rule-of-thumb carpenter. Grotesque in its deformities, you must needs pity your own mishandling of the obstinate wood. Have you courage to smile at the misshapen handiwork, or do you cowardly, discard the deformity you have created? How it grunts and groans as pressure is applied to its stubborn bent limbs! Curvature of the spine is the least of its ills. It limps and creaks when fixed tentatively for trial. Tender-footed, it stands awry, heaving one leg aloft--as crooked and as perverse as Caliban. In good time, botching here, violent constraint there, the chair finds itself or is forced so to do, for he is a weak man who is not stronger than his own chair. So, after many days' intense toil--toil which even troubled the night watches, for have I not lain awake with thoughts automatically concentrated on a seemingly impossible problem, plotting by what illicit and awful torture it might be possible for the tough and stubborn parts to be brought into juxtaposition--there is a chair--a solid, sitable chair, which neither squeaks, nor shuffles, nor shivers. May be you are ashamed at the quantity of mind the dull article of furniture has absorbed; but there are other reflections--homely as well as philosophic.
A PLAIN MAN'S PHILOSOPHY
"'Be advised by a plain man, (said the quaker to the soldier), 'Modes and apparels are but trifles to the real man: therefore do not think such a man as thyself terrible for thy garb nor such a one as me contemptible for mine.'"--ADDISON.
Small must be the Isle of Dreams, so small that possession is possible. A choice passion is not to be squandered on that which, owing to exasperating bigness, can never be fully possessed. An island of bold dimensions may be free to all--wanton and vagrant, unlovable. Such is not for the epicure--the lover of the subtle fascination, the dainty moods, and pretty expressions of islands. The Isle must be small, too, because since it is yours it becomes a duty to exhaustively comprehend it. Familiarity with its lines of coast and sky, its declivities and hollows, its sunny places, its deepest shades, the sources of its streams, the meagre beginning of its gullies cannot suffice. Superficial intimacy with features betrayable to the senses of any undiscriminating beholder is naught. Casual knowledge of its botany and birds counts for little. All--even the least significant, the least obvious of its charms are there to, give conservative delight, and surly the soul that would despise them.
If you would read the months off-hand by the flowering of trees and shrubs and the coming and going of birds; if the inhalation of scents is to convey photographic details of scenes whence they originate; if you would explore miles of sunless jungle by ways unstable as water; if you would have the sites of camps of past generations of blacks reveal the arts and occupations of the race, its dietary scale and the pastimes of its children; if you desire to have exact first-hand knowledge, to revel in the rich delights of new experiences, your scope must be limited.
The sentiments of a true lover of an Isle cannot without sacrilege be shared. The love is an exclusive passion, not of Herodian fierceness, misgiving, and gloom, but of joyful jealousy, for it must be well-nigh impossible to every one else.
Such is this delicious Isle--this unkempt, unrestrained garden where the centuries gaze upon perpetual summer. Small it is, and of varied charms--set in the fountain of time-defying youth. Abundantly sprinkled with tepid rains, vivified by the glorious sun, its verdure tolerates no trace of age. No ill or sour vapours contaminate its breath. Bland and ever fresh breezes preserve its excellencies untarnished. It typifies all that is tranquil, quiet, easeful, dreamlike, for it is the, Isle of Dreams.
All is lovable--from crescentric sandpit--coaxing and consenting to the virile moods of the sea, harmonious with wind-shaken casuarinas, tinkling with the cries of excitable tern--to the stolid grey walls and blocks of granite which have for unrecorded centuries shouldered off the white surges of the Pacific. The flounces of mangroves, the sparse, grassy epaulettes on the shoulders of the hills the fragrant forest, the dim jungle, the piled up rocks, the caves where the rare swiftlet hatches out her young in gloom and silence in nests of gluten and moss--all are mine to gloat over. Among such scenes do I commune with the genius of the Isle, and saturate myself with that restful yet exhilarating principle which only the individual who has mastered the art of living the unartificial life perceives. When strained of body and seared of mind, did not the Isle, lovely in lonesomeness, perfumed, sweet in health, irresistible in mood, console and soothe as naught else could? Shall I not, therefore, do homage to its profuse and gracious charms and exercise the rights and privileges of protector?
"When thus I hail the moment flying, Ah! still delay, thou art so fair!"
Sea, coral reefs, forest, jungle afford never ending pleasure. Look, where the dolorous sphinx sheds gritty tears because of the boldness of the sun and the solvency of the disdainful sea. Look, where the jungle clothes the steep Pacific slope with its palms and overskirt of vines and creepers! Glossy, formal bird's-nest ferns and irregular mass of polypodium edged with fawn-coloured, infertile fronds fringe the sea-ward ending. Orchids, old gold and violet, cling to the rocks with the white claws of the sea snatching at their toughened roots, and beyond the extreme verge of ferns and orchids on abrupt sea-scarred boulders are the stellate shadows of the whorled foliage of the umbrella tree, in varied pattern, precise and clean cut and in delightful commingling and confusion. Deep and definite the shadows, offspring of lordly light and steadfast leaves--not mere insubstantialities, but stars deep sculptured in the grey rock.
And when an intemperate sprite romps and rollicks, and all the features of prettiness and repose are distraught under the bluster and lateral blur of a cyclone, still do I revel in the scene. Does a mother love her child the less when, contorted with passion, it storms and rages? She grieves that a little soul should be so greatly vexed. Her affection is no jot depreciated. So, when my trees are tempest-tossed, and the grey seas batter the sand-spit and bellow on the rocks, and neither bird nor butterfly dare venture from leafy sanctuary, and the green flounces are tattered and stained by the scald of brine spray, do I avow my serenity. How staunch the heart of the little island to withstand so sturdy a buffeting!
In such a scene would it not have been wicked to have delivered ourselves over to any cranky, miserly economy or to any distortion or affectation of thrift? Had fortune smiled, her gifts would have been sanely appreciated, for our ideas of comfort and the niceties of life are not cramped, neither are they to be gauged by the narrow gape of our purse. Our castles are built in the air, not because earth has no fit place for their foundations, but for the sufficient reason that the wherewithal for the foundations was lacking. When a sufficiency of the world's goods has been obtained to satisfy animal wants for food and clothing and shelter, happiness depends, not upon the pleasures but the pleasantnesses of life; not upon the possession of a house full of superfluities but in the attainment of restraining grace.
It might be possible for us to live for the present in just a shade "better style" than we do; but we have mean ambitions in other directions than style. Style is not for those who are placidly indifferent to display; and before whom on a comely, scornful Isle shall we strut and parade? "You and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country's fashions," for do we not proclaim and justify our own? Are we not leaders who have no subservient, no flattering imitators, no sycophantic copyists? The etiquette of our Court finds easy expression, and we smile decorously on the infringements of casual comers.
Once a steamer anchored boldly in the bay--a pert steamer with a saucy, off-duty air. Certain circumstances forewarned us of a "formal call." So that the visit should not partake of an actual surprise a boat containing ladies and gentlemen was rowed ostentatiously across to land awkwardly at such a point as would herald the fact and afford a precious interim in which we were plainly invited to embellish ourselves--to assume a receptive style of countenance and clothes and company manners. Careless of dignity, the charitable prelude was lost upon us. Our self-conscious and considerate visitors dumbly expressed amazement at their informal reception and our unfestive attire. Yet my garments were neat, sufficient, and defiantly unsoiled. Had I donned a full, white suit, with neat tie and Panama hat, and stood even barefooted on the beach, conspicuous, revealed as a "gentleman" even from the decks of the defiant steamer, the boat-load would have come straight to the landing smiling, and chatting, to drop "their ceremonious manna in the way of starved people." They would have been elated had I assumed robes of reverence--a uniform indicative of obligation--a worthy response to their patronage. With compliments expressed in terms of functionary clothes they had hoped to soothe their vanity. White cotton and a tinted tie would have been smilingly honoured; and the mere man was not flattered to perceive that he was less in esteem than the drapery common to the species. I never will be content to be a supernumerary to my clothes.
Our visitors reflected not on their intrusion. My precious privacy was gratuitously violated, and in such circumstances that my holiday humour was put under restraint for the time being. Though I do profess love for human nature, for some phases I have but scant respect.
But our house was open. None of the observances of the rites of hospitality was lacking. Gleams of good humour dispersed the gloom on the faces of our guests. They had penetrated the thin disguise of clothes, and it was then that I silently wished in Portia's words that "God might grant them a fair departure."
Another class of visitor came on a misty morning in a fussy little launch. After preliminary greetings on the beach he remarked on my name, presuming that I belonged to a Scotch family.
"A good family, I do not question."
"Oh, yes. A family of excellent and high repute."
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