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- My Tropic Isle - 4/40 -


"Then, I cannot be any connection, for I am proud to confess that our family is distinguished--greatly distinguished--by a very bad name. It comes from Kent. I am a kinsman of a king--the King of the Beggars!"

"Ah! Quite a coincidence. I remarked to my friend as we came up to your Island: 'If the exile is a descendant of the King of the Beggars, this is just the kind of life he would be likely to adopt.'"

"Exactly. I am indeed complimented. Blood--the blood of the vagabond--will tell!"

And my friendly visitor--a man whom the King had delighted to honour--with whimsical glances at my clothes, which tended to "sincerity rather then ceremony," strolled along the beach.

If we were disposed to vaunt ourselves, have we not, in this simplicity and lack of style, the most persuasive of examples?

Indifferent to style, we do indulge in longings--longings pitifully weak--longings for the preservation of independence toilfully purchased during the poisonous years of the past. Beside all wishes for books and pictures and means for music and the thousands of small things which make for divine discontent, stands a spectre--not grim and abhorrent and forbidding, but unlovely and stern, indicating that the least excess of exotic pleasures would so strain our resources that independence would be threatened. If we were to buy anything beyond necessities, we might not be certain of gratifying wants, frugal as they are, without once more being compelled to fight with the beasts at some Australian Ephesus. Rather than clog our minds with the thought of such conflict and of fighting with flaccid muscles, dispirited and almost surely ingloriously, we choose to laugh and be glad of our liberty, to put summary checks upon arrogant desires for the possession of hosts of things which would materially add to comforts without infringing upon pleasures, and find in all serene satisfaction.

We have not yet pawned our future. No sort of tyranny, save that which is primal, physical, and of the common lot, puts his dirty foot on our haughty, sun-favoured necks.

"It is still the use of fortune To let the wretched man outlive his wealth, To view with hollow eye and wrinkled brow An age of poverty."

May Heaven and our thrift avert the fate!

The nervous intensity, the despotic self-sufficiency of this easy and indifferent existence may expose us to taunts; but how sublimely ineffective the taunts which are never heard and which, if heard through echoing mischance, would provoke but serene smiles; for have we not avoided the aches of uniformity, the seriousness of prosperity, most of the trash of civilisation, and the scorn of Fortune when she sniggers?

How magnificently slender, too, is our boasted independence! What superb economists are we! Astonishment follows upon an audit of our slipshod accounts at the amount spent unconsciously on small things which do not directly affect the actual cost of living. Taking the mean of several years' expenditure, the item "postage stamps" is a little larger than the cost of my own clothing and boots. The average annual cost of stamps has been 5 4s.; clothing and boots, 4 12s. Indeed, this latter item is inflated, since, while I have stamps worth only a few shillings on hand, clothes are in stock sufficient (in main details) to last twelve months. The "youthful hose, well kept," with other everlasting drapery brought from civilisation, is still wearable. The original clothing, such as conformity with the rules of the streets implies, remains serviceable, however obsolete in "style," which is another word for fashion, "that pitiful, lackey-like creature which struts through one country in the cast-off finery of another." For the privilege of citizenship in what, at present, is the freest country in the world my direct taxation amounts to 1 5s. per annum; and, since "luxuries" are not in demand, indirect contributions to State and Commonwealth are so trivial that they fail to excite the most sensitive of the emotions. All our household is in harmony with this quiet tune, and yet we have not conquered our passion for thrift but merely disciplined it.

A young missionary who became a great bishop, after some experience of "the wilds," expressed the opinion that there were but six necessaries--shelter, fuel, water, fire, something to eat, and blankets. Our practical tests, extending over twelve years, would tend to the reduction of the list. For the best part of the year one item--blankets--is superfluous. Water and fuel are so abundant that they count almost as cheaply as the air we breathe; but we do lust after a few clothes--a very few--which the good missionary did not catalogue. Our essentials would therefore be--shelter, something to eat, and a "little" to wear. Fire is included under "something to eat," for it is absolutely unnecessary for warmth. We do still appreciate a warm meal. Our house contains no means for the production of heat, save the kitchen stove.

Fruit, vegetables, milk, eggs, poultry, fish, and nearly all the meat consumed--emergency stocks of tinned goods are in reserve--are as cheap as water and fuel. Our unsullied appetites demand few condiments. Why olives, when if need be--and the need has not yet manifested itself--as shrewd a relish and as cleansing a flavour is to be obtained from the pale yellow flowers of the male papaw, steeped in brine--a decoration and a zest combined? Our mango chutney etherealises our occasional salted goat-mutton--and we know that the chutney is what it professes to be.

What more wholesome and pleasant a dish than papaw beaten to mush, saturated with the juice of lime, sweetened with sugar, and made fantastic with spices? What more enticing, than stewed mango--golden and syrupy--with junket white as marble; or fruit salad compact of pineapple, mango, papaw, granadilla, banana, with lime juice and powdered sugar?

We lack not for spring chicken or roast duck whenever there is the wish; for the best part of the year eggs are despicably common. Every low tide advertises oysters gratis, and occasionally crabs and crayfish for the picking up. Delicate as well as wholesome and nutritious food is ours at so little cost that our debt to smiling Nature, if she kept records and tendered her accounts, would be somewhat embarrassing. And if Nature frowns with denial and there are but porridge and goat's milk and eggs and home-made bread and jam, thank goodness she blesses such fare with unjaded appreciation!

Since deprived of the society of blacks, our domestic expenditure has dwindled by nearly one-half. Indeed, it is almost as costly to feed and clothe three blacks as to provide essentials for three whites of frugal tastes. Here are a few items of annual domestic expenditure, proffered not in the spirit of gloating over our simplicity or of delighting in economy of luxuries, but to illustrate how few are the wants which Nature (with a little assistance) leaves unsatisfied. The figures are presented with the utmost diffidence, but with indifference alike to the censure of those who may scent obsequiousness to the stern philosophy of Thoreau in the matter of diet, or to the jeers of others who despise small things:

Flour 4 5 0 Groceries, lighting, &c. 40 0 0 Sundries 12 0 0 -------- Total 56 5 0

And the irreducible minimum has yet to be reached. For many years my exacting personal needs demanded the luxury of coffee. Pure and unadulterated, I quaffed it freely, and (being no politician) neither did it enhance my wisdom nor enable me to see through anything with half-shut eyes. Yet did it make me too glad. Under such vibrant, emphatic fingers my frail nerves twanged all too shrilly, and of necessity coffee was abandoned--not without passing pangs--in favour of a beverage direct from Nature and untinctured by any of the vital principles of vegetables. Thus is economy evolved, not as a foppish fad but as due obedience to the polite but imperious decrees of Nature.

And having confessed--far too literally, I fear--to so much on the expenditure side of the simple life in tropical Queensland, it might be anticipated that the items of income would be stated to the completion of the story. The affairs of the busy world were discarded, not upon the strength of large accumulated savings or the possession of means by inheritance or by the success of investments or by mere luck, but upon merely imperative, theoretic anticipations upon the cost of living the secluded life. We had little in reserve, how little it would be unbecoming to say. Our theories proved delusive, though not bewildering. Some of the things abandoned with unphilosophic ease at the outset proved under the test of experience to be essential. Others deemed to be needful to desperation were forsaken unconsciously. Under the light of experience forecasts as to actual requirements were quite as vain as our preconceptions contrariwise. No single item which was not subjected to regulation. Without imposing any more impatient figures, be it said, then, that, though all preliminary estimates of ways and means underwent summary evolution, the financial end was close upon that on which we had calculated. Compulsion had all to do with the result. During each of the years of Island life our total income has never exceeded 100 and has generally fallen considerably below that amount. From the beginning we felt--and the foregoing lines have failed of their purpose if this acknowledgment has not been forestalled

"To be thus is nothing, But to be safely thus";

and to draw again from the unplumbed depths of Shakespeare:

"What's sweet to do, to do will aptly find."

CHAPTER III

"MUCH RICHES IN A LITTLE ROOM"

"Go and argue with the flies of summer that there is a power divine yet greater than the sun in the heavens, but never dare hope to convince the people of the South that there is any other God than Gold."--KINGLAKE.

No "saint-seducing gold" has been permitted to ruffle this placidity. Gold! Our ears were tickled by the tale that good folks had actually thrilled when we slunk away to our Island. Rumour wagged her tongue, abusing God's great gift of speech, until scared Truth fled. She said--how cheap is notoriety!--that secret knowledge of hidden wealth which good luck had revealed during our holiday camp had induced us to surreptitiously secure the land, that in our own good time we might selfishly gloat over untold gold! Some came frankly to prospect our hills


My Tropic Isle - 4/40

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