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- My Tropic Isle - 9/40 -
nesting plentifully on trees and shrubs amongst masses of orchids, and on ledges almost obscured by grass. Brown-winged terns occupied cool nooks and crannies in the rocks, and other species of terns had egg reserves--they cannot be called nests--on the unshaded coral bank. After gazing intently on the white drift, eagerly making mental notes of any remarkable mutations in the colouring of the thickly strewn eggs, and admiring the fortitude or indifference with which the fledglings endured the sizzling heat, I found myself subject to an optical illusion, for when I looked up and abroad the brightly gleaming sea had been changed to inky purple, the hills of the mainland to black. Though absolutely cloudless, the sky seemed oppressed with slaty gloom, and the leaves of the trees near at hand assumed a leaden green. For a few seconds I was convinced that some almost unearthly meteorological phenomenon, before which the most resolute of men might cower, had developed with theatrical suddenness. Then I realised that the intense glare of the coral, of which I had been unconscious, and the quivering heat rays had temporarily deprived my vision of appreciation of ordinary tints. Saturated by vivid white light, my bemused sight swayed under temporary aberration. I was conscious of illusion creating symptoms, tipsy with excess of sunshine. This condition passing, I found the atmosphere, though hot, pleasant and refreshing, the labour of rowing across the bay involving no unusual exertion or sense of discomfort. During my brief absence the beach of the island seemed to have absorbed still more effectively solar rays. "Scoot" (my terrier, exulting companion on land and sea) skipped in sprightly fashion across the burning zone, while I was fain to walk on the grass, the sandy track being impracticable to bare feet. In the house protests against the intolerance of the sun were rife. Crockery on the kitchen shelves seemed to have been artificially heated, while the head of an axe exposed to the glare was blisteringly hot. Yet to me in the open air, most scantily draped and wearing a frayed, loopholed, and battered straw hat, the sunbath had been a pleasant and exhilarating indulgence in no way remarkable on the score of temperature.
Dress, other than fulfils the dictates of decency, is not only unimportant but incongruous and vexatious. During bright but cloudless days the less worn the higher the degree of comfort, and upon comfort happiness depends. Sick of a surfeit of pleasures, the whining monarch, counselled by his soothsayers, ransacked his kingdom for the shirt of a happy subject. He found the enviable man--a toil-worn hind who had never fidgeted under the discomfort of the badge of respectability.
In his native state the black fellow is nearer the ideal than the white alien in his body clothes, starched shirt, high collar, cloth suit, and felt hat. The needs and means of the black are non-existent. His dress corresponds, whereas the white usurper of his territory--servile to the malignant impositions of custom and fashion--suffers from general superfluity and winces under his sufferings. Would he not be wiser owning subservience to the sun, and adopting dress suitable to actual needs and the dominant characteristics of the land of the sun? He would pant less, drink less, perspire less, be more wholesome and sweeter in temper, and more worthy of citizenship under the sun, against whose sway there can be no revolt. Kings and queens are under his rule and governance. His companionship disdains ceremonious livery, scorns ribbands, and scoffs at gew-gaws. Bronze is his colour, native worth the only wear.
Whosoever has seen (himself unseen) an unsophisticated North Queensland black parading his native strand has seen a lord of creation--an inferior species, but still a lord. His bold front, fluent carriage, springy step, alert, confident, superior air proclaim him so, innocent though he be of the frailest insignia of civilisation. The monarch arrayed in seven colours ascends the steps of his throne with no prouder mien than that in which the naked child of the sun lords it over the empty spaces.
In civility to his Majesty the Sun do I also proudly testify to his transcendent gifts as a painter in the facile media which here prevail. Look upon his coming and his going--an international, universal property, an ecstatic delight, an awesome marvel, upon which we gaze, of which we cannot speak, lacking roseate phrases. A landscape painter also is he, for have I not seen his boldest brush at work and stood amazed at the magnificence of his art?
Do those who live in temperate and cold climates realise the effect of the sun's heat on the sea--how warm, how hot, blessed by his beams, the water may become? The luxuriousness of bathing in an ocean having a temperature of 108° is not for the multitude who crowd in reeking cities which the sun touches tremulously and slantwise.
On November 21, 1909 (far be it from me to bundle out into an apathetic world whimpering facts lacking the legitimacy of dates), we bathed at Moo-jee in shallow water on the edge of an area of denuded coral reef fully two miles long by a mile broad. For three hours a considerable portion of the reef had been exposed to the glare of the sun, and the incoming tide filched heat, stored by solar rays, from coral and stones and sand. The first wallow provoked an exclamation of amazement, for the water was several degrees hotter than the air, and it was the hottest hour (3 p.m.) of an extremely hot day. No thermometer was at hand to register the actual temperature of the water, but subsequent tests at the same spot under similar conditions proved that on the thermometerless occasion the sea was about 108° F.--that is, the surface stratum of about one foot, which averaged from 4° to 6° F. hotter than the air. Beneath, the temperature seemed ordinary--corresponding with that of the water a hundred yards out from the shore. This delectable experience revealed that in bathing something more is comprehended than mere physical pleasure. It touched and tingled a refined aesthetic emotion, an enlightened consciousness of the surroundings, remote from gross bodily sensations. For the time being one was immersed, not in heated salt water only but in the purifying essence of the scene--the glowing sky, stainless, pallid, and pure; the gleaming, scarcely visible, fictitious sea and the bold blue isles beyond; the valley whence whiffs of cool, fern-filtered, odorous air issued shyly from the shadowed land of the jungle through the embowered lips of the creek. The blend of these elements reacted on the perceptions, rendering the bathe in two temperatures that of a lifetime and a means also whereby the clarified senses were first stimulated and then soothed. With an occasional lounge on the soft sand, when the body became clad in a costume of mica spangles and finely comminuted shell grit, the bathe continued for two hours, with an after effect of sleek and silky content.
Another date (January 10, 1910) may verify details of such a sybaritic soak in the sea as is to be indulged in only in the tropics and remote from the turmoil of man. Between noon and 3 p.m. the thermometer hanging on the wall of the house under the veranda, five feet from the corrugated iron roof, wavered between 89° and 90°, while the unshaded sun registered 98°. My noontide bath failed to detect any difference in temperature between air and water, and putting my perceptions to scientific test found the sea to be heated to 90°. With the bulb buried in the sand six feet from the edge of the water, the mercury rose to 112° in a few seconds and remained stationary.
It being far more blissful to lounge in the sea than on the veranda, I sat down, steeped chin deep in crystal clearness, warmth, and silence, passively surrendering myself to a cheap yet precious sensation. Around me were revealed infinitely fragile manifestations of life, scarcely less limpid than the sea, sparkling, darting, twisting--strong and vigorous of purpose. Tremulous filaments of silver flashed and were gone. No space but was thickly peopled with what ordinarily passes as the invisible, but which now, plainly to behold, basked and revelled in the blaze--products of the sun. Among the grains of sand and flakes of mica furtive bubblings, burrowings, and upheavals betrayed a benighted folk to whom the water was as a firmament into which they might not venture to ascend.
Sought out by the sun, translucent fish revealed their presence by spectral shadows on the sand, and, traced by the shadows, became discernible, though but little the more substantial.
This peace-lulled, beguiling, sea, teeming with myriad forms scintillating on the verge of nothingness--obscure, elusive, yet mighty in their wayward way--soothed with never so gentle, so dulcet a swaying. This smooth-bosomed nurse was pleased to fondle to drowsiness a loving mortal responsive to the blissfulness of enchantment. Warm, comforting, stainless, she swathed me with rose-leaf softness while whispering a lullaby of sighs. Her salty caresses lingered on my lips, as I gazed dreamily intent upon determining the non-existing skyline. Yet, with no demarcation of the allied elements this rimless, flickering moon, to what narrow zone, I pondered, is man restricted! He swims feebly; if he but immerse his lips below the shining surface for a space to be measured by seconds, he becomes carrion. On the mountain-tops he is deadly sick. Thus musing, the sorcery of the sea became invincible. My thoughts drifted, until I dozed, and dozing dreamt--a vague, incomprehensible dream of floating, in some purer ether, some diviner air than ever belonged to wormy earth, and woke to realities and a skate--a little friendly skate which had snoodled beside me, its transparent shovel-snout half buried in the sand. Immune from the opiate of the sea, though motionless, with wide, watery-yellow eyes, it gazed upon me as a fascinated child might upon a strange shape monstrous though benign, and as I raised my hand in salutation wriggled off, less afraid than curious.
Beyond, a shadow--a disc-shaped shadow--drifted with a regular pulsating motion. Shadowlike, my thoughts, too, drifted, but how remote from the scene! They transported me to Thisbe--Thisbe who
"Saw the lion's shadow ere himself And ran dismayed away."
How different the shadow of the moment from that of the king of beasts which led to the tragedy under the walls of Babylon, where the blood of the lovers dyed the mulberry red! It is the evidence of a bloodless thing, a rotund and turreted medusa, the leader of a disorderly procession, soundless and feeble as becomes beings almost as impalpable as the sea itself. Shadows of fish exquisitely framed flit and dance. I see naught but shadows, dim and thin, for I doze and dream again; and so fantastic time, whose footfalls are beads and bubbles, passes, and grosser affairs beckon me out of the sunlit sea.
Oh, great and glorious and mighty sun! Oh, commanding, majestical sun! Superfine invigorator; bold illuminator of the dim spaces of the brain; originator of the glow! which distils its rarest attars! Am I not thy true, thy joyful knight? Hast thou not touched my toughened, unflinching shoulders with the flat of thy burnished sword? Do I not behold its jewelled hilt flashing with pearls and precious stones as thou sheathest it for the night among the purple Western hills? Do I not hail its golden gleams among the fair-barked trees what time each scented morn I milk my skittish goats?
A TROPIC NIGHT
"Come and compare Columns and idol-dwellings, Goth or Greek, With Nature's realms of worship, earth and air,
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