This love story is drawn from one of Jack’s most popular
and successful books – the 1932 Men of the Jungle.
The book sold thousands of copies
over more than thirty years and twenty editions.
It was also published in Swedish, Danish and French.
Is the story as Jack told it the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Probably not. Jack was a master story-teller and prone to embellishing his facts. Jack’s biographer, Beverley Eley, commented on the story. She wrote that in later years Jack changed the role of Assan Rah from outraged groom to an irate father from whom he ran through the jungle to escape. But Eley also said that there is some evidence that Jack’s love – Mee-lele – did actually exist. Among Jack’s effects Eley found a letter dated 1941 that informed Jack that Mee-lele’s son, Ernie Tim, had either been taken by a crocodile or drowned in the Bloomfield River. So it seems that Mee-lele did exist. As for the rest of the story: as Eley wrote, “Fact or fiction? Who can say?” Certainly Jack regarded this period as one of the happiest and romantic parts of his life. Much later (quoted by Eley) he said, “It was a happy life…a romance out of a proper book of romance.” So here’s the story of Jack’s first true love as he told it.
Jack was about 24 when he met Mee-lele on the Bloomfield River south of Cooktown. We can assume his age because Jack joined up for World War One on 26 October 1914 when he was just past his 25th birthday. Eley places the Bloomfield adventures prior to the Great War and in any case, one of Jack’s mates, Charlie Baird, was never seen again after he returned from the War.
In Jack’s day the only way to get to Pierce’s Landing on the Bloomfield was by boat. The Pearl Queen would sail from Cooktown irregularly bringing much needed supplies. The only way the little lugger could get to the Landing was to wait at the mouth of the river and signal for men in rowboats to slowly tow the Pearl Queen up to the settlement. In Men of the Jungle, published 18 years later, Jack vividly declares his love of the jungle and the cosmopolitan group of people who lived more-or-less permanently at the Landing.
He also vividly declared his love for Mee-lele.
Jack first saw Mee-lele when he and his part-Aboriginal mates, Norman and Charlie Baird were hanging around Pierce’s Landing waiting for supplies on the Pearl Queen. Let Jack tell of that first sight. Jack had rowed across the river and strolled down a forest track and sat leaning against a tree smoking his pipe.
There in a clearing the fairies might have made gleamed two tiny pools, the larger rimmed with white sand, the smaller with fern-draped rocks. The higher rock-pool was a reservoir and its overflow trickled down through drooping ferns to the sand-fringed pool.2
Jack did not immediately know it but he was about to catch a forbidden sight of Mee-lele.
A coloured girl had just finished the family washing and was filling the basket with wrung-out clothes. A well-trodden path showed among the trees, probably leading to some coloured people's homes. This was the women's washing-pool.
The girl stood erect with her back to me. With a lithe movement she slipped off her simple dress and stood toying with the soap, admiring her shapely limbs. She had a warm creamy skin delicately tinged with pink. Probably a white girl with a strong dash of Malay. Perhaps a dash of Chinese too, for her hands and feet were delicately small.
I sat with my back to an elm-tree and breathed never a word; it was mean of me , but it was a wonderful picture. How she enjoyed that bath! Pleasure showed in every kittenish action. She smiled as she twisted around to soap her back, sitting quaintly erect to reach the hollow between her shoulder-blades. Then she stood up and let down her hair. It fell like a caressing black shawl right to her knees. With a tortoise-shell comb she combed it reaching one-half of the long tresses over one shoulder, then the rest over the other When she inclined her head and combed, the hair-tips touched the water. With a single movement she threw the whole black mass over her back. When she sat in the pool the gentle current floated the hair away, leaving one pale shoulder bare. I was eager to see her face. As she stepped from the pool her creamy skin fairly shone.
The lovely stranger mounted the mossy rocks of the little reservoir and gazed at her reflection, stretched, and held up rounded arms, making a seductive little hollow in her back, turned slowly around on her right foot and left toe, smiling over her shoulder at the pool. By Jove, a man’s life can hold some glorious moments! My heart thumped at my first perfect thrill.3
Jack was lost. Hopelessly in love at first sight. But then she saw him watching.
Suddenly she poised, staring questioningly up at the branches, her cameo little face suddenly serious. Looking quaintly startled she stared around – sniffing. My tobacco smoke! I froze against the tree as she stared in my direction – her black eyes widened. She screamed, leapt, and flew off down the path as if Satan were at her heels. I laughed and hurried away. Coloured brothers and menfolk see red if suddenly aroused.4
Jack was absolutely right to be concerned. Mee-lele was betrothed to the old Malay Assan Rah – the Killer of Pigs. He had bought Mee-lele from her father on Thursday Island. Mee-lele was said to have been educated at a convent on Thursday Island. Wielding his vicious kris, Assan Rah was a much-feared resident of the Landing. But writing in Sydney nearly two decades later Jack still yearned for his love – Mee-lele.
I have never forgotten Mee-lele, lovely little animal, warm little human soul. Her eyes would fairly dance to the smile on her lips. She would give all her heart, or else hate passionately. But she liked thrills too much, trouble was the breath of life to her.
(And later) I’m in Sydney now, and occasionally think of Mee-lele when watching a screen beauty “do her piece” in some wild and woolly eastern picture. Occasionally the actress does look something like the part. But Mee-lele was the girl in the warm, living flesh, a living picture of the moonlit girl in the palm-tree setting.
Jack did not say how he introduced himself to Mee-lele but their secret romance must have been blooming. Jack was playing a dangerous game. One night lazing high above the river, yarning and smoking with his mates Norman, Charlie and Chulbil, Jack got a bit of ribbing. Charlie started it when he slyly said;
“I saw old Assan Rah sharpening his kris today” Norman smiled and filled his pipe with nigger-twist. “Who for?” he asked quietly. “Did he have a look like ‘Jack’ on his face” chuckled Chulbil.
Jack wrote that he never said a word: it was a silver silence. A night bird swished by and the aborigines hushed to the sound with superstitious reverence.
“Oh, Mee-lele! Mee-lele!” sang Chulbil in his not unpleasant voice, “Lily of beauty, flower of the scrub!” So, someone had been talking!
Then the day came when Jack was invited to a picnic on the Hope Islands. Several coloured families were to travel in Assan Rah’s smelly little beche de mer cutter. Jack had received a special invitation and he was the only European in the party. His mates were apprehensive.
“Right up in society”, laughed Chulbil, “They want our Jack to give tone.”
But Norman just smiled soberly and said,
“ Assan wants him under his eye, he’s safer there”.
Charlie was oiling his rifle when he said;
“Look out there’s not an accident, Jack. Assan knows that none of us others are going.”
Assan did keep an eye on Jack while (naturally) Jack’s eyes were for Mee-lele. On this trip Mee-lele showed Jack her capacity for dangerous risk-taking. First there was an incident with a giant clam. Jack and Mee-lele were walking along the reef exploring the rock pools.
“Look at the baby fishes, Jacky,” called Mee-lele one afternoon. “They’re really grown-ups, and they’ve stolen the rainbow for dresses.”
In a pool that was a sea garden swam a number of fishes not an inch long. Lively little beggars in brilliant colours, they swam up to us inquisitively. Mee-lele threw a coral into the water and laughed gaily as they disappeared into a huge sea-cabbage. Its leaves closed protectingly around them and the pool remained crystal clear with not a fish in it.
But then Mee-lele found another pool and a much more dangerous game. In a deep pool camouflaged by waving tresses of “mermaids hair”, Mee-lele pointed out to Jack the huge circular outline of a giant clam. Jack knew how dangerous the clams could be for the unwary but Mee-lele said;
“Well, I’ll show you something about them you don’t know!” And she dived straight down, the loveliest thing that had ever entered that garden pool. Uneasily I stared down at those pale kicking heels … (then) … the little fool closed that giant shell. She punched her arm straight into the wide open flesh and withdrew it on the instant. As the great mouth shut she sped up smiling through the water to laugh on the surface and splash my frown away.“You look quite nice when you’re angry, Jacky. Smile or I’ll do it again when he opens.”
“You may never smile again if you do Mee-lele. If that thing closed on your arm I couldn’t help you. You would be drowned before we could bring a bar and tomahawks to chop it open.”
“Cautious Jacky! Always thinking of what might happen. Come on over to the edge of the reef and I’ll show you the sharks. I love them. So creepy and cruel and swift. Just like Assan – especially when he smiles.
Mee-lele took Jack to watch sharks herding fish and savagely feeding. She turned to him and said, “…come over here, Jacky, and I’ll show you Assan’s smile.”
“Assan’s what?” “Assan’s smile! I’ll show you the eye of a tiger shark!” “Oh I say, Mee-lele, let the old chap off lighter than that!” She turned on me, her face pale and tremulous with fury. “You haven’t got to live with him,” she hissed, “If ever I have to I’ll make him wish he had never been born!”
Jack did not argue. After all (he wrote) it was the girl’s own life she was crying about. Jack wrote that he thought Assan had had his day, but she was never to have the chance. Was this conversation sowing the thought of a possible elopement?
She stared with parted lips while the colour slowly drained back into her face. “Oh Jacky,” she smiled in swift remorse, “I’m the most horrid girl in the world and I want you to think me wonderful.” She kissed me regardless of others who might be out on the reef or lazing among the trees. “Forgive me, Jacky. You white men do not understand. Why should I marry a man I hate when I want life and love and happiness? You do not understand how cruel are the customs of my people.”
Then back on board the lugger, Mee-lele again demonstrated her commitment to danger. Deep in the clear water a tiger shark was circling. Jack had a creepy feeling about the lithe grey shape knowing the shark was watching the people on board the boat. Assan went for his rifle. Then Mee-lele responded to a dare to dive in and bring the shark to the surface so Assan could shoot it.
“You think I am frightened,” answered Mee-lele scornfully. “I’m sure!” Mee-lele turned to me with the prettiest little smile. “No shark will get me Jack!” and she dived over. Straight down too, turned round under water and sped up for the cutter. Without the flicker of an eyelid Assan leveled his rifle. I prayed with all my heart he would get just one chance to shoot. The shark wheeled and sped straight for the girl. Smiling up at us as she broke the surface with the shark at her heels as we snatched her arms. I saw his teeth but with the crack of the rifle he snapped them shut and vanished. The girl, panting on deck, laughed up at us. “I told you Jacky – the shark would not get me!”
Jack admired Assan’s coolness as he calculated his shot to the last second but then with no smile in his eyes Assan said, “It will be a good shark that takes Mee-lele, Jack.” Perhaps this was a warning or even an implied threat but whatever, Jack and Mee-lele continued their courtship. Then, back at the Landing came the dance. Everyone was laughing and dancing to lively music. Jack wrote that the girls were good-looking but three of them (including – of course – Mee-lele) were lovely.
Mee-lele especially so as she glided straight towards me, smiling in shy defiance. (And later) I pushed out of the room right into the arms of Mee-lele. Her smile, her whispered “Jack-y” was sufficient; we were down the back steps and out into the cool of the babana groves. Mee-lele’s eyes were wonderfully bright as she took the hibiscus from her hair and fastened it in my shirt. “For memory!” she whispered, and kissed the flower.
Even though people were noticing the developing romance Jack still sat down with Assan Rah as he was cleaning his gun and sharpening his kris. He showed Jack the poison on the edge of the blade and laid the flat of the kris on Jack’s arm as he explained the effect of the poison. Even then, Jack could not help himself.
“Assan,” I said daringly, “If you proved Mee-lele unfaithful to her father’s bargain. What would you do?” “I would cut her throat from ear to ear,” he replied without the flicker of an eyelid. “I would carve her as I would a pig.”
Jack did not need to ask Assan Rah what he would do to Mee-lele’s lover. But the marriage between Assan Rah and Mee-lele was fast approaching and she was determined not to go through with it. Jack wrote, “Poor little beggar. Life had been cruel in making her a coloured girl, crueller still in educating her then thrusting her back under the iron rule of her people”. Mee-lele might have seen in Jack a way of escaping from her pending marriage to Assan Rah.
“But I’m not married yet,” she would laugh. “Why don’t you run away with me, Jacky?”
Jack did not have the same degree of fascination with danger and risk-taking as Mee-lele. In later life, did he regret that? Who knows?
“Assan and his dog would track us as they would a pig, Mee-lele.” She whispered, “I know you can’t Jacky. You are a white man and I am a coloured girl. We are only playing, you and I.”
So Jack had his opportunity but Mee-lele was determined not to go through with the marriage to old Assan Rah. Earlier, when she was still living with her family on Thursday Island she had tried to run away with a mysterious Filipino. This shadowy character for some reason dared not show his face on the Bloomfield River. He came and went in secret and people did not mention his name. Jack became convinced that he was Mee-lele’s second choice for an escape from Assan Rah. He asked Mee-lele about the Filipino.
Mee-lele flared up, then burst into passionate tears when I asked her about the Filipino. For some reason I was the last person in the world that she wanted to know about the man.
Then Jack and Dick had to leave the Landing with Jack promising Mee-lele he would return for the wedding.
Mee-lele said a tearful farewell, not crocodile ones either. I had grown jolly fond of the girl and felt a bit afraid of the ultimate result. Mee-lele was a lovely girl, yet she was so very human and had been awfully nice to me.
What an extraordinary understatement! Jack promised Mee-lele he would return for her wedding but then she added an enigmatic footnote.
Then the ever-near smile shone from her tear-dimmed eyes, the devil’s mischief from the little face. “You will come, Jacky; you love excitement. Assan will never forget his wedding night and neither will you!”
While he was away with his mates, Jack was still dreaming of Mee-lele and still being ribbed about the romance.
“Oh Mee-lele, Mee-lele,” hummed Charlie, “Lily of beauty, flower of the scrub!” “Yes,” I said, “Too nice a person for old Assan.” “Watch the Killer of Pigs,” advised Charlie soberly, “He is dangerous.”
Jack did go back to the wedding and he was welcomed by Assan Rah. Jack said he really meant his words when he wished Assan Rah luck. But Jack was really put out when Mee-lele deliberately avoided talking to him. Sulkily he went off for a walk by himself. But during his walk down through the banana trees Jack suddenly found he was not alone. From behind him two warm arms around him and a warm cheek against his neck. Guess who? Jack said all his sulkiness vanished.
Her face grew white and serious as I turned around, her eyes spoke from the heart in silence as we gazed. Then she smiled and just touched my cheek. “It’s all planned, Jacky,” she whispered excitedly. “All ready unless – unless, you do what people expect you might do.”
There it was again. Mee-lele was expecting Jack to discard his caution and run away with her. Jack did not tell us what he was thinking about his dilemma.
She drew close, staring in a questioning, searching way. Then she smiled gaily and slipping aside hurried back to the house, leaving me staring with thoughts that were not too kind of myself.
The night of the wedding came, pitch black and moonless (as Mee-lele had planned). Guests assembled at Assan’s house, brightly lit and with happy music floating on the slight breeze. At a glance from Mee-lele Jack strolled away from the tables laden with food. He dawdled down near the banana grove.
A little figure in white and pink came quickly through the banana groves, straight to my arms. “Oh Jacky quick,” she whispered urgently. “Make up your mind quick. Run away with me. I have planned everything! In three minutes we can be safe and away.”
But it was not to be. Assan Rah, suspecting a trick, suddenly appeared with his vicious pig-dog preceding him.
I hesitated fateful seconds – then looked down at the snarling muzzle of Assan’s green-eyed dog.
Assan had arrived!
A second later and Assan was beside us, his eyes blazing like the dog’s, his very hair on end. He leapt back for the house, the dog behind him.
Mee-lele thrust me away frantically, a changed Mee-lele. “Run, Jacky, run for your life! He’s going amok!”
There was uproar in and around Assan’s house. Screams and shouts could be heard over the crash of furniture. Jack raced after Mee-lele as she ran to the river and dived in to the water. He watched as she was pulled aboard a row-boat. Then he heard the creak of an anchor-chain and the rattle of pulley-blocks as the sails of the Filipino’s beche-de-mer cutter got under way.
Mee-lele was gone! Her Filipino had crept into the river-mouth with the coming of night and waited close inshore!
Now Assan-Rah was after Jack’s blood. The cries came, “Run, Jacky, run.” And “Go for your life, Jacky! Get a start before he puts the dog on your tracks!” Jack had no choice but to try to cut the mailman’s track back to Cooktown. A nightmare flight; Jack was alternately running, jogging and walking through the black night and all the time he was imagining Assan and his pig-dog loping along somewhere behind him. As daylight came Jack reached the Rossville pub and borrowed a horse. Back in Cooktown he was lucky. His mate Dick Welsh was just about to head off into the bush prospecting.
“I’ve got the horses paddocked at the Four Mile,” he consoled. “The tucker is already in the pack-bags in the shed. We can get away if you’re still thinking of old Assan!”
Jack thought Assan would follow him to Cooktown but not further north so he got Dick to get the horses ready while he climbed Cooktown’s Grassy Hill. Jack wanted ask the caretaker of the Signal Station whether the Filipino’s cutter had passed. As he got to the peak of the hill there was the cutter beating against a head wind toward Cape Bedford. Jack looked through the caretaker’s telescope.
I gazed at Mee-lele through the telescope, bringing her right up close to me. She was sitting on the tiny cabin roof, gazing back towards Cooktown…straight at me. Did she instinctively know it? It may have been only a boyish feeling, but I sensed she was a little lonely, unhappily pensive. I watched the cutter until she merged like a seagull into the evening mists.
A queerly unhappy lad handed back the telescope.
So that’s the story of Mee-lele – Jack’s true love – as he told it. He wrote these words about the time that he was beginning an affair with Eta Gibson. Eta was married when she met Jack at a dance in 1931. That affair developed into what Beverley Eley called a turbulent, love/hate relationship but (as Jack wrote in Men of the Jungle) he never forgot Mee-lele.