Crusoes of Sunday Island
CHAPTER THIRTEEN — Whisky, Serpents and Parakeets
Whisky, Serpents and Parakeets
for six weeks not a drop of rain had fallen on Sunday Island. It was the longest drought the Bells had known since their arrival. The big tank at the homestead was practically dry, the Dripping Well had ceased to drip, and Nightbell Gully spring was little more than a wet patch.
"What on earth am I going to do with this pile of washing?" exclaimed Frederica Bell one morning.
"Don't worry, mother," said Hettie cheerfully. "Bess and I will take it over to the lagoon if you like. There's still plenty of water there."
"Splendid! I'll put you up some lunch while you pack. Your father will be pleased to see you. He said he wouldn't be back for a few days."
The girls set off, each carrying a bulging sack of washing on her shoulders.
"What fun if a ship comes in," said.Hettie. "Dad didn't say why he was going, but I think he had something up his sleeve."
"Shouldn't wonder," agreed Bess. "He doesn't tell us everything, not by a long chalk!"
Dad was not nearly as pleased to see his daughters as their mother had expected. He was the central figure in a rousing farewell being given him by a boatbuilder from Vavau, leader of a party of workmen who had just finished a three-day job in the Bay. With hilarious song and story, and a plentiful supply of grog, the shivoo was in full swing when the girls suddenly opened the door of the hut. Their father waved them out imperiously.page 161
They retired to a strategic position outside and remained there peeping through a window, as the leader of the party, whose back was turned to them, stood up on his rickety stool and waved a chipped enamel mug.
"Now boys, let's drink a toast to good ole Tom!" he cried.
"Gen'lmen, charge yer glasses—I mean yer mugs—and drink 'is 'ealth! Good ole Tom, King o' . . . King o' the Kerma-hic-dicks! Now boys, give it lip, come on, "F'r 'e's a Jolly Good Feller!"
"An' now, gen'lmen, I'm going to crown 'im!" the boatbuilder went on, when the hubbub of shouting and singing subsided. "Havn' got a golden crown, Tom, but I'm goin' ter give you a reel good present, a pres-preshent fit for a king ... a case o' whisky. Yere y'are, Tom, a dozen o' the best ol' Scotch, and now we'll drink again ter th' King o' the Ker-ker!" Suddenly he caught sight of the girls' faces at the window.
"S'trousers!" he gasped, and losing his balance under the stress of the shock crashed to the floor.
Picking up their sacks as roars of laughter and general bedlam broke loose in the hut, the girls made a hurried move towards the lagoon.
Late that afternoon, after they had finished the washing, they watched the Vavau party push off to their ship, and then went back to the hut. Their father was still sitting at the table, with a newly-opened bottle of whisky in front of him. The remainder of his Coronation gift stood on the floor beside his stool. He was quite sober, but the celebration, coming on top of a long, arid spell of total abstinence, had left its mark. His face was flushed beyond the boundaries of its mantling whiskers; and his eyes seemed not to focus quite as well as usual.
"I'm going back home now," he told the girls, who were eyeing him silently. "Got to get back tonight. You can bring this stuff over with you tomorrow."
He stood up, held on to the table for a second or two, page 162 then corked the whisky bottle carefully and put it in his bag.
"All right, father," said Hettie casually. "Goodbye. Take care of yourself."
"What d'you mean? Don't I always take care of meself?" he demanded. It was not quite the remark for a girl to make to a father who had just been crowned a King. "You just take care of yourself, and don't you drop any of that stuff tomorrow, that's all."
He went off. The girls laughed, and set about putting the hut in order.
Next day, Mary came running across the Terraces to meet them, with a subdued excitement of manner which told them she had important news.
Panting from her haste, she gasped, "What d'you think? They're all tight!"
"All what? mum? tight!" They stopped in their tracks as though a thunderbolt had crashed at their feet.
"Well, you know, not exactly tight," conceded Mary hastily, "but all chatty and laughing more than she ever does as a rule. Father and Mr. Avent too. They've got a bottle of something on the table."
With meaning glances at each other, Bess and Hettie sat down on the grass, took the Coronation whisky bottles from their packs, and gouged out the corks with their hunting knives.
"We'll have no more of that," said Bess firmly.
One by one they pushed the bottles upside down into the ground and left them to drain.
Mary looked on in horror. "He'll kill you!"
"No fear he won't," said Bess tersely. "Not both of us at once, anyway," she added meaningly, replacing her knife in its sheath.
Tom Bell took one look as the girls threw their bundles of washing on the verandah and stood empty-handed.
"Where the . . .? What the . . .?" he roared, leaping to his feet.page 163
Without a word the girls turned on him long, challenging stares. He walked out into the garden rather shakily, followed even more shakily by the crestfallen schoolmaster.
Hettie turned to her mother. "You'd better go and lie down, dear," she said quietly.
Poor Mrs. Bell silently obeyed.
Tramping moodily across the Terraces that afternoon Tom Bell stubbed his bare toes on something smooth and hard. For a long moment he stood and stared while he slowly counted up to—eleven. Then he walked back thoughtfully to the house.
"You did the right thing," he told the girls. "The stuff would have been no good to any of us."
In spite of all the drawbacks and perversities of Bell's kingdom, it contained none of the tropical pests common to other islands of the Pacific. There were no stinging ants, poisonous spiders, bugs or beetles; even New Zealand's deadly katipo spider had not found its way there. One could sit anywhere on the ground or sand without having to leap up again with a yell of anguish; could plunge an unwary hand into an empty sack, old boot, or pile of wood and pull it out again without a scorpion clinging to the fingers. In fact, when one had accepted its natural eccentricities of earthquake, volcanic outburst, landslide, hurricane and rats, Sunday Island was a peaceful and idyllic spot in which, as poor, blind Chris Johnston had said, a man might be glad to die.
For the absence of all hidden serpents in their earthly Eden, the Bells may well have given thanks to a benevolent Creator. Less thankworthy was the presence of certain creatures in waters where man set foot at his peril. One of the most hated and feared of these was a venomous water snake, about a foot in length, of a dirty yellow colour, which infested certain parts of the seashore. The creature's habit was to screw itself into a tight ball, and page 164 he still as a stone on the bottom of a rock pool, head tucked into the centre of the coil, until some hapless sea-creature chanced to touch it. Swift as whip-lash, the ugly narrow head would shoot up, a mouthful of needle-sharp teeth would grip some portion of its victim's body, and twist it round and round until a piece of living tissue had been dragged out and devoured.
One of the Bell boys' favourite reprisals was to thread a string through the gills of a fish-head and trail it through a pool. Within a few seconds, a dozen snakes would have embedded their teeth in the head and be tearing it to pieces with vicious tugs, as each tried to drag it from the others. Pulling the snakes out of the water with their teeth still locked in the bait, the children would fling the writhing mass on the rocks and pound them to death with stones.
Tom and Bess had good reason for wreaking vengeance on the entire tribe, each having had the ill-luck to tread on a snake. Fortunately they had been able to drag it away before it had had time to lock its teeth in the foot.
Far more serious was a mishap of a similar nature which befell Tom as the result of an escapade when he and the two older girls had landed on Meyer Island to hunt for parakeets while their father went fishing with a party of visitors from Denham Bay. Tiring of an unsuccessful search, Tom said impatiently, "I've had enough of this. I'm going through the Chasm to see where the others are."
The Chasm was a narrow cut between the two camel-humps of the island. Bare at low water, it was a place to keep away from when the breakers came surging through on a rising tide.
"Don't you dare! The tide's coming in. If a wave gets you, it will wash you away," warned Bess.
"Rats!" was the retort. "I've been through lots of times when the tide's coming in. I can run quicker'n a wave." He started off down the cliff.page 165
"Come back-don't be a little idiot!" shouted Hettie as he reached the bottom and began to run. Slipping, scrambling, he had almost reached the end of the cut when a scream sounded above.
"Run, run! There's a breaker coming."
Tom looked over his shoulder, saw the wave surging down on him in a smother of foam, lashing, leaping, sweeping across the rocks. In his agitation he stumbled and drove his heel down heavily into a small round pool, straight on to the spines of a sea-urchin. With a yell of agony and terror, he flung himself on the rocks and managed somehow to drag himself up a foot or two while the breaker swirled round his shoulders. He hung on tenaciously until the water receded, then stumbled to the boat harbour, where his sisters joined him and signalled to their father to bring in the boat.
Tom Bell was not too pleased at having to do so. "What've you been up to now?" he demanded as Tom limped to the boat, helped by Bess. "Tried to cross the Chasm? Sea-urchin? Silly young fool. You might'a been drowned!"
"Father, would you please put us ashore at the Fishing Rocks?" asked Bess, knowing how the boy was suffering.
"No. Sea's far too heavy. You'll have to come round to the Bay with us. These folk have to get away in the schooner."
The trip took three hours' hard rowing against head wind and tide. When the schooner had departed, Bell approached the white-faced boy,
"Now, let's have a look." He opened his pocket knife, sat down beside Tom, and took the injured foot on his knee. "Suffering cats! You landed a beauty all right! The spikes have gone in nearly an inch."
But it wasn't the length of the spikes which mattered so much. It was the fact that every one of them had broken off after piercing the heel. By the light of a candle, he cut away the top layer of hard skin, and went to work page 166 with his knife, digging deep, but without being able to dislodge more than a couple of spikes.
At last he threw down his knife impatiently. "I can't get the damn' things out! They've gone in too far. You'll have to wait till tomorrow."
Bess bathed the bleeding foot with warm water, and put on a bandage of Friar's Balsam, their remedy for all injuries since Mrs. Bell's supply of green ointment had given out.
"I won't have time to take those spikes out," said Tom Bell next morning. "I'll have to get back home and carry that fungus down to the Fishing Rocks—the boat's due this afternoon. Tom will have to walk over on tip-toe; I'll have another go at his heel when he gets back."
But when the lad had stumbled home with Bess's help, Mrs. Bell was busy with an ailing baby and their father had gone off to the Rocks.
Bess came to the rescue with a sharp little pair of tweezers set in a pocket knife. All the pricks had festered, softening the flesh, so that she was able to draw them out one by one, and lay them on a sheet of paper. Tom bore it bravely, but he was almost at the end of his tether when he asked faintly, "How many more? I feel pretty bad."
Bess prodded gently, and laid another spike on the paper.
"That's the lot, thank goodness!" She counted them. "Eighteen!"
"You've got the whole lot out? Let's see!" Tom was almost too overcome with relief to speak, as he counted the spikes.
The foot was bathed and bandaged. "Now go and lie down," directed Bess. "You'll be all right tomorrow."
"Now, what about those confounded spikes?" asked their father when he returned an hour later.
"I've taken them all out," replied Bess briefly. "I couldn't leave the boy in such pain all day."
"Good!" Bell was greatly relieved. He disliked having page 167 to deal with childish injuries of any kind. "Nothing more to worry about. He'll be all right now." And off he went again.
There was no doubt about it—their father liked not only his daughters, but his young sons, to be tough.
It was Hettie's turn next. While out fishing, she dropped a double-hooked line, and almost at once had a strong bite. Hauling in a three-foot kahawai, she forgot the second hook in her excitement, and dragged it through a finger where it became deeply embedded. Even Hettie, tough, iron-nerved, felt sick with the pain.
"Get it out for me, Bess!" she implored.
She curled up in a heap in the bottom of the boat and hid her face in her sister's lap, while Bess cut the hook out with her knife.
It was always Bess who came to the rescue. Another time when Hettie was chopping branches of karaka for her goats, her slasher glanced off a tough knot of wood and split her thumb from nail to base.
Bess staunched the flow of blood, bandaged the wound with her handkerchief and took the girl home as quickly as possible. The cut healed quickly, as did every open wound in that germ-free air, but Hettie bore the heavy scar until the day of her death.
As whaling died out in the South Pacific, a year would sometimes pass with only one ship's call at Sunday Island. Last and most memorable of all visits during the later years of the 'eighties was that of the grand old Costa Rica Packet, most famous of the veterans of the early South Pacific whaling fleet still under sail.
She anchored off North Beach one breezy morning, and to the delight of the Bells, their old friend Parkins Christian, now first mate of the whaler, landed with a party of sailors. He spent several hours with them, and later on stood on the beach with Tom Bell supervising the page 168 loading of the whaleboat with kumaras, yams, and other produce to carry them on their way to Sydney, their final port.
As they waited for the return of the boat to take Christian back to his ship, he and Bell noted signs of unusual excitement among the crew, as groups formed and stood arguing and gesticulating on deck.
"They're up to some devilment," said Bell. "I don't like the look of them at all."
Christian nodded, still watching them closely. "I don't trust them. They're a rotten crowd. I'll be glad to fire the whole lot of them in Sydney."
He wished the Bells goodbye, jumped into the boat and was rowed out to the ship, having arranged with them to return next morning to get another load of vegetables and to make payment for the lot.
To the family's amazement, the Costa Rica weighed anchor and sailed away an hour or two later. It was not until months afterwards that they learned the story behind that abrupt departure.
When Christian went aboard, he found the crew in very ugly mood. A number of the sailors had refused orders, saying they did not intend to work the ship nor to obey any further commands.
It was mutiny. Christian and the captain went quickly below, got their rifles, and at gun point drove the men into the fo'castle where the captain locked them in and decided to sail for Sydney as quickly as possible, with the help of his officers and a handful of non-mutineers.
The mutineers were kept without water or food for a couple of days. They then sent a message saying they wanted to parley. Parkins Christian had taken only a few steps into the fo'castle when the men set on him with knives, trying to drag him down, and stabbing viciously at his legs. At his first shout for help, the captain and several officers dashed down the companion and managed to drag him up on deck with many bleeding wounds.page 169
The mutineers were kept locked securely below until the whaler reached Sydney, where they were arrested and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.
The Costa Rica never came back to Sunday Island. The Bells received no payment for their produce, and saddest of all, never saw their friend again.
Thus came an abrupt and tragic ending to the family's long association with their good friends, the Yankee whalers.
Less tragic, but sufficiently embarrassing, was the final episode in Tom Bell's employment of the Niue Island kanakas. He went across to Denham Bay one morning with three or four helpers to cut ships' knees from pohutukawas which had been brought down from the cliffs by landslides. A new boss, a tall, powerful islander who had previously worked on Queensland sugar plantations and liked people to know he was a travelled man, had just arrived on a Niue trading schooner. Turi set out at once to make it clear that he, and not Tom Bell, was in charge of the job.
Casting a critical eye around the kitchen hut, he shot a question at Bell. "What you got in that sack?" "Kai" (food), answered Bell briefly. The Niuean prodded the sack. "What kind kai?" "I think that's rice. There's maize and dried beans and yams in the others."
"Oh that no good!" was the contemptuous reply. "You got to get better kai than that for my boys, or they won't work. You have to get them. ..."
"They'll get what I give them. And if you don't like it you can go to blazes!"
The man subsided, but was so surly and unco-operative that although Bell was reluctant to risk holding up the job, he was forced to put the man in his place. Before the job was finished, however, the trading schooner put in again on its return trip to the islands.
"I go fix up to take us back," announced Turi arro- page 170 gantly. "This job no good to my boys—we had enough."
As soon as the ship's boat reached the beach, Bell had a few private words with the mate. Turi appeared soon afterwards and demanded to be taken to the vessel to make arrangements with the captain for return passages to Niue for himself and party. He was rowed out to the ship, and was taken down to the captain's cabin. The interview was rather a long one. Before arrangements had been completed, there was a trampling of feet on deck and crisp shouting of orders. The Niuean took no notice until presently there came the unmistakeable rattle of the anchor chain and the slapping of canvas above.
Turi leaped to his feet. "Hi hi! What you call him, what you call him?" he shouted urgently, rushing up on deck.
Already the schooner was making a graceful exit from Denham Bay. On the beach stood Bell and the kanakas, yelling and waving a boisterous farewell.
After that, work went ahead smoothly. When the ship called for the knees, Bell made a parcel of Turi's clothes and belongings, and gave it to the captain. "Get one of your boys to tell Turi you have his clothes, and he must go down and get them from you," he directed.
"Right oh!" replied the captain with a grin. Next time the schooner put into the Bay, she brought Bell a present of fifty pounds of the best arrowroot and a sack of pineapples.
Turi had learned his lesson. The good nature and natural sweetness of the Niuean disposition had triumphed over the greed and foolishness to which he had fallen victim in his brief contact with civilization in Queensland.
Tom Bell's warning to Hettie and Bess not to get up to any tricks among the breakers at the Fishing Rocks had long been forgotten when Bess took her ducking ten years later.
With her father and Hettie, she rowed a party of friends page 171 from Denham Bay to North Beach to join a picnic outing to Meyer Island. As they rounded Hutchinson's Bluff, they struck a rather nasty jobble, with short, pitching waves which sent showers of spray flying over the picnickers. Mrs. Cooper, a frail woman unused to the ups-and-downs of either island life or sea-travel, became alarmed and then seasick. As they rowed down North Beach she begged to be landed at the Fishing Rocks, where the Bell boys were waiting to join the party.
There was a heavy surge at the Rocks, and they had to wait a few moments before the boat lifted to a wave, and Bess was able to leap nimbly on to a narrow ledge.
"Come on, quickly!" she called, bracing herself in readiness to pull Mrs. Cooper ashore as the boat rose on the next swell. Tom Bell heaved her up while Hettie steadied the boat, but no sooner had Bess dragged the frightened woman on to the ledge beside her than another breaker swept down on the rocks and broke heavily on top of them.
Before Bess could do more than push her burden to Harry, leaning down to seize her, the girl herself was swept off the ledge and into the backwash. Caught for a moment in the swirling waters, she was carried out to the breakers, crashing in smothering confusion well out to sea. Without a thought of lurking sharks, Bess dived deep, came up on the back of the next breaker, and swam strongly back to the boat. With one hand on the gunwale, she was rowed back to the rocks, where she scrambled ashore. The boys were taken aboard, and the party then moved on to Meyer Island. Dripping wet, their clothes hanging limply round them, and looking, as Bess said, "like a couple of drowned rats," she and Mrs. Cooper set out on the rough scramble round the cliffs and across North Beach to the Terraces, where Frederica Bell comforted and re-clothed her exhausted guest.
"Such a pity for you to miss the picnic," she said presently. "Are you sure you wouldn't like to go over to page 172 the island and join them? The sea's gone down now, and there's another boat on the beach. Bess could easily row you over, couldn't you, Bess?"
Before the dismayed girl could reply, Mrs. Cooper voiced an almost hysterical refusal of the kind offer. Both she and Bess had had their picnic. Thinking things over during the afternoon, however, the girl decided that her adventure had been well worth while. She had done something she had often wondered if she actually would be able to do—escape the sharks and come in safely on a breaker.
"It was good fun, really," she confided to Hettie as they were getting ready for bed. "I've always wanted to do it, ever since that day father said we mustn't!"
"So've I. Lucky beggar!" was Hettie's envious comment. Then she began to laugh. Bess looked at her questioningly. "If only you'd seen yourself scrambling up those rocks again with all your hairpins out and your hair flopping all over your eyes. Talk about a drowned rat! Everybody in the boat was laughing."
That evened things up a bit. Hettie felt much better as she jumped into bed.
Still shaken after her experience, which she now looked upon as a providential escape from drowning, their visitor stayed the night with the Bells, and returned to Denham Bay with Bess the following morning. Not by sea, but safely afoot high and dry on the sheep track.page 173