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Crusoes of Sunday Island

CHAPTER ONE — A Kingdom for the Taking

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A Kingdom for the Taking

Eighty years ago, when Thomas and Frederica Bell and their family sailed from New Zealand to write into the history of the South Pacific their saga of life on a remote island in the Kermadec Group, six hundred miles north of Auckland, the isles of the South Pacific were little known, almost mythical, to the northern world.

Now and again one read fantastic stories of mammoth whales, cannibals, castaways, palm-fringed lagoons where dusky maidens swam with a hibiscus flower behind one ear, and drink-sodden derelicts (artists for preference) sprawled on silver sands beneath waving palms. All very glamorous and exotic, but bearing little relation to real life.

For all save the whalers, traders, and an occasional lone ocean wanderer, the Kermadecs at that time were mere pin-points on the map of the Southern Hemisphere. But to the roving seamen of the day, absent sometimes from home for three or four years at a time, they were known, as for centuries they had been known to the old Polynesian voyageurs and Pacific explorers, as an important navigation point in dangerous and uncharted seas, and as a spot to steer clear of.

For years after the turn of the mid-century until the end of the eighteen-eighties, the last of the whalers, island traders, schooners, wind-jammers and slave-traders were still following the way of the sun down to the trading stations of the South Pacific. Bounteous Samoa, Fiji, the Friendly Islands and Niue, the Savage Isle, their captains knew them all. They knew, for their very lives' sake, the channels-often one only-through the encircling reefs page 10 with their breakers and their jutting coral ledges that could rip up a wooden ship and toss the men aboard her to the sharks.

Voyage after voyage, South Pacific seamen braved tropical' gales and mountainous seas, and with good seamanship and sailors' luck, usually brought their ships safely to port. But always with them was the menace not only of coral reef and cyclone, but of shipwreck on an uncharted rock, the possibility of a castaway's death a thousand miles from anywhere.

To make port safely, to feel firm ground beneath their feet, to listen avidly to the gossip of the islands and savour once more the company of their fellow men and abundance of grog in Emma Farrell's hotel at Apia, Western Samoa's lively little seaport-these thoughts, then, must have been uppermost in the minds of Captain McKenzie and the crew of the schooner Norval, as she made the long downward thrash from San Francisco to New Zealand in November 1878. Racing ahead of the trade winds, she had made good time, and would be able to stay a few days in port.

It was the last trip of the year. Safe within the reef in the palm-fringed harbour, she would anchor to unload Samoa's consignment of goods from the States, and take on copra, sugar-cane, coffee and other island products for Auckland, her final port.

In Apia, they thought, the doors of Emma Farrell's lively little seaside hotel would swing wide in welcome. Its handsome, hospitable hostess, daughter of the American Government's Agent, Jonas M. Coe, and a high-caste Samoan woman, afterwards known throughout the Pacific as Queen Emma of New Britain, would see to it that their stay was a riotously happy one. Emma and her two young sisters were well liked by all sailors of the southern seas. Her hotel was more like home for many a wanderer than were the noisy gin shacks that lined the waterfronts of most tropical ports.

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But Emma was no longer there to greet the crew of the Norval that evening when they hurried ashore. They learned with dismay that she had sold the hotel to a roving New Zealander, Thomas Bell. Thus it was that a stranger gave them a dour and unenthusiastic greeting, a man who had tried unsuccessfully to open a Pacific trading station, and had come to Apia and bought Emma Farrell's hotel instead. The move had brought him no happiness, and he had spent the better part of the year regretting it.

The babel of voices rose and fell in the crowded barroom. In addition to the crew of the Norval, there were men of all types thronging the room, bearded German traders, copra growers, stranded seamen, deserters and derelict beachcombers, and shifty-eyed rats of men who might have been partners in some infamous slave-trading racket that would take unsuspecting islanders from their homes and dump them down to toil and die on the plantations and in the silver mines of Peru.

Kerosene lamps hanging from the ceiling flickered and flared in drifting clouds of rank tobacco smoke. There was a heavy reek of raw, strong spirits in the humid air and a bedlam of rough voices.

Presently there came a lull, and a powerfully built, bearded man approaching middle age, made his way to a table where Chris Johnston sat alone beside an open window.

"Busy night, Tom," greeted the latter. "I was wondering if you'd have time to come and join me. Help yourself." He pushed the bottle across the table. Tom Bell poured himself a drink and stared moodily out into the night. Through the window came the steady roar of surf out on the reef; the fronds of the palms outside rattled in a faint breeze, and tropical stars blazed in a velvet-black sky.

"I hear you're thinking of selling out," said Bell's companion presently. "Is it true?"

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"Might be. I haven't made up my mind yet. But I've had enough of the tropics. I've tried pretty well every island, and they're all the same; nothing to make it worth while hanging on."

"If you leave, where will you go? Have you anything in mind?"

"Not a thing. I suppose I'll have to go back to New Zealand. But I hate to give in!" Bell emptied his glass at a gulp, re-filled it and drank again.

Chris Johnston, who was blind, thumped heavily on the floor with his stick. Leaning forward to emphasize his words, he said, "Listen, Tom! Remember what I told you about Sunday Island the other day? There's your chance—the chance of a lifetime! An island all your own, a real Pacific paradise, just waiting for someone to walk up the beach and take possession. It's been uninhabited for years; doesn't belong to any country on God's earth, or to any man either. But it could belong to you!"

Thomas Bell stared at him. "What's the good of talking like that?" he said. "Haven't I just told you I'm clearing out because I've had more than enough of the tropics? This climate has played hell with my asthma ever since I came here."

"But Sunday isn't in the tropics. The Kermadecs are in a different latitude altogether. They're a clear thousand miles south of Samoa. The climate is as near perfect as you'd find anywhere outside the Garden of Eden. You could grow anything there and trade the stuff to passing ships, and send all kinds of fruit down to New Zealand."

Bell laughed unbelievingly. "A big chance I'd have of opening any kind of a station there. If the place had been any good, you can bet your life the Germans would have grabbed it long ago. From all I've heard, there's nothing to eat there but wild goats, no fruit nor vegetables to bring the ships and no anchorage for them even if they did come."

"A ship can nearly always anchor on one side of the page 13 island or the other. As for the fruit and vegetables, that might be true enough for a start," conceded Johnston, "but the soil-why, Tom, it's just a miracle the way the stuff grows. You only have to stick in a twig or a pip, and in a couple of seasons you're gathering buckets of peaches and barrels of oranges. Over on the north side of the island there are acres of flat land, and terraces where you could run sheep. In no time at all you could open your station, and be sending wool and all kinds of sub-tropical stuff to New Zealand. The ships would come all right, once you got going."

Bell was listening carefully now, almost against his will. "Go on, Chris," he said, as Johnston paused. And the blind man went on.…

"Well, there you are, old man! What I'm telling you is stone cold truth. Mark me, and don't forget what I say," the speaker's voice rose impressively, "in a few years' time, Thomas Bell could be the best-known man in the South Pacific, owner of Sunday Island, and KING OF THE KERMADECS!"

Bell's eyes, deep-set beneath heavy brows, lit up with excitement. He felt his pulse quicken. But when he spoke, his voice was wary with native Yorkshire caution.

"If it's as good as all that, why hasn't somebody snapped it up long since? As for that, why did your crowd clear out? You were there long enough to have made a go of it, weren't you?"

His words probed deep. Chris Johnston moved a hand across his sightless eyes. The fire had gone out of his voice when he replied. "Maybe that's not quite a fair question, Tom. My sight had been getting worse and worse. Things were all against us; then the volcano blew up, and we had to get away as quickly as we could. But I tell you this-there was something about that place that just laid hold of you. You can call me a fool if you like,page 14but all these years since I left I've longed to go back, even if only to stand on the beach at Denham Bay and hear the surf on the rocks.'" His voice sank to a whisper, and the hands which had fumbled excitedly with his stick became still. "If only God would work a miracle and give me back my sight, I'd set off to Sunday with you tomorrow and be happy to die there."

Bell made no reply. The blind man's words had moved him more deeply than either could have imagined. He looked away from the noisy crowd around him, out through the window into the night, past the thatched huts and palm trees leaning to the wavelets curling silently up the beach, and out beyond to the distant line of surf.

Away out there beyond the horizon, a thousand miles distant, the great Pacific rollers were thundering on the rocky bluffs and beaches of Sunday Island. Its mountains rose high and black against the stars. Moonlight lay across its forests and patterned the ocean with bands of silver.

He moved abruptly as the silence deepened. When he spoke his voice was calm and practical. "Not much of a place to take a woman and half a dozen youngsters to! How would a man knock a desert island into shape with only a couple of girls to help him? Hettie's only eleven and Bess has just turned nine. What use would they be on Sunday Island?"

"They'll grow, Tom, they'll grow! I tell you, everything just shoots up like Jack's beanstalk. They're fine strong little lasses, and you'll be having the boys coming along in three or four years' time. It will be hard at first, mind you, damned hard, but you're used to a hard life, and so's the missus. She'd face it all right!"

"And how would we get there? It's right off the trade routes." He knew the answer, but he wanted to hear Johnston give utterance to the thoughts steadily shaping in his mind.

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"In the Norval, of course. McKenzie would drop you on his way to Auckland. As for the hotel, everybody knows you're thinking of selling. With all these Germans prowling up and down the Pacific, old Hoffner would buy the place like a shot. Anyway, think it over. You're never likely to have such a chance again."

Thomas Bell had no need to think it over. He had already made up his mind.

The idea of taking possession of an uninhabited island, developing it to a pattern of his own designing, turning it from a wilderness to a Pacific paradise with flocks of sheep browsing on grassy hillsides, the choicest of vegetables and fruits ripening in sun-drenched valleys, appealed with overwhelming force to some deep-down patriarchal strain in his nature. Here he would see his life's dream come true, see his children growing up round him, working for him alone, building an inheritance beyond the dreams of ordinary men. Here at last was the answer not only to all the years of seeking and striving, but to the urge which had driven him long ago from a good home, and set his feet on a path that had led him halfway round the world years before he had reached manhood. So far, his striving had brought him no greater prize than ownership of an out-of-the-way island hotel, little more than a rendezvous for a crowd of ever-thirsty whites and natives with an occasional invasion of hard-drinking seamen.

King of the Kermadecs!

Thomas Bell went to sleep with the words hammering in his brain.