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Crusoes of Sunday Island

CHAPTER TEN — Storm, Shakespeare and Careers

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Storm, Shakespeare and Careers

Things had been going quite well for some time, when in 1883 Tom secured a passage to New Zealand in Henderson and McFarlane's island schooner Rhino. The family had then been on the island five years and it was the first break. Having dutifully kissed their father goodbye, the children prepared to enjoy his absence to the full. They would faithfully carry on with their work-but hurrah, the taskmaster had gone! Hettie and Bess, on whom the heaviest and hardest work still fell, were thankful later on to have had the well-earned respite.

Arriving in Auckland, Bell made arrangements for the company's Pacific trading schooners to make a call at Sunday Island on every three-monthly trip. Having at last secured this essential link with the outside world, he put into effect his long-standing plan to run sheep on the island, and sailed from Dunedin with three hundred Merino ewes and several rams.

Ill luck assailed him from the start. Making her way up from the coast of the South Island, the schooner ran into bad weather almost at once. Battling against strong winds, she fought her way northward to the Kermadecs, and reached North Beach after a wicked trip, only to find the surf crashing on the rocks in a fury that made landing an impossibility. Thrashing her way round the island, the ship finally anchored in Denham Bay. Bell had only just managed to get his ewes ashore when bad weather set in again, and the schooner had to beat a hasty retreat from the Bay, taking the rams with her.

The sheep were turned loose in Denham Bay, on the

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Black and white photograph of Mrs. Bell in doorway of hut on Sunday Island.

Mrs. Bell in the doorway of the second hut in Denham Bay

Black and white photograph of Mrs. Bell and three of her children outside a shed on Sunday Island.

Mrs. Bell with her grown-up daughter Freda and two sons, Roy and King Bell, outside their thatched vegetable shed
[Photographs by 1908 Scientific Expedition]

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Black and white photograph of Silky White Tern and chick.

A Silky White Tern brings fish for its chick
[Photograph by Roy Bell]

Black and white photograph of muttons on smoking racks.

Smoked mutton birds ready to be packed away in the preserving barrel
[Photograph by the 1908 Scientific Expedition]

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wrong side of the island, beneath a thousand-foot rock wall. The rams were landed a few days later when the ship was able to make her way back.

The only possible way of getting them out was by making a track up the cliffs, a project that would have forced any other man to give up in despair. Tom Bell, however, never gave in. He went over to North Beach for his daughters and his kanakas instead.

Hettie's sharp eyes quickly discovered a fault in the lava rock that might possibly be widened to a track over which the sheep could be driven. The girls, sixteen and fourteen years old, were set to work with pick and shovel, together with the kanakas. Week after week they plodded on, with blistered hands and aching muscles, gradually hacking out a narrow track in the face of the rock-wall.

Presently respite—or perhaps it was a bit more spite on the part of the frustrated plan-wreckers-came in the unexpected and startling form of a violent earthquake. It happened one evening as the campers were going to bed. First there was a loud rumbling that sounded like distant thunder in the mountains, then a series of shuddering waves and a sharp, pitching movement that uprooted trees, opened up rifts in the cliff face, and sent tons of rock and debris thundering down into the Bay. The ground heaved beneath the feet of the campers as they came running out of their huts.

"What you call him? What you call him?" shouted the panic-stricken Niueans, falling back on their habitual expression when any frightening experience befell them. Coming from a flat speck of land where volcanic activity, earthquake and hurricane were unknown, they were badly unnerved, and huddled together trembling with fear.

Tom Bell was badly frightened too, but for a very different reason. As the ground heaved beneath the first shock, he came rushing towards the girls, who were clinging to the doorpost of their swaying hut. 113

"Get out—GET out!" he shouted urgently. "Quickly. There's a loaded gun up in the rafters!"

The girls fled to the beach and stayed there until the tremors died away and Tom Bell had removed the gun to his own hut.

As they got back into bed, still shaken by their experience, Hettie voiced the unfilial thought that had been clamouring for utterance.

"The old man's crazy! Just fancy, sticking a loaded gun up there right over our heads."

"As if the earthquake wasn't bad enough," supplemented Bess indignantly, "without nearly being shot dead by your own father."

A scene of widespread destruction faced them next morning. Their cliff track had been swept away, and their shovels, pickaxes and other implements had been buried beneath the debris.

When other tools had been brought over from North Beach they set to work again. It took three months to complete the track. At last came the ordeal of getting the sheep up the cliffs and through the bush to North Beach. Some fell over the cliffs and were killed, but most of them reached the Terraces safely and formed the nucleus of Tom Bell's fine Merino flocks.

Although his first venture had been so unfortunate, Bell still held to his cherished plan for running sheep on the island. He had succeeded in laying the foundation, now he must go ahead with the building of his kingdom. There could be no admission of failure, no turning back.

He made another trip to New Zealand in the whaler Splendid, this time bringing back seven hundred sheep, some cattle and several sheep and cattle dogs.

As though enraged by this stiff-necked mortal's refusal to accept defeat, the fates whipped up a storm that blew the ship many miles off her course, lengthening a four-day voyage to nine days of misery. The animals suffered cruelly as the whaler plunged through the heavy seas.

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The sheep died by the score from starvation and exhaustion, and Tom Bell looked on heavy-hearted as their carcases were thrown overboard to the sharks.

When at last the storm died down, the ship made her way to North Beach and the animals that had survived were landed. Many were almost too weak to walk, but somehow Bell and the girls managed to drag and drive them round the cliffs and over the two miles of beach to the haven of the Terraces. The animals soon recovered and throve, together with those already established there.

But whereas the plague of rats was a thing of the past, battalions of caterpillars presently appeared, eating out all the cocksfoot and European grasses Bell had succeeded in growing. He burnt off the stubble and there sprang up a wilderness of Cape gooseberries. The children gathered buckets full of the golden fruit, each berry neatly wrapped in its little gauzy bag. The sheep found pickings in the grass that grew up beneath the shelter of the Cape gooseberries, but in the end the fields had to be replanted with buffalo grass and Poa pratensis. Bell thus secured good grazing once more for his sheep and cattle, now rapidly multiplying.

Under the benign influence of the Lily, the Illustrated London News, and a set of volumes entitled the Popular Self Educator which Bell had brought back from New Zealand, the family began to take an interest in literature and the arts. The latter were represented by line drawings and coloured pictures which the children sat studying night after night. The lavishly-ornamented capital letters held a particular attraction for Hettie and Bess. Patiently their mother unfolded to them mysteries of A-B-C and a-b-c. They graduated from the capitals to the smaller letters, taught themselves two-letter words, and passed from "it" and "at" to "kit" and "cat." All at once they began to read. Bess could never explain how it happened.

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The letters just seemed to make words in her mind, she said, and that was that.

There was no holding them after that. Before long, they were stumbling through the decorous pages of the Lily. Then came a dizzy leap into the heart of Shakespeare, from whom, in a very short time, they learned far more than they would have learned in a lifetime from Amelia Bloomer. Play after play they read. The beauty of words, the fire of poetry and passion, entered their receptive minds. They took the worn old volume with them on their trips to Denham Bay. It accompanied them on their goat-hunting expeditions, and they made frequent excuses for staying overnight in the Crater.

In the cliffs above Blue Lake there was a large cave, so high that the roof was hidden in shadow. With wisps of steam curling round them, and the floor sometimes trembling as on that first thrilling night in The Oven, they read aloud and acted their favourite plays. Here to this haunted cavern came crabbed Caliban, mouthing horrible curses. Here came Macbeth with his spine-chilling greeting: "How now you secret, black and midnight hags!" Here Lady Macbeth wrung her gory hands and out-ed her damn'd spot in shrill dramatic outbursts, "Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?" that would have scared the wits out of any chance visitors from the outside world.

The Tempest, As You Like It, and A Midsummer Night's Dream were the girls' favourites. They read them over and over again, until they knew each play by heart, identifying themselves, no matter how incongruously, with every character. The truth was that the setting and circumstances of their childhood years had been so strange that reality and fantasy had merged in their impressionable minds. As they acted The Tempest in their crater cave, and with the distant thunder of the surf in their ears recited:

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Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,

it seemed to them that they actually were in a cell on an enchanted island. In ferny dells such as Nightbell Gully, and in secluded nooks beside lovely little Tui Lake, it was easy to imagine Titania and her elves and fairies holding their revels.

Thus the boundaries of their little world were enlarged, their imaginations stimulated, and their minds stored with some of the treasures of literature.

Back at home, however, they became absorbed once more in the Lily and the Self Educator. The latter described an astonishing number of short cuts to successful careers, and in its own high-sounding phrase, "epitomized the avenues by means of which lucrative appointments might be secured in many widely varied and interesting occupations." In addition, hobbies, manly games, recreational interests, and numerous items of general knowledge were heavily underlined as essential cultural side-lines to the complete life of man or woman.

For a family of children on a lonely island totally deprived of educational facilities, the Educator held particularly strong appeal. Every evening, Mrs. Bell read aloud impressive real-life stories of young men and women who had climbed to success through the study of its pages in spite of their humble stations in life.

During the readings, Tom Bell sat on his stool, absorbed in a set of Dickens's novels he had brought from Dunedin. Personally, he refused to have any truck with the Educator. The only route to success his own life had known had been by way of hard work, with the prize usually snatched away just as he reached out to grasp it.

One evening when Mrs. Bell had finished reading the list of subjects outlined in the index, Mary, who had not yet outgrown her youthful habit of drooping over people's page 118 shoulders and breathing down their necks, put an important question.

"Now mother, I do believe you've read us everything in the book. What do you think we ought to take up?"

"Well, I don't really know. There are so many things," was the thoughtful reply. Once again Mrs. Bell turned to the index and read aloud "Building of the Pyramids; ballroom dancing; boatbuilding; cooking; dressmaking; development of the steam engine; foreign languages; photography; raising of guinea pigs; study of the stars; shorthand; stamp-collecting. ..." She paused for breath. "Of course most of those aren't really ways of earning a living, but some of them might be useful." Turning to her husband, fathoms deep in the Old Curiosity Shop, she said: "What do you think, Dad?"

"Eh? Think about what?"

"What the children ought to take up. You know. All these things in the Educator. They could go in for ever so many of them."

"Aren't they going in for enough already? Who's going to dig that kumara patch tomorrow? If they've got too much spare time on their hands, I'll soon find them plenty more jobs." He buried himself in the Old Curiosity Shop once more.

Mary had taken no notice of her father's rather discouraging remarks, but had gone on studying the illustrations.

"There! That's what I'm going to be." She pointed triumphantly to a lady with masses of black ringlets and an hour-glass waist, garbed in low-cut evening gown. "What's it say about her, mother?"

' 'How to win success on the Stage. A Famous Female Impersonator.' Oh, that's no good," laughed her mother, "You couldn't be that."

"Why couldn't I? I'm a female, aren't I?"

"Yes, dear, but an impersonator means a person pretending to be some other person that he or she isn't."page 119It took Mary some time to work that out. Then she saw the light.

"Well, could I be a male impersonator then?" she asked hopefully.

Mrs. Bell shook her head. "No, I don't think you'd win much success on the stage. Let's look for something else."

Mary's eye was caught by some odd little dots and dashes. She knew what they were without being told. "Shorthand. I could do that, couldn't I?"

"Quite a good idea. But you'd have to learn to read and write first."

"Oh, that won't take long," replied Mary lightly, "I'll start tomorrow. Bess and Hettie '11 show me how to begin."

The older girls were not enthusiastic about their opportunities for becoming career women. They felt that hunting, gardening, housework and general navvying added up to all they could tackle for some time to come.

"I'm going in for boatbuilding," decided Tom. "A boat would be good fun. I could build it in that big cave in the crater and row it on Blue Lake. It doesn't matter about not being able to read. I can follow the pictures."

Suddenly Hettie changed her mind—perhaps she did not want to be left out of things after all. "I'm going to be a nurse!"

"You can't," objected Bess instantly. "There's nothing about it in the book."

"Don't care! I'm going to be one. Not just now, of course, but later on when I grow up."

Her assurance convinced everybody, even herself.

"Good idea," boomed her father, without looking up from his book. "Your grandmother Bell was a nurse and a dam' fine one. If you turn out half as good as she was, you'll do." And years later, she did.

"Now Harry," prompted his mother. The youngster had not quite made up his mind, but like Hetty he didn't want to be left out of things. He looked doubtfully at the page 120 pictures as his mother slowly turned the pages. Gentlemen playing chess; boys playing cricket; men sitting at office desks, studying books. Harry was not interested. He wanted something with a bit of go in it.

All at once there it was before him—a man wheeling a barrow over a rope stretched across a thundering waterfall!

"There! That's what I'm going to do."

"Good gracious, child!" For the second time Mrs. Bell burst out laughing. "That's Blondin, the most famous tightrope walker in the world. You couldn't possibly walk a tightrope."

"Why not?" asked Harry reasonably.

"Because you'd break your silly neck first go!" They all jumped at their father's sudden roar. "Don't let me hear any more of such nonsense. I'll give you the strap if I catch you up to any tightrope tricks."

"Now mother, you're the last. What would you like to take up?" enquired Mary, still intent on the subject of family careers. The question was polite, but entirely perfunctory. What more could mother want to do than what she was doing already—being just Mother? The Educator could hold out no hope of anything more in life for her than that.

But it did. Frederica had just turned to the Foreign Languages Section. Mary's innocent question suddenly touched some deep-hidden ambition of which she herself had been hardly conscious.

"I'm going to learn Spanish," she said simply.

That finished her husband. He threw the Old Curiosity Shop on the table with a bang. "You've all gone mad! Bess is the only one with any sense in her head . . . And Hettie," he added, catching his elder daughter's eye. "Get the Book, mother. It's time you all went to bed and came to your senses. And no more of this Educator nonsense. Remember what I've said."

The Educator disappeared from the family circle for the page 121 next few evenings. Tom Bell was secretly relieved, but made no comment. Evidently the madness had passed. But he had sadly underrated the malign influence of the thing. It reappeared an evening or two later. His wife became absorbed in her Spanish. Mary, helped by her sisters, struggled with her A-B-G while Tom studied diagrams and set to work carving a cardboard boat with his pocket-knife. The Educator came in sections, so that each number could be taken separately.

Harry's ambition alone seemed to have died abruptly under threat of the strap. His career as a Baby Blondin ended before it had begun, he took to threading necklaces of shells. His father looked on approvingly. Obviously the tightrope had lost its lure.

It had done nothing of the kind. Their father's complacency would have been rudely shattered had he known that it had done something far more reprehensible than he could have imagined. It had ensnared Tom's imagination also. After seeing their father safely off on a trip to Denham Bay one morning, the boys had filched a length of rope and in a spirit of small-boy devilry, sneaked off to Nightbell Gully and stretched it taut a foot from the ground between two trees a couple of yards apart. Harry mounted the rope, and with the assistance of Tom's shoulder and a stick, began to totter across, breathing heavily. The rope sagged and swayed, but with Tom's help, he succeeded in reaching the other end and jumped down in triumph.

"There! I can do it. It's easy as easy! You have a go, Tom!"

Tom had several go's. This was far more fun than hacking out cardboard boats. They staggered across their rope for hours, moving presently from Nightbell Gully to a secluded nook on the Terraces, so that their long absences would not be noticed. After days of practising, their balance had improved sufficiently for the rope to be raised several feet higher. Soon they were shuffling along, page 122 balancing themselves with a pole gripped firmly in both hands.

Tom was making a particularly brilliant crossing one morning when their father suddenly came striding through the screen of nikau branches. His startling appearance and angry exclamation so unnerved the unfortunate Tom that he lost his footing and sprawled flat on the ground at his father's feet.

"So ho, my lad! You've been up to your tricks after all have you?" shouted Bell angrily. "You just come right home with me."

Hauling the youngster up by the scruff of the neck, he ran him home, followed by Harry, weeping loudly. Bell seldom lost his temper with the children or struck them, but this act of secret disobedience and defiance triggered off an upsurge of passion. Seizing the strap which hung behind the door as symbol of parental authority, he bent the boy across his knee, dragged down his pants, and set about giving him half a dozen of the best.

At the first stroke, Tom, smarting as well as frightened, yelled blue murder. Mrs. Bell stood irresolute, not daring to add fuel to fire by interfering. Bess, however, hearing the commotion and coming up the path at a gallop, took one look at the upraised strap about to fall again on Tom's small bared bottom, then sprang at her father and seized the strap. Bell shook her off and raised his arm for the second stroke. Roused to passionate anger, the girl flew at him again and bit him sharply on the shoulder. Bell turned on her furiously, but in a flash she had seized the strap and flung it outside. Next instant she was away down the path to the beach. Tom fled to the safety of his mother's skirts as his father dashed to the door.

"Let her go, Tom! Let her go. Leave the girl alone. You know how it upsets her for any of the children to be thrashed."

"I'll upset her, the young vixen! I'll teach her to bite page 123 her father," he stormed, his fury still at white heat.

He strode off, peered up and down the beach, but could see no sign of the girl. Finally he took his axe, and went off to the Terraces, where a couple of hours' bush-felling brought his blood-pressure back to normal.

Bess returned to the house pale, red-eyed, just before tea-time. After prayers, she went off to bed without speaking to anyone, and for the first time in her life, without kissing her father goodnight.

"I can't think where she gets her temper from," brooded her father, feeling his shoulder tenderly as he undressed for bed. "There's no temper on my side of the family. They do say the girls take after their mother.

But you—you——?" He hesitated a moment, then went on. After all, a man had to be decently honest, even with his wife. "You've never bitten me, have you?"

"N—no," agreed his wife rather wanly. "But——"

She stopped just in time. "But what?" demanded her husband sharply. "Go on! Finish what you were going to say!"

But his wife had retreated into motherhood's impregnable tower.

"Sh—ssh!" She lifted an imperious finger. "You'll wake the baby."

Frederica Bell well knew that her husband was partly right about Bess. She also knew that the girl was the only one of the children who was not afraid of him. They feared him not so much on account of his temper, which, though violent, was always short-lived, but because he held the whole lot of them under the iron rod of an authority that would brook no smallest hint of defiance or criticism. "Father must not be crossed." This was the unwritten law that governed all their lives, including that of his wife. Like many another patient mother, she put up with a very great deal for the sake of peace.

Bess was the only rebel. There was no doubt that she had inherited a dash of her father's high temper, but page 124 almost invariably it was kept under control by cool judgment and a natural sense of dignity unusual in a girl of her years.

There had been a moment during a hunting expedition when under sudden exasperation Bell let loose a flow of lurid language. Bess, then only ten years old, had duly reported this to her mother, no doubt secretly hoping the culprit would receive a good scolding. Instead, her mother temporized, as usual. "Dear dear! If he uses language like that again, you tell him that mother says he mustn't talk Yorkshire." That was all.

Some time later, Bell's hunting knife slipped as he was finishing the skinning of a goat. Dashing the blood from his hand, he had uttered only two or three vehement words when young Bess tackled him. "Father! Mother said next time you started swearing, I was to tell you you mustn't talk Yorkshire."

She hadn't the remotest idea what it meant, but it worked all right. Struck dumb with surprise, the man glared at the child, who met his eyes steadily. Then he strode off into the bush.

"There! Now you've done it." Hettie's voice held ominous warning. "He's gone to cut a big stick to give you a hiding. You'd better scoot!"

"I won't! Mother told me to say it." The girl stood her ground, but turned pale as her father came out of the undergrowth. He carried no stick, however. He merely picked up his knife and said abruptly "Come on. Time to go home."

Bess was never really afraid of him or of any other man, after that.

Although now growing up, Hettie and Bess often forsook the winsome refinements of the Lily and the heady thrill of Shakespeare for some innocent bit of mischief to break the monotony of their work-filled days. These were always taken in good part, with nothing more serious than tit-for-tat reprisals. They were a contented,page 125happy lot of youngsters, and there was never a touch of malice in the tricks they played on one another.

More often than not, Bess was ringleader in these, with Tom a close second. As the eldest boy of the family, he sometimes adopted a superior attitude towards his sisters, who, after all, were "only girls."

Following a brush along these lines, Bess decided one evening to take him down a peg. The three older boys, Tom, Harry and Jack, were going camping. There was nothing the children loved more than an occasional night under the stars, with only a fern or nikau branch between their heads and the silver-patterned sky. The boys set out just before sundown with a frypan, a small tin of mutton-bird oil, and a bundle of their favourite blue-and-gold spotted fish.

In a little glade not far from the house, Tom lit a fire and Jack piled up a bed of dry leaves. As the curtain of twilight fell abruptly, Tom began to fry his fish. Jack lay stretched, half-undressed, on their leafy bed, while Harry sat perched in a branch of a gnarled old pohutukawa, singing at the top of his voice "Now I lay me down to sleep."

Suddenly there came through the darkness a wailing cry, "Whoo-eee! Ooo-eee!"

The frypan slipped out of Tom's hand. Jack sat up straight. Harry's evening hymn ceased abruptly on a split quaver.

"Wh-a-t's that?"

They listened with thumping hearts. The eerie call sounded again, a little more clearly, much more sinister. "ooo-whee-ee ! wh-oooo!"

"It's a hurricane coming down the mountains!" gasped Tom.

"It's a ghost!" yelled Harry as a glimmer of white moved through a dark clump of trees in their direction.

Now thoroughly frightened, the boys fled for refuge to the big tree. Jack, half undressed, clutched at his pants page 126 as he stumbled along, but suddenly they fell down over his feet, and brought him to the ground.

"Wait for me—wait for me!" he cried piteously, as Tom forged on ahead, callously leaving his brother to his fate. Struggling to his feet, hauling off the impeding pants and throwing them aside, Jack reached the tree, where they huddled together as a last dying moan came out of the darkness.

Ten minutes later they were back home, breathless and still shaken.

"Why, whatever's the matter?" exclaimed their mother as they burst into the room. "What have you done with your pants, Jack? I thought you were going to camp out?"

"We heard an awful funny noise," quavered Tom. "Just like a hurricane coming. We thought we-we'd better come home."

"H-ha-ha! Cowardy-cowardy custards!" taunted Bess shamelessly.

"Now, Bess," chided her mother. But the boys saw they were all grinning.

Once safely between the blankets, Tom found voice.

"The sneak! I'll pay her out. I'll give her something to sing out about, you see if I don't."

His opportunity came the very next day. As they came running out of the sea after a swim, his sharp eyes spied a young octopus washed up into a pool on the beach. Not a large octopus. Just a baby, no more than three feet across, but alive and kicking vigorously. Grabbing it by the bag, he chased the screaming Bess up and down the beach, into the water and out again, with the horrible thing waving its tentacles in fright and fury. With a yell of triumph, he finally flung it at her, catching her neatly in the small of the back. Then he collapsed on the sand, doubled up in fits of laughter.

"whoo-oo-ee! ee-oo!" chanted the boys in mocking chorus, as Bess shook the octopus off before it had time to get its suckers firmly attached to her. Then she made for home.

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