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Crusoes of Sunday Island


The Landing

The high peaks of Sunday Island showed up on the horizon early next morning, first a faint blur that might have been a torn wisp of cloud between sea and sky, then a phantom island which hour by hour took definite shape, until in mid-afternoon the formidable cliffs were only a mile distant.

Captain McKenzie eyed the white line of surf thundering down on a wide-sweeping beach with dour misgiving.

"Make a landing on North Beach if you can," Johnston had advised. "If the wind's westerly, the surf won't be so heavy there as at Denham Bay." But the wind was a strong nor'easterly. As the Norval crept cautiously onward, the sight of the towering glass-green rollers was enough for the captain. He swung his ship out to the west, and made for the other side of the island.

The Bells stood together on deck, gazing intently at stretches of rugged headlands and wind-swept cliffs dropping straight down to the breakers.

As the ship sailed along the menacing shore, the children stared in forlorn bewilderment and disappointment.

"Doesn't look much like the Promised Land, does it?" Allan Greer gave Bess's hand a sympathetic squeeze. She was too absorbed in gazing landward to reply. But there was still nothing to be seen but sweeping terraces of brown sandhills, rocky cliffs and beach, and in the background dark, forest-clad mountains.

Presently McKenzie brought the schooner round Hutchinson's Bluff, the westward extremity of the island,page 29and steered into Denham Bay, a wide-curving crescent which bit deep into the western coast.

Bessie screamed suddenly. "Sharks! Look, look! They're following us!"

The startled watchers looked down and saw a pack of more than a dozen of them cruising just beneath the surface of the water, their sharp dorsal fins cutting it as they kept pace with the ship. After the first moment of fright, however, the Bells took no notice of them. They had eyes only for the scene which was unfolding as the Norval drew in to the upper end of the bay.

The wind had subsided to a pleasant breeze, and the thunder of surf came as no more than a distant echo across the island.

The sea broke in a single toppling wave of sapphire blue on a beach of coarse sand. From the strip of foreshore, an encircling wall of cliffs rose straight up to a height of nearly a thousand feet.

Cresting the island was a jagged line of volcanic peaks and pinnacles. Deep ravines and razor-back ridges showed dark blue, purple-shadowed, among the green forest that clothed the entire island. High above all, crowned with a filmy wreath of mist, rose the 1,730-foot peak of Sunday Island's highest mountain, which Tom Bell later named Moumoukai, after a high peak beyond his old home in Nuhaka.

Masses of dark red flowers laid a canopy of bloom on endless groves of pohutukawa, well known to the Bells as New Zealand's Christmas tree. The trees completely clothed the mountain sides, and swept across the strip of flat land at the head of the bay in a vivid flare of crimson.

"It's too late to land you all today," said Captain McKenzie, turning to Tom Bell after they had anchored, "but you can go ashore yourself and have a look round, if you like."

A boat was lowered, and Tom Bell went ashore.

He was back within an hour, bringing a bagful of the page 30 biggest, sweetest oranges they had ever tasted. "Only one tree left in the Bay," he said, "but my word, aren't they beauties?"

His wife took him aside. "What do you think, Tom?" There was a note of deep anxiety in her voice. "Will it do?"

"Aye, Fred," he answered reassuringly. "It'll do!"

They were up at sunrise next morning. The terrier and four new-born pups they had brought from Apia seemed to know there was some excitement on hand. They contributed to it with shrill little barks and restless whimperings.

It was a morning perfect as only sunny South Sea mornings can be. The cloud-cap had lifted from Moumoukai, and sheaves of sunbeams struck down presently into the shadowed ravines, lighting up the glow of crimson on the groves of pohutukawa and glittering on the blue waters of the Bay.

A scene of sub-tropical beauty, thought Allan Greer, leaning over the Norval's rail, lovelier than anything northern lands could show.

"Doesn't look nearly so bad now, does it?" he said to Hettie, who presently came running up to him with the rest of the children at her heels. "I'm going to give you a whole new tinful of chocolate biscuits to remember me by."

"I wish you could come and live with us," said Bess wistfully when the clamour of joy had subsided. "We could have lots of fun."

Allan slipped his arm round her shoulders and drew her closer in a little movement of affection-and pity. Looking at the formidable cliffs, the thick forests and upstanding rock peaks, it didn't look much like fun for these youngsters, however tough and high-spirited they might be.

The landing took all morning. By midday everything had been hauled on to the beach, well above high water page 31 mark, and Mrs. Bell, the children and the dogs were rowed ashore.

The boat shot high up the beach to the strong final thrusts of the sailors' oars, and they all jumped out on to the coarse, gravelly sand.

"I wish I could stay and help you get settled," said Greer to Mrs. Bell, "But captain wants to sail before the wind gets up. Here are the children's biscuits-and mind you don't gobble them up all at once," he warned the youngsters, who had formed a small circle round him.

With a feeling of sadness he wished them all goodbye. He had become really fond of them, and his heart misgave him as to the outcome of what seemed to him to be a fantastic gamble.

He jumped into the waiting boat with a final wave of the hand. "Goodbye!" he and McKenzie shouted as oars dipped and feathered, and the bright drops fell.

"Good luck! I'll be back in three months with all your stuff, so keep a good look out for me!" was McKenzie's parting call.

The family stood on the beach, waving and watching, until the men mounted the ship's deck and the anchor was weighed. Dipping and bowing, her sails bent to the freshening westerly, the schooner made a beautiful picture as she left the Bay and stood out to the open ocean.

"Only three months," said Frederica Bell consolingly to the children, as they walked slowly up the beach, with many wistful backward glances. "That won't be long to wait, and then Captain McKenzie will bring us back all kinds of good things from Auckland."

They never saw the Norval or her captain again.

Mrs. Bell and the children crossed a ridge of sand and coarse grass separating the beach from a broad strip of level land that reached back to the foot of the cliffs.

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Trailing masses of rose-pink convolvulus tangled the children's feet as they crossed the sandbanks, and they cried out in delight to find wide stretches of ground on the other side massed with mauve ageratum, acre upon acre of fluffy, sweet-smelling flowers.

It was here, on the only piece of level ground on the western side of the island, that almost every party of early settlers had made their homes, close to the lagoon which provided the only readily accessible supply of fresh water on the island.

"We'll camp here," said Thomas Bell, who had been reconnoitring. "You youngsters come and help carry up some of the stores, and mother will get us some lunch."

They went off to the head of the beach. Frederica Bell lit a fire and set up her camp oven, a large iron pot with a close-fitting flat cover, on which live embers were laid when the fire beneath died down to a glowing mass. This was the way every pioneer mother in New Zealand cooked in the early days; right well it baked bread, roasted, fried and broiled meat and vegetables.

Her husband returned with several large tins and dumped them on the ground. "Open a tin of flour, Tom," she said, "and I'll make a batch of scones for lunch."

The tin was opened. It contained nothing but a hard blue lump of mould.

"Open another tin." Mrs. Bell tried to keep her voice steady.

The contents of the second tin were in the same condition, also the third.

"We'll have a look at the cabin bread," said Bell tensely.

It contained nothing but a mass of crumbs and weevils. Other tins were opened. Everything was in the same condition.

The Bells stared at the tins in deep dismay as they were brought face to face with the grim fact that the entire stock of foodstuffs bought from McKenzie was unfit to page 33 eat. All too obviously it had lain in the hold of the Norval during many trips to tropical island stations, until the Bells had come along and McKenzie had been able to off-load it to an unfortunate family making their way to an uninhabited island.

Even Frederica Bell's strong spirit quailed; her husband, almost blind with fury, stamped on the ground and flung his arms wide.

A man of strong temper, he seldom lost control and swore, but when he did, he knew what to say.

"The low-down scoundrel!" he shouted. "The——!"

"Not here, Tom," interrupted his wife. "Go down to the beach."

He turned furiously, and went. Gradually his shouts died away in the distance.

The Bell's first meal on Sunday Island consisted of a packet of sandwiches and biscuits packed for the children by the NorvaVs cook. A few scraps were saved for the hungry terrier and her pups.

After lunch Bell unpacked his fishing line, baited the hook hopefully with a scrap of meat saved from a sandwich, and went down to the beach. But the sea had risen under a gusty wind, and heavy waves were breaking on the rocks in a smother of foam and spray. Fishing was out of the question.

The Bells' dinner that evening consisted of fried limpets which Hettie and Bess had knocked from the rocks, the remains of the sandwiches, an orange, a chocolate biscuit apiece, and a drink of water from the lagoon. During the afternoon the children had gathered piles of dried grass and leaves from the nikau palms, which were spread on the warm earth to serve as beds. At sunset Tom Bell returned from a final inspection of his household belongings still unopened on the sandhills, and sat down with his family beneath the trees.

"Now mother," he said quietly, "the Book."

From her carpet bag his wife brought out the worn

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Bible she had carried with her through all the years since her girlhood in London. Following a practice they had observed all their married life, she handed the Bible to her husband. Unerringly he turned to the 91st Psalm, and read aloud words of consolation written four thousand years ago by another wanderer:

"Whoso dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. ..."

Finishing the psalm he handed the book to his wife, who read from the Sermon on the Mount a passage which might have been written, she thought, for the Bells themselves, stranded on that lonely shore.

"Take no thought for the morrow, For the morrow shall take thought For the things of itself… Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

The reading was followed, as always, by the singing of the family's evening hymn, but it ended rather abruptly at the second verse, the children being too tired and sleepy to sing any more.

As brief twilight merged into night the Bells lay down to sleep on their beds of grass beneath an old sail hung from the branches of a pohutukawa.

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