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Crusoes of Sunday Island

CHAPTER FOUR — The First Day and After

The First Day and After

Early next morning Tom Bell went down to the beach and had the good luck to land a couple of electric-blue fish with golden spots down their sides, a kind he had never seen before. They were as good to eat as they were beautiful to look at. After breakfast Bess and Hettie, dressed in the neat denim frocks they always wore, a tunic topping a short, full skirt, went off to explore their surroundings. They returned with several bunches of white grapes they had found trailing through the undergrowth.

A less happy discovery was that of three small graves set close together, almost hidden by weeds, which Bell decided were those of three children of an early settler, who had died, according to Chris Johnston, through eating the deadly poisonous, juicy, black berries of the tu tu, a plant that grew plentifully on the island and also in New Zealand. This sombre warning probably saved the lives of the Bell children in the days that followed, when they were driven by hunger to eat anything which looked even remotely edible.

Frederica had also been made aware of another sad chapter in the island's history when she had come across a group of nine overgrown mounds, each close beside the other, not far from the hut. She learned later that these were the graves of some of the victims of the pestilence which had been brought to the island.

It was an ominous beginning to the family's first day on Sunday Island.

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"I think I'd better go up the cliffs and see if I can get a goat," said Bell, after pitching a couple of tents which were to be the family's quarters until a hut was built. "Bess and Hettie can come with me later on, but for the present they'll have to cut raupo (swamp reeds) and nikau leaves for the hut."

Taking the girls down to the swamp, he gave each a strong knife, and set them to work cutting the tall, spear-shaped leaves. They already knew how to handle the nikau palms for they were the same as those growing in New Zealand forests. First a deep cut down the swelling bole, then the stripping one by one of the long, branching leaves, until only the thick white stalk of the tight-folded heart leaves remained. These made good eating, crisp and delicately flavoured, and when cooked, tasted like heart of celery. Many a time in the days that followed, the nikau saved the family from the worst pangs of hunger.

Late in the afternoon, Bell returned from the mountains empty-handed.

"It's no use," he told his wife. "I must have the dog to round them up, and I'll need the girls too, to stop the animals from jumping over the cliffs."

But the little black-and-tan terrier Patsy had chased a wild cat into the forest and lost herself. When she came back, days later, more dead than alive, three of the pups had died. Frederica Bell managed somehow to keep the remaining one alive, but it was some time before Patsy recovered sufficiently to take part in the goat-hunting.

During the days that followed the landing, Bell worked with the strength of two men, and tried to make his young daughters work to the same pattern. His iron determination, strengthened to near-desperation by the loss of their food supplies, drove him to the limit "of his own physical endurance. Inured to hardship by long years of rigorous living, he took little heed of the fact that the girls were only growing children, now deprived of the food necessary to build up vitality after each day's loss.

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Eighty years later, Bess, the only surviving sister of those days, spoke of them as a nightmare which went on and on, week after week, month after month, with no merciful waking. At an age when other little girls were trotting to school and playing with their dolls, she and Hettie were suffering hunger and thirst, enduring the perils of goat-hunting expeditions, days of back-breaking toil and nights of woeful exhaustion.

For many days after the landing, they were kept working in the swamp, often up to their waists in muddy water, hacking at the tough reeds and raupo leaves until their hands were blistered, and then carrying great bundles to the hut site on their backs. Harder still was stooping and gathering up the heavy-stemmed nikau branches, often fourteen feet long, and hauling the unwieldy loads through dense forest undergrowth, tangled with creepers and vines which tripped their feet and caught them by the neck and shoulders.

At the lower end of the bay Bell had found a pile of bricks from the chimney of a derelict hut. These the girls carried up the beach on their backs, load after load, until the supply gave out. Foot by foot a fine strong chimney was built, taking up almost one end of the roomy kitchen, and providing Frederica Bell with plenty of space for her cooking pots and camp oven on wet days. In fine weather she did her cooking in the open.

The matter of flooring the hut gave her husband a good deal of thought, but the difficulty was solved by the fortunate discovery of a very good clay deposit not far from the lagoon. He dug out piles of the stuff, which the girls carried up to the hut. Water was poured over the clay to soften it; it was then spread on the ground in a thick, even mass, and left for a few days to harden. When the clay had dried out, it provided a hard, smooth floor surface, which, Mrs. Bell found much to her satisfaction, could be swept without raising a speck of dust.

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The family's scanty food supply gave out some time before the hut was finished. The children had knocked every limpet from the rocks-they were not over-plentiful-and a long succession of westerlies, with heavy surf and strong backwash, had made fishing too dangerous to be attempted. Tom Bell had made one or two goat-hunting trips alone, but had had poor success, only occasionally managing to bring back a goat.

Frederica Bell, who had uttered no word of complaint or wifely reproach since the day of their arrival on the island, at last remonstrated with her husband.

"Tom, you'll have to leave off work on the hut for a day or two, and get us a nanny goat," she said firmly one morning. "The children simply must have milk."

As always Bell paid respectful heed to the note of urgency in his wife's quiet voice. "All right, Fred. I'll go this morning. Hettie and Bess can come up with me, and we'll take Patsy. Can you give us anything to eat, in case we have to stay out for the night?"

"Only a bit of dried goat-meat and a few biscuits."

"That'll do. Johnston said there was fresh water up in the crater lake, so we won't go thirsty."

The girls were excited and delighted at the prospect of taking part at last in a goat-hunting expedition and stuck their knives in their belts like seasoned hunters.

"Here! Take those things out!" their father ordered when he caught sight of them. "You can't climb cliffs with knives sticking into your stomachs."

Throwing the knives into their tent, Hettie and Bess, followed by Patsy, ran on ahead to the foot of the cliffs, where the track ended. Blankly they stared up at the rock wall.

'There's no track, father," Bess called back. "Which way do we go?"

"Straight up!'

And straight up it was, nearly a thousand feet. Bell went first, swinging himself over almost sheer rock-faces page 39 by dangling vines and creepers, now and again leaning down to give the girls a hand, until they reached the bush line. Here the going was safer, but hardly less difficult. Patsy whimpered and trembled, but somehow they pushed and pulled her up. Presently the way was so steep that they had to pull themselves up by the branches of trees, passing the terrier up from one to the other.

The girls were breathless, and their hands and feet badly scratched by the time they reached the top of the cliffs. Their way then lay through the forest, where they followed a maze of goat tracks which ran up and down across steep hillsides and through deep ravines sloping down to the crater lake in the centre of the island. The children, like their parents, always went barefoot, but even the girls' now well-hardened feet suffered painful cuts and scratches as they scrambled over the rough tracks.

Luck was with them. In mid-afternoon, when Bell was thinking dejectedly of another lost day, Patsy slipped quickly through the bushes and cornered a startled billy goat on a ledge of rock. Tom dropped him with his first shot. The animal was skinned, cut up and stowed in a sack slung on Bell's shoulders. Greatly relieved at the thought of being able to take back some fresh meat, he gave up further quest for a nanny-goat, and at last allowed the children to sit down and eat their scanty lunch. He himself was well able to go without food all day, so pulled out his pipe very contentedly and had a smoke. Hettie and Bess were tod tired to make their way to the lake, so quenched their thirst with a handful of kawakawa berries, small and yellow, with little taste, but known by Bell to be non-poisonous. Like many other trees and shrubs in the Sunday Island forests, the kawakawa was a native of New Zealand also, although as a general rule the Sunday Island varieties were of more luxuriant growth.

Sliding and slithering, working their way down the mountain side with utmost care, Hettie and her sister page 40 reached the foot of the cliffs safely and ran quickly to the tents.

"We got one!" cried Bess excitedly.

"Not a nanny, a billy!" shrilled Hettie, as their mother came out to meet them.

Tom Bell dumped his heavy load beside the cooking pots. "Sorry, Fred! No nanny today, but some meat to keep us going for a day or two."

"Well, that's something to be thankful for. How did the girls get on?" Mrs. Bell eyed her daughters' blood-splashed legs and feet with some concern.

"Splendidly!" was the hearty reply, at which the girls' hearts lifted proudly. "Patsy too! She cornered the old billy like a veteran. We'll go up again in a day or two and get you that nanny."

"Two if you can, please, Tom," requested Mrs. Bell, who believed in striking while the iron was hot. "With plenty of milk we'd be able to carry on nicely until our stores come."

When the hut was finished, goat-hunting became the order of the day. The novelty and excitement of the first trips soon wore off for the girls, however. The goats seemed presently to have moved to the north side of the island. Sometimes several days passed without one being sighted.

The food position grew serious once more. Day by day, wet or fine, the cliffs had to be scaled. A goat would sometimes be killed too late in the day for the hunters to make the homeward journey before darkness fell. The animal would be skinned and hung from a tree, and the girls, sometimes hungry, sometimes fortunate enough to have saved a morsel of food from their lunch, would he down beneath the trees, covering themselves with little sleeping coats their mother had made from an old fringed shawl. When the heat of the day was over the nights were always cool and dew-laden on the mountains.

Their father never troubled to lie down to rest on these page 41 nights out; he would make a small fire with his flint, used now in place of matches, and sit by it all night, drowsing and smoking, until the first light of dawn.

No matter how hard the day had been, the girls never complained of their weariness or bruises. As Hettie had only too truly confided to Allan Greer, their father liked them to be tough; they knew that any sign of weakening would have greatly annoyed him.

But there came a night on the mountain when Bess nearly gave in. Early in the day she had caught her foot in a creeper and had a bruising fall, cutting her ankle on a sharp rock. She made no complaint or fuss, brushing the blood from her leg now and again with a handful of leaves. Her father took no notice. His indifference sometimes seemed a strange thing in a parent, but it was probably a kind of desperation rather than callousness that prompted his lack of sympathy. Disaster had already struck, and nobody could tell what might lie ahead. The girls were his only helpers in these gruelling expeditions. They had to be tough, had to learn to suffer and not weaken, or he would not be able even to lay the foundations of his kingdom.

So he strode on, leaving the girls to follow as best they could. With occasional help from Hettie, Bess limped along and said nothing. Added to her pain was weakness from hunger. There had been literally nothing in the hut they could take for lunch, and all she and Hettie had eaten since they had set out was the heart of a nikau palm and a handful of berries, washed down by a drink of water. When night came Bess pulled on her sleeping coat and curled up thankfully on a pile of leaves beneath a tree. "Bess-your prayers!"

Hettie's shocked voice brought the weary girl to her knees beside her sister. Together they repeated childhood's imperishable prayer:

"Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, Look upon a little child. …"

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"Now the hymn," said Hettie inexorably. The childish voices, one rather weak and faltering, the other clear and strong, came through the quiet night to their father crouched over his fire.

The singing ceased, and the children slept.

Too oppressed in mind to sleep, Tom Bell presently sat up, knocked out his pipe against a tree, and stared sombrely into the night. Away out there beyond the horizon, six hundred miles distant, was Auckland. Familiar scenes came into his mind's eye. Lamplit homes and streets, men and women out strolling and gazing in shop windows, brightly-lit ferry boats passing up and down the harbour, carrying chattering crowds to and from their homes on North Shore. Human companionship, warmth, light … life!

Had a lighted ship shown up over the horizon in that hour and stood in to Denham Bay, the man sitting brooding on the mountain would have been down on the beach at daybreak, and there would have been written into the history of the South Pacific not the saga of a man who won and lost an island Eden, but the brief record of yet another frustrated Sunday Islander.

But no ship came.

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