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Crusoes of Sunday Island

CHAPTER FIVE — A Night in The Oven

A Night in The Oven

a change of work is said to be as good as a holiday, but this would certainly have been questioned by Bess and Hettie when their father set them to digging the garden for a couple of weeks after their goat-hunting ordeal on the mountain.

Bell had already prepared a piece of ground in which he had planted some of the tropical plants and seeds he had brought from Samoa—taro, yams, bush beans, kumaras and maize. So equable was the Sunday Island climate, with an average temperature of seventy degrees and never a touch of winter frost, that vegetables of almost every kind could be grown all the year round.

Now he wanted to extend his garden, and marked out a plot which meant a good deal of hard digging for the girls. Mrs. Bell's spirits rose at the prospect of a plentiful vegetable supply to supplement the family's diet. Luck had been theirs in finding a few old kumara plants and one taro still growing in a far corner of Johnston's derelict garden. This small windfall was giving out rather too quickly, and all Mrs. Bell had been able to find to supply the need for greens, other than the heart of nikau, was the native puwha, a plant similar to sow-thistle, quite palatable, and resembling spinach when washed and boiled. For many generations the New Zealand Maoris had held the puwha in great esteem, and the Bells had come to like it.

Roast mutton bird now appeared on the menu and, served with puwha, made a tasty meal. The young birds, generally known as "boobies," hatched out in haphazard nests tossed together anywhere on the ground beneath page 44 the trees. When roasted over a fire on forked sticks, they were at first thought delicious by the Bells. But mutton birds and occasional limpets, alternating with goat-flesh, for breakfast, dinner and tea, became monotonous to the younger children. They clamoured for bread and butter, for milk and eggs, and for the other civilized foods which they had been used to.

The most urgent need of all, therefore, was for fresh milk. Reluctant as ever to cross or worry her husband, Frederica finally spoke her mind.

"Listen, Tom! You'll have to get us that nanny quickly. The children must have milk. The garden can wait."

"All right," was her husband's brief reply. "We'll have another go. But they're difficult brutes to catch."

Spades were laid aside, Bell took down his gun, the girls shouldered their packs and set off with their father and the terrier.

At the end of a long chase across the mountains, Bell brought down a goat. As they were making their way home, more goats were sighted, and Patsy quickly rounded up a pure white nanny. It was the girls' job to head her off from dashing back into the bush or from jumping over a cliff in terror before Bell could secure her.

But the children were old hands at the game now, and it was not long before the animal was captured and roped securely. The dead goat had already been skinned and cut up, and the girls each shouldered a sack of meat as they set out again for home. Their progress was slow, for the terrified she-goat had to be dragged almost bodily along, straining at the rope with every step, digging all four feet stubbornly in the ground. The children were very tired indeed by the time they reached one of their camping places on the mountain side and stopped for a rest. Bell glanced at the sun, now well down in the sky. The most difficult part of the long scramble back to Denham Bay still lay ahead and fast falling darkness page 45 would overtake them before they started the descent of the cliffs.

"We won't be able to get the goat and the meat down tonight," he said, "I'll take the nanny and hang up the meat and we'll come and get it tomorrow. It's too late now for you to carry it down the cliffs."

The heavy load of meat was hung securely in a tree. "Come on-what are you hanging back for?" he demanded, as he saw the girls whispering together.

"Father, Hettie and I would like to stay the night up here and look after the meat, if you don't mind. Can we?"

"No! Certainly not. What on earth for? You come along home with me and no nonsense."

"Please, father!" begged Hettie. "We just think it would be fun to stay up here by ourselves. We don't have much fun. And we could look after the goat-meat."

"Dead goat-meat doesn't need looking after." He glanced at the eager faces, saw their disappointment, and hesitated. After all the youngsters didn't get much fun and the capture of the nanny had been a nice piece of work. His frown relaxed. There was even the hint of a smile in his eyes as he said, "Oh all right. You'll be perfectly safe so long as you don't go wandering round in the dark and falling over cliffs. Look after yourselves, and mind you're right here when I come up in the morning."

He strode off, the nanny with her feet tied and her plump body slung over his shoulders. Unable to move her legs, she heaved her body in convulsive wriggles and filled her captor's ears with strident bleatings for the kid that had been running with her.

The girls watched until their father was out of sight in the bush. They felt a joyous sense of release and freedom. Their eyes met.

"What'll we do first, Het?"

"Have our tea! I'm rattling, aren't you? Good thing mother gave us plenty of fern-root. But I wish we had some of Allan Greer's chocolate biscuits." page 46 They set to gnawing bits of fern-root, which was used occasionally by the Bells as a substitute for taro. It was tough and unappetising to look at, but quite edible when roasted over a slow fire. This was another of the "live off the land" hints picked up by the Bells from their Maori friends. It had proved invaluable.

As the girls ate their meagre supper, they looked out on a strange scene, in which natural beauty was scarred by sinister devastation. Only a few years had passed since the island had trembled beneath the shock of the 1872 earthquake and eruption, which had sent Johnston and other settlers rushing to a cave on the beach in panic. One of the crater lakes had blown up in an ejection of boiling mud and dense clouds of steam, together with showers of red-hot ashes and pumice that had killed all vegetation, and covered the snores of the lake in many places to a depth of ten feet.

By the time the Bells arrived on the island, the lakes had refilled; the smaller one was a dark jade green, the other a translucent blue. Jets of steam still spurted from the riven cliffs above the old crater, and the shores of the Blue Lake were lined with the wreckage of trees that looked as though they had been boiled. Every trace of bark and greenery had been stripped from the trunks; most of them stood up stark and white as a phantom army of skeletons. Some still held in their shattered branches great lumps of dried mud.

Very little new growth had as yet appeared on the pumice and mud flats, but the encircling cliffs, rising almost vertically to a height of five hundred feet, had escaped the devastation, and were still clothed in their original mantle of forest growth.

The girls sat and watched silently as the colours of the sunset blazed and intensified, then faded quickly to the mother-of-pearl tints of brief sub-tropical twilight. Normally, of course, their range of vision at night was limited by the cliff-walls of Denham Bay; and on earlier page 47 nights on the cliffs they had been fast asleep before sunset. But tonight they were wide awake and excited, and this was actually the first wide-encircling sunset panorama they had seen since their arrival on the island.

Presently their minds turned to more personal matters.

"I wonder what they're doing down at the hut? Mother will get a surprise when Dad gets back without us. I hope he doesn't fall and break his neck going down the cliff with that nanny. Mother would be terribly disappointed. She's wanted one for so long."

Hettie's solicitude, all for the nanny, woke instant response in her sister.

"If he fell on his back, he'd bust the nanny, and then we'd never be able to get another without him. Oh well, I suppose he's old enough to take care of himself. I say Het, isn't it lovely up here away from them all, just the two of us. Just like a holiday."

"Urn—m. I wish we could come up oftener. You know, a real picnic, not always having to run after those silly old billy goats. We don't have any fun now like we used to have at Apia."

"Not even a dive or a swim," agreed Bessie. "Just a lick-n'-a-promise, and Saturday nights in the wash-tub." She sighed. It had been a hard job indeed for their father to keep the girls out of the sea at Denham Bay. Even when the water was glass-smooth a little way out from the shore, the long Pacific roll always kept forming imperceptibly, swelling and heaving inshore, crashing suddenly on the steep-sloping beach in one immense wave that sucked back with sufficient force to sweep any swimmer off his feet, out to deep water and the waiting sharks.

As they sat quietly, looking out into the afterglow, the girls' gaze was caught by a wisp of white that was creeping up the mountain side above the crater lake like a thin column of smoke. They knew it was steam issuing from a rift that opened out into a cave inside the cliff, which they had named The Oven.

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A sudden daring thought flashed into Hettie's active brain.

"Bess! Wouldn't it be fun to go and sleep in The Oven? Are you on?

"What for?" Bess was feeling tired, and quite ready to call it a day.

"Fun, of course, silly! It would be lovely in there. We might never get the chance again. Oh, come on, Bess. We'll get up as soon as it's light and come back here."

"What would mother say? And wouldn't father just make a row."

"We wouldn't need to tell a soul. We'll keep it as our own secret and not tell Mary or anybody."

That did it. Bess loved secrets with all a nine-year-old's love of the importance of knowing something unknown to others. She jumped to her feet. "All right! Let's go! We'll have to hurry to get there before dark."

Snatching up their sleeping coats they dashed off. Now that the warmth of day had passed, the steam was curling thickly into the rapidly cooling air. "It'll be lovely and warm in The Oven," said Hettie, as they crept through the narrow opening. They groped their way into the darkness inside, tucked themselves up in their coats and lay down on the warm, steamy earth.

Neither reminded the other of the evening prayer, but presently Bess rather self-consciously started a verse of their hymn. But it sounded out of place in that dark hole, and the singing ceased abruptly before they got to the angels keeping watch about their heads. It didn't seem quite the thing, somehow, to drag their heavenly guardians into an unauthorized spree of this kind, particularly with such a horrible sulphurous smell coming up through the floor.

The night outside grew very still. The girls stopped talking and listened to a peculiar thumping and rumbling, and a sound like water bubbling and boiling deep down in some subterranean stokehole.

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Black and white photograph of Sunday Island.

Sunday Island. Looking eastwards from North Beach to the double camel-humps of Myer Island [Photograph by N.Z. National Publicity Studios]

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Black and white photograph of Sunday Island coastline.

The precipitous coastline of Sunday Island [Photograph by N.Z. National Publicity Studios]

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"Just like our old kettle on the boil," giggled Hettie, to whom even a hint of danger was as the breath of life. "D'you think she's going to blow up again, Bess?"

"Shouldn't think so. She hasn't gone up again since the last time," said Bess sagely. "I don't see why she would pick on tonight. It sounds like there was only just enough fire left down there to keep the kettle on the boil. She'd need lots more than that to blow up the island."

With which consoling thought they snuggled close up to one another and went to sleep.

"I hope they'll be all right up there by themselves," said Mrs. Bell with a twinge of motherly uneasiness as she got into bed. "Sometimes I think Hettie is a little too daring and drags Bess into things."

"Good Lor'! What a worrier you are! There's nothing to hurt them up there," chided her husband from the depths of a yawn. "They couldn't get into mischief if they tried."

All night long the rumbling and kettle-boiling went on, with an occasional shudder that seemed to run across the floor of the cave. But the girls never stirred. They had gone off to sleep, without the faintest apprehension of danger, in a hole in the cliff which even a slight earthquake-fall of rock might have sealed up irrevocably, leaving not a trace of two small victims entombed within.

When Hettie and Bess woke, The Oven was filled with sulphurous steam, and there was a choking feeling in their chests as they ran to the mouth of the cave and took deep breaths of the morning air. Moumoukai's peak glowed in the early morning sun and the lake lay still and inviting below. Flinging off their sleeping coats and frocks, the girls scrambled down the hillside and jumped into the deliciously warm water. They dived, they swam, they

sang and whooped for sheer joy of living. It was the first hour of pure happiness they had known since they had landed on the island.

"My goodness! Aren't you glad we came?" said Hettie as they dried themselves briskly on their sleeping coats. "I bet the Children of Israel never struck anything that was a patch on this, even if they did find that big bunch of grapes."

When their father arrived, a good deal later, he found them sitting beneath the nikaus in their camping place, diligently plaiting themselves nikau-leaf hats.

He was in good humour and had brought a couple of pieces of broiled fish for their breakfast. "Have a good night?" he asked. "Yes, thank you, father," they answered politely. "Well, come on then. You'll have to get to work on the garden as soon as we get down. You can finish your breakfast as you go."

He untied the sack of goat-meat from the tree, slung it across his shoulders, and led off briskly.

"I told you so!" he said to his wife a few hours later.

"Sitting up there as good as gold, plaiting themselves hats. No danger of those two getting up to any monkey tricks when I'm not there."

He sounded quite proud of his obedient young daughters.

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