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Crusoes of Sunday Island

CHAPTER NINE — The Dream Takes Shape

The Dream Takes Shape

On a grey, quiet day after a heavy northerly had at last blown itself out, the Bells' second ship, another Yankee whaler, came sailing down to the island. No need this time for a frantic rush to light a bonfire. She headed straight for North Beach and dropped anchor. So calm was the sea that the whaleboat landed high up the beach, where the Bells were waiting to welcome the visitors.

The captain jumped out and came striding up to the group.

"Well, here's another Yankee whaler come to see how you're making out," was his cheery greeting. "I'm Abel Brightman, Whaler California. And we know all about the Bell family!"

He shook hands with them, gave young Mary a pat on the head and the boys a friendly slap on the back.

"You met the Canton?" queried Tom Bell eagerly. "They told you about us?"

Brightman laughed. "They sure told us everything. How are you getting along now? Better this side than at Denham Bay?"

"Everything's going well. We've beaten the rats, anyway."

"That's fine and dandy!" He broke off as another man joined them. "Meet my first mate, Parkins Christian. Here's the Bell family, Mr. Christian, just as I told you, all come down to give us a welcome. I'll wager you've heard of Parkins, Mr. Bell?"

"Heard of him, who hasn't? Holder of the record for sperm whaling in the South Pacific, seven for one lowering! By Jove, I'm proud to meet you, Mr. Christian." His

handshake made Parkins Christian, himself a giant in strength, wince with pain, but he returned it with such cordiality that it was Tom Bell who furtively rubbed his numbed fingers.

"Well now, come up to the house," invited Mrs. Bell, "and take a cup of coffee with us. I can't offer you tea, but I don't suppose American sailors would look at it even if I had it to offer."

"Funny thing, ma'am, but I've gone right off cawfee," said Brightman obligingly, "and so has Mr. Christian, so we've brought you a little chest of Orange Pekoe. Reckon you could use it?"

"Use it! My stars, I should think I could! I haven't had a good cup of tea for dear knows how long." Mrs. Bell's delight was pathetic. Her old brown earthenware teapot standing empty on the shelf had long been for her one of Sunday Island's saddest sights.

The whaleboat brought to the home on Low Flat stores of sugar, candles, oil, and the caustic soda required by Mrs. Bell for making her own supply of soap. Her husband would accept none of these stores save in the way of barter. His money had been stolen, he possessed only the tattered clothes he stood up in, but he was now able to make return in kind, and the whaleboat carried back to the California several sacks of kumaras and baskets of oranges. Before leaving, however, Brightman made Tom a parting gift beyond all price.

"Reckon you could do with a boat, Mr. Bell? Fishing, taking stuff round to Denham Bay and so on?"

"Do with one? I've been wondering if I could build one ever since we landed. It's the one thing we need more than anything else."

"Well, I'm leaving you one right now."

"Leaving me one?" Bell could hardly believe his ears. "But how . . . what . . . well, what about the ship's owners? You'd have to get another."

Brightman's laugh reassured him. "You would 'n have page 99 to worry about that. Y' know what whaling's like! We often have a go with a crusty old customer and lose a boat and no questions asked. I'll send one in for you when I get back to the ship."

It was not much wonder that nearly eighty years later, Bessie finished up every Sunday Island story with the words, "It was always the American whalers who were our best friends."

The Bells' happiest, busiest day since the visit of the Canton ended all too quickly. With the sunset dazzling their eyes, they stood on the North Beach cliffs and waved, until when the sun had gone the California was no more than a dark bird dipping away over the indigo sea.

Pleasant as the day had been, and grateful as the Bells were for Brightman's kindness, it was Parkins Christian who had stolen the honours, so far as the children were concerned. Tall, darkly handsome with the luminous eyes and rich colouring of his high-born Tahitian mother, he became the children's hero and best friend for years to come.

"You can be proud to know Parkins Christian," Bell told his family that evening. "He's not only a famous whaler. It was his grandfather, Fletcher Christian, who was leader of the mutiny on the Bounty. And if I've never told you about that, I'll tell you now."

Like most men of his generation, Bell knew from start to finish the story of the most famous mutiny in seafaring history, a story of tragedy and shame, suffering and bitter expiation that for nearly two hundred years has stirred the imagination of men throughout the world. The children listened spellbound as Bell told them of Captain Bligh's harsh treatment of his crew until they had finally mutinied, and led by Fletcher Christian, had turned Bligh adrift in a boat with the non-mutineers, and with Christian at the helm had sailed the Bounty across the Pacific until the rocky pinnacles of Pitcairn Island came in sight.

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On its inhospitable shores they had landed and burned their ship. There, amid scenes of drunkenness and debauchery, the final chapters in one of the grimmest sagas of the sea were written, and Fletcher Christian's son was born of his Tahitian mother. Within a few years, every man on the island save two had met with violent death. Only the women and young children were left, to carry on in later years an amazing story of regeneration and redemption. A generation later, a number of families were removed to Norfolk Island. Here Parkins Christian had married and made his home, until the sea called him.

He told the young Bells nothing of this dark chapter in his family history, but regaled them with snatches of the immortal story of the Great White Whale, Moby Dick, that bit whaleboats in half and crunched them to pieces in his awful jaws.

"Come again! Come again!" the children called as they waved their guests good-bye.

The California visited Sunday Island several times. On his second visit not long afterwards, Captain Brightman brought his wife with him. That was a wonderful day for Frederica Bell. Mrs. Brightman was the first woman she had seen and spoken to since she had left Samoa three years before.

Parkins Christian proved a good friend to Tom Bell. A handyman of rare ability, he was skilled in all the Polynesian arts that had enabled the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives to survive the ordeal of life on Pitcairn. During the years of the 'eighties, moving from the California to other ships, he still kept in touch with the family, helping Tom in numberless ways in the building of his one-man Utopia, until his ship made its final trip to Sunday Island, and they saw him no more.

The California brought the family not only urgently needed supplies for their bodily needs, but food for their minds as well, in the form of several bound volumes of page 101 the Illustrated London News, and a number of copies of a genteel and highly popular American women's magazine, the Lily. It was one of the first journals of its kind and contained a remarkable variety of articles and stories of feminine interest. Its founder and editor was Mrs. Amelia Bloomer, who later won world fame as pioneer of a campaign for taking women out of their skirts and putting them into trousers, later modified to the bloomer.

"Listen to this," said Mrs. Bell, looking over a Lily after the California had sailed on her way. "It says 'Long skirts, small waists and whalebones can be dispensed with, and we women shall be allowed breathing room and our forms shall be what Nature made them.' What nonsense!"

Neither mother nor daughters were impressed. They had no idea that those modest words were destined to echo through the world, and usher in a new age that started with the baggy bloomer and found its highest expression more than half a century later in skin-fitting matador pants. Their waists were as God made them; the only whalebone the girls had ever heard of was that which held ocean monsters' bodies together, and their skirts reached no lower than their knees.

Just what the tough whalers found to interest them in the refinements of the Lily, Mrs. Bell could not fathom, but she and the girls, to whom she read it aloud, enjoyed the social items and descriptions of a kind of life of ease and elegance they were never to know.

The younger children spent whole evenings poring over the "London Illustrateds," until the pages were dog-eared and worn, listening raptly to their parents' explanations of the pictures, and discussions of items of deep and nostalgic interest to the exiles.

Thus at last, the windows of the great outside world began to open to the little family leading a Crusoe existence on an island at the bottom of the world.

For reasons of her own, Frederica Bell gave thanks that evening for the timely arrival of the California. She page 102 looked with immense satisfaction at her own pile of goods from the whaler's well-stocked storeroom; a quantity of denim for the children's tunics, the boys' pants and the girls' short, full skirts. Their clothes were now almost in tatters after three years' heavy wear and tear—especially tear! There was also a bolt of brown holland, superior in quality to any she had been able to buy in New Zealand, which she would use for the girls' best dresses with rows of tucks on the bodice and a few flounces round the skirt. Most urgently needed of all, and now provided, was a bolt of white flannelette and another of fine white lawn.

She had brought with her from New Zealand a little hand sewing machine treasured all her married life, a Swiftsure. In the days that followed, the insistent click-clicking of the machine was heard hour after hour, as Mrs. Bell sat and sewed in her sunny room, overlooking an unbroken panorama of sea and sky, still thanking Providence for the coming of the ship, thinking of the new baby who would not now be long in coming.

More and more of the housework and care of the younger children were taken over by Hettie and Bess. Now that their lives were running on more normal lines, there was time for them to learn to cook and sew, and they helped their mother in every possible way, just as they had helped their father. Hunting and climbing, digging and hard manual toil would be their lot for years to come, but their horizons were gradually widening as the last days of their frustrated childhood slipped swiftly away.

Presently there came a day when the Swiftsure ceased its clicking. Mrs. Bell laid aside her sewing in neatly-folded piles and sighed a deep sigh of relief.

One morning a few days later, Tom Bell woke the girls earlier than usual.

"Your mother's not well," he told them briefly. "She's going to stay in bed. Bess, you get breakfast and then take the children over to Nightbell Gully for the day.

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Hettie will have to stay home and help me look after mother."

That was all. There was never any nonsense about gooseberry bushes or storks. The children were told nothing, were not expected to ask questions, or even to take notice of anything that might have roused childish curiosity.

When Bess and the children came running home from their day's picnicking, Hettie came to meet them.

"Mother's got a new baby!" she called with an air of importance. "A little boy. She's asleep now, so you mustn't make the teeniest bit of noise if I let you come inside. She has been very ill."

When their mother awoke presently from her doze of exhaustion, the children crept into the bedroom, quiet as mice, awed at the sight of the wan face on the pillow, but delighted at the thought of the baby brother. There was something more to pet and love, a new family happiness to share. They stood round the bed, tongue-tied but watching raptly as Hettie turned back the covers and they had their first glimpse of the tiny babe circled in his mother's arm. A kiss and a smile for each, and they tiptoed out of the room as quietly as they had come in.

Tom Bell came and sat on a stool by his wife's bed, and gazed thoughtfully on the puckered little face of his seventh child. He took one minute hand, hardly larger than a wax doll's, in his own work-roughened palm, and stroked it with a gentle finger.

First-born native son of his Kingdom-to-Be! Another pair of hands to help in its building, another to share its bounty in years to come. What better name could they give the new-born child than that of his own island inheritance? He smiled at his wife, one of the fatherly smiles that all too rarely transformed his hard-set features.

"We'll call him Raoul Sunday. He couldn't have a better name than that, could he?"

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Frederica Bell smiled and laid her hand on her husband's. "That will be a fine name for him, dear," she said.

It had been a difficult confinement, the worst Frederica Bell had experienced. The months of hardship and privation had taken toll of her vitality. Weak and listless, she stayed in her room day after day, leaving the care of the house to the girls.

The baby did not thrive as all her other children had done. Its incessant wailing echoed through the house day after day, night after night. It ceased suddenly a few weeks later, as the tiny spark of life flickered out.

Sad at heart, the father fashioned the baby's coffin and laid his little son in it, dressed in the white lawn robe his mother's fingers had stitched with endless patience and love. Across the terraces the little procession made its way to the grave on a cliff-top facing out to empty sun-swept ocean.

It was a source of great consolation to the parents that they were not laying an unbaptised child in an un-consecrated grave. Not long after the arrival of the California, a Niue Island chief, Benni, had come to Sunday Island with half a dozen fellow-islanders to help Bell clear the terraces. Benni was an ordained minister from the Niue Island Mission Station. He had christened the baby by the name his father had chosen. Now he read the burial service over the lonely little grave.

The children covered the bare earth with masses of flowers, heavy-hearted at the loss of their baby brother. A sense of childish bereavement quelled their usual high spirits as they straggled back to Low Flat.

"Hardly seems worth while for the poor little thing to have come at all, seeing he only lasted such a little while," said Hettie sadly. "Mother will miss him terribly. And so will I, of course, because I saw him before any of you, so I knew him the longest."

Bess made no reply. She was thinking how quiet the page 105 house seemed, after all the weeks of crying. With a swift pang, she wished she could hear just one little cry again. And a second later came an equally swift sense of relief (that she couldn't.

Jackie snuggled close in his mother's arms at bedtime, and hugged her. "Now you'll just have me, like you did before, won't you, mummy?"

Mrs. Bell smiled and kissed him. "I'll have all six of you, thank God!" she said, and went to bed feeling a good deal happier.

The death of his son was a bitter blow to Tom Bell. In spite of his outward harshness and seemingly unsympathetic nature, he was at heart a man capable of deep paternal affection. Under different circumstances, he would probably have been a kindlier father.

He seldom spoke of the loss of his little son, but his wife knew only too well how close he had been to despair as the fates had dealt him blow after blow ever since his landing on Sunday Island. The early death of his first child born there, she was sure, was to him an omen of impending defeat in the working out of his dream.

But time cures all griefs. Eighteen months later another baby boy was born in the little home on Low Flat. He too was christened Raoul Sunday Bell. It was shortened to Roy, and Roy Bell, now seventy-six, is today one of Norfolk Island's best-known settlers, a first-class photographer, and a noted authority on the plant and bird life of the Kermadecs and other South Pacific Islands.

Mrs. Bell made a good recovery from her confinement, and very soon life had swung back into its usual routine.

From time to time, during the following years, the little Swiftsure started its clicking again. Three more children were born after Roy, a couple of girls and last of all a boy, who in early childhood declared himself to be King of Sunday Island, and was known as "King," in place of his real name William, for the rest of his life.

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With a family of ten to look after, Frederica Bell finally rested on her maternal laurels, and took to gardening.

With the help of Benni and his fellow islanders, Tom Bell made good progress in subduing the wilderness and bringing the North Beach clearings into cultivation. There were no better workers in the South Pacific than the Niueans. Unlike other Polynesians who followed the old "Gome day, Go day, God send Sunday!" tradition, they were industrious and untiring, and being of a roving disposition, were very willing to leave their island homes from time to time to work for Bell. Unable to pay them wages, he supplied them with food, and with goods procured from the whalers in barter, strong American working shirts, dungaree trousers, and clothing materials, to take back to their women on Niue.

Although still spoken of occasionally as "Savage" Island, Niue at that time was savage in name only. The ominous name was given originally by Captain Cook, who discovered the island in 1776, and received such a hostile reception that he beat a hasty retreat.

Early in the nineteenth century, the island was rediscovered by South Pacific missionary schooners, and under missionary influence the savage element was subdued. The islanders embraced Christianity wholeheartedly, became peace-loving and friendly and so strict in their religious observances that on one occasion in recent years they refused to load bananas for a New Zealand ship on their Sabbath Day. The vessel had to sail without her cargo, and the Niueans themselves ate the whole of the season's crop, while New Zealanders endured a banana famine that lasted for many months.

The Nieuan bananas were of particularly good quality, and Bell procured from his kanakas a load of suckers with which he established banana plantations that eventually produced no fewer than a dozen varieties of the fruit.

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Within two or three years, the Bell orchards and plantations were producing not only English fruits, but limes, citrons, mandarins, pineapples, peanuts, tree tomatoes, passion fruit of several varieties, and plentiful crops of bananas.

The chance call of a trading steamer, the Richmond, turned out to be one of the most important events in Bell's early years at North Beach. The vessel had run out of coal, and called at Sunday Island to cut fuel to take her back to Auckland. Bell supplied the captain not only with fuel, but with a consignment of "ship's knees" to be sold in Auckland, the money to be placed to his credit with the ship's owners, Donald and Edinburgh. The knees found a ready sale, and later on helped to provide Bell with a source of income. The supply was unlimited, being obtained from the pohutukawa trees that covered practically the whole of the island. Growing in natural curve the knees possessed a unique strength and toughness far superior to that of artificially steamed and bent timbers. Boatbuilders throughout New Zealand and on the American and Australian coasts could never get as many as they needed for the ribs and framework of small boats, yachts, and even larger craft, so that every shipment Bell sent away was assured of a ready sale at good prices.

Before leaving, the captain of the Richmond gave the Bells a case of choice Tahiti oranges. Every pip was saved and planted, and that was the beginning of the Sunday Island orange groves, which in a few years' time became famous for their fruit, exceptionally large and of delicious flavour.

Now over seventy years old, some of these trees, grown to a height of forty feet, are still bearing crops of smaller, but equally delicious fruit.

Bess was in disgrace. Real disgrace. Not just a flash of parental annoyance over some childish misdemeanour,page 108but censure for something that had really exasperated her mother. She had taken Mrs. Bell's one and only precious pair of scissors up to the Terraces, meaning to plait herself a toi-toi grass hat while tending a herd of young goats. She wanted the scissors to cut the grass into strips, which she rubbed on a small round stick to soften them before plaiting them into shape.

When the time came for her to return home, the scissors were nowhere to be found.

She had not dared to ask for a loan of them, knowing well it would be refused. So she just nipped them into her basket and ran off, confident of being able to nip them back again before they were needed. It was sheer bad luck that her mother took it into her head to tackle a sewing job not long after Bess had gone off. A razor was no more to be found in the Bell household than clock or watch. Deprived of her scissors, the poor woman had to make shift with the breadknife.

"Did you take my scissors?" she demanded as soon as Bess returned. "Yes, mother."

"Then give them back to me at once. I've been looking for them everywhere."

"I can't! They're lost." Bess began to cry. "Then go back at once and find them, naughty girl!" "I've been hunting for them for ever so long. I don't know what could have happened to them. I've looked all over the Terraces."

"Lost my beautiful pair of scissors? Oh, you bad, bad child!"

In one of the rare bursts of temper that even saintly mothers are subject to in moments of extreme exasperation, she dealt the weeping girl a sound clip on the ear. Bess, more startled than hurt, gave a loud and piteous cry. "Here-what's all the row about? What's going on?" demanded Tom Bell, coming in most inopportunely. "No more of that, Fred! What's she done?"page 109"She's taken my scissors and gone and lost them. I've had to cut out Harry's pants with the breadknife," cried Mrs. Bell, herself at point of tears.

"Well, that's nothing to make such a song about. If they're gone, they're gone, and that's all there is to it. I'll get you another pair next time a ship calls in."

"Yes, in six months' time. What am I going to cut your hair with until then? It's down to your shoulders now."

"There, there—who cares if it's down to my waist? Don't be such a worrier! We can use the sheep shears if it gets too long."

His wife turned away in deepened irritation. How could a man be expected to know what the loss of her only pair of scissors could mean to the mother of a young family stranded on a island six hundred miles from the nearest shop?

Picking up the breadknife from her sewing table, she handed it to her husband.

"You'd better go and put an edge on this," she said coldly. "It won't cut butter."

Bess, most sensitive of all the Bell children, mourned for days over the grief she had caused her mother. Although she spent hours searching for the lost scissors, she never found them.

But worse was to follow.

She and Hettie had each been given a small herd of she-goats and kids to look after. Having no pets to fondle save an occasional wild kitten that scratched and bit, the girls became very fond of the animals, fed them with an abundance of their favourite delicacies, pohutukawa and karaka leaves, and made pets of the kids.

Going up the hillside one morning to milk the nannies, Bess found that one of her best milkers had broken her tether rope and wandered away. The family was awaiting the milk. There was no time to go in search of the missing animal, so the worried girl had to take home a milk-can only partly filled. Annoyed at receiving a good deal less page 110 than the usual supply, Mrs. Bell said sharply, "If you can't look after your nannies properly, I'll give them to Hettie."

The thought of losing her pets to Hettie, who, Bess felt sure, would jump at the chance of getting them, was bad enough, but only a few days later there came a real disaster.

Making her way to the pens one morning, Bess made the grievous discovery that the entire herd had somehow or other managed to break away overnight. Not daring to return home without any milk, she spent the morning searching the forest, ravines and cliff-tops for some trace of the goats, looking for tracks, listening for the faintest rustle of leaves or breaking of sticks. But not a trace of the creatures could she find. They had vanished completely.

At last the distressed girl wandered back to the pens, weeping at the thought of her parents' anger and the punishment that would surely follow. Suddenly a thought struck her, a flash of remembrance of certain words from the family's nightly Bible readings.

"Call upon Me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver thee."

Then and there she knelt down on the hillside and prayed a child's simple prayer, that God would keep His promise and send the missing animals back to her.

While still on her knees, she heard a small crackle of sticks behind her. Opening her eyes, she saw the goats and kids gathered around, some lying down, others standing quietly with ropes trailing.

Her heart overflowing with thankfulness, she fed and milked the nannies, penned the kids and hurried home. To her intense relief, she found the house empty. Mrs. Bell had taken the children over to the cliff-top to lay fresh flowers on the baby's grave. She asked Bess no questions when she returned.

The passing of nearly eighty years has left the incident as clearly etched in Bessie's store of memories as on the day it happened. No questioning or criticism could shake

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in slightest degree her conviction that God actually had answered a child's cry of distress, and had worked a miracle on her behalf.

But she admitted she had never breathed a word of it to her mother nor to anybody else.

"What would have been the use? They'd never have believed me and I might have lost my goats after all! I can't explain it. I only know it happened."