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   Chapter 33 SALT OF THE EARTH

White Fire By John Oxenham Characters: 23384

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The effect of the great wave in the Valley had been extraordinary.

When last they were there the whole place was a tangle of luxuriant undergrowth, ferns, mosses, lichens, pandanus, hibiscus, paw-paws, with stately palms waving gracefully above.

Now the bed of the Valley was bare. The growths and the undergrowths had been torn off and swept away, and the newcomers were led wonderingly through the uncovered ruins of the city built by the men who set up the stone gods-along a wide street paved with stone blocks, which ran up the middle of the Valley with the stream flowing through it; past the foundations of great buildings; into an immense square where the denudation had been less complete. A certain amount of mud had silted down again on to the ruins. Nature was already at work covering up the scar of her latest wound. And the great stone gods sat gazing expectantly out to sea, as they had gazed when the city below still teemed with busy life; as they had gazed through all the long years since, while the ruins of the city slowly disappeared beneath the touch of the healing hand.

The first party had found strange quarters in the uncovered basement of a building, which, from its size, had probably been a temple. It was a great quadrangle, and the head of the wide roadway that led from the sea ran right into it, and ended there. The upper end of the enclosure rose ten feet or more above the level, and was composed of great chiselled blocks of stone, and in this were cavernous square openings, the entrances of which now served as houses for these houseless strangers. They had appropriated four adjacent holes, and had made themselves as comfortable as circumstances permitted.

The whole place had been covered in with wild growth, but the great wave foaming up the valley had swept it all bare. The apartments were not uncomfortable except in one respect. They ran so far back into the hillside that the ends of them had not yet been discovered. "And," said Aunt Jannet, peering into the shadows which the firelight quickened into ghostly life, "I'm always expecting something will come out, and either frighten us to death or eat us alive."

Ha'o stood it for one night, with crumpled face and quick-glancing eyes, but next day he carried up some boards from the beach, and built a tiny lean-to outside for himself and Nai, and they found life more tolerable.

Nothing ever came out of those mysterious passages for their undoing. What dark uses they may have served in the bygone times they could only surmise. One passage they followed till it issued in the cliffs behind the stone gods. The others ran straight into the heart of the mountain, with cross cuts leading round towards the city, and the uses they might have been put to in the hands of a priestly oligarchy were apparent.

Captain Pym was fired with thoughts of hidden treasure, and spent many odd hours searching for it. Blair laughed at the idea, and begged him to keep it to himself, lest the men should catch the infection, and waste on it valuable time which might be used to much better advantage.

"Treasure is unlikely," he said. "If, as we suppose, these pioneers were accidentally blown across, or fled for reasons, they would not be likely to bring much with them."

"All the same, they built mightily," argued Pym, and went on with his search. All that he ever found, however, was a few flat beaten plates of gold, and some golden ornaments, of no great value save as curiosities.

Captain Cathie reported a fair amount of fruit and palms still standing on the hillsides, and pigs and goats enough to re-stock the island, in time and with protection. Most of the other animals had disappeared completely.

"I'll take the men back to-morrow over the hill," said Cathie, in excellent spirits at the prospect of the opening door, "and we'll bring back another raft of timber. With the tools you've got we can make a start anyway, and we can fish up more by degrees. There's timber enough in the lagoon to build a new schooner."

"Build us something that will float as far as the Marquesas or Paumotus, and we'll soon have a new schooner, captain. But the first thing I want is to get to Kanele and Anape to see how Evans and Stuart have fared. If they came through pretty well we can get fresh stock from them, both animals and plants."

"I've got a lot of paw-paws for you on the beach, and some bananas and plantains. Where will you plant, Mr. Blair?"

"For the present in the mud of the old fields. It'll make splendid growing ground. Later on, when we rebuild, we must get higher up. We're not likely to have another deluge just yet, but what has been may be, and we must take all precautions. When your boat is ready, and we've had a trip round the islands, my idea is for you to run across to the Marquesas and buy a schooner there, if you can lay hands on one, and send her back by Gregor for our use while you're away. Then you go on to Sydney and buy a new Torch and everything we need, Long Tom, Winchesters and all"-with a quizzical glance at Pym. "You know just what we want, and you can have all the money you require."

Captain Pym listened with surprise. His ideas of missionaries were crystallising rapidly from the solution of scepticism into concrete beliefs and admirations. He was not a man given to admiration of other men, but he recognised in Kenneth Blair a master mind and an indomitable spirit. He said little but thought much.

Every one was at work soon after daylight. Cathie produced drowned meat from an adjacent passage way, which he used as cold storage. Jean and Aunt Jannet prepared the morning meal. Blair had planted two rows of paw-paws and a number of bananas before breakfast, and Ha'o had built his lean-to for Nai and brought in some fruit.

Then Cathie built a small raft, and in due course Aunt Jannet Harvey was seated on it with many startled exclamations, and wafted herself uncouthly out into the lagoon. She was provided with two fishing lines and a supply of bait, and a rope to the shore lest she should disappear entirely from human ken, and she had instructions to catch all the fish she could for the amplification of the larder.

And Blair, when he had made sure of her safety, and turned to go up the valley to cross the hills, could hardly contain himself at sight of her face, in which determination to catch struggled desperately with horror at thought of pulling the hooks out of what she caught.

"This is a change from Kensington, Aunt Jannet, isn't it? You're quite sure you won't tumble overboard?" had been his jovial parting word.

"I'll t-try not, Kenneth. D-do you think it hurts them much to have the hooks pulled out?"

"If you leave them for a few minutes they'll die quite comfortably. Then it won't hurt them. Anyway, you see we need them."

So Aunt Jannet pursed her lips valiantly, and cast in the lines he had baited for her, and watched him and Captain Cathie with one eye, while the other waited on her lines in fear and expectation.

They waved her an adieu at the turn of the valley, and in her attempt to reply to it she frightened away a swarm of eager nibblers and nearly fell overboard herself.

"Yes," she said to herself, "it's a great change from Kensington. But if that child Jean can stand it, I can. And she seems as happy as a lark. That's partly Kenni-Kenni, of course. Oh dear, I've caught something! Whatever am I to do now?"

She looked wildly round for assistance, but the men were climbing the hill, laden with provisions for the brown folk. So she tightened her lips and hauled in her line, and at last drew her first fish on to the raft. And then, after a pitiful look at its changing colours, she turned her head away as far as she could, suppressed a strong inclination to throw her victim back into the water, and waited for the poor thing to die comfortably.

When Jean and Kenni-Kenni came down to inquire how she was getting on, she was quite herself again.

"I've got a dozen or so," she cried. "I hope they are all fit to eat. It's really quite interesting when you get used to it. If you like to try your hand at it, Jean, haul me in and I'll take care of Kenni-Kenni for a bit."

The men were back before nightfall, very tired, but rich in timber, and in high spirits at the recovery of more tools, and all with appetites that disposed of Aunt Jannet's fish in a very much shorter time than it had taken that good lady to catch them.

Next day they laid the keel of their forlorn hope, and when that ceremony was over, Blair and Ha'o started off again across the hills to the old village, to endeavour to get the brown men to make a start on their own buildings and plantings. Characteristically, they were inclined to lie down under misfortune and let things take their chance, and Blair, characteristically also, stated his intention of stopping there till they got to work. He exhorted them to better heart both by word and example, and Ha'o lent the weight of his authority, and, where that failed, added the still weightier impulsion of physical force. Authority weakens under disaster, but a bold heart and a heavy hand are strong arguments, and, disaster or no disaster, Ha'o had no intention of abating one jot of his seigneurial rights. He was chief still and he let them feel it.

"What is the good of planting?" said the brown men. "We shall be dead before the fruit comes."

"Oh no, you won't!" said Blair cheerfully. "There is fruit in the Valley and fruit on the other side of One-Tree Pass, but in future you'll have to go and get it for yourselves, and you can have all the fish you want for the catching."

"But we don't care for fish every day."

"There are many things I don't care for myself, my sons, but when I can't do better I put up with them. You must learn to be men."

The actively mutinous spirit, which the opportunity of the day after the storm had kindled in them, had passed with the passing of that which had excited it. It had vanished in the smoke of the funeral pyre, and Blair was grateful, for things might have been very different. Instead of fighting the lethargy of despair they might have had to defend themselves against its fury, and he was well content.

He tried hard to get them to come over into the Valley, but that they would not do. They would come to the hill top for such fruits as might be brought there for them, and they would go over One-Tree Pass, but into the valley of the stone gods not one of them would set so much as a toe, and Ha'o himself could not make them.

With all hands working heartily and at high pressure,-from Captain Pym, who dropped the last remnants of his starch in the process, to Aunt Jannet who, in the intervals of her other duties, picked oakum as if she had been undergoing a term of imprisonment,-the boat building made famous progress, and four weeks from the day the keel was laid the Kenni-Kenni was launched-prevailed upon, at all events, and apparently much against her will, to quit mother earth and take to the water. And if she looked, as Captain Cathie admitted, something of a cross between a washtub and a patchwork quilt, she was undoubtedly built strong and would stand a good deal of knocking about. As to her sailing qualities, they might have been better and they might have been worse, and, as Cathie said, they had not started out to build a cup-winner-which was perhaps just as well.

There was an old candle-nut tree in a corner at the head of the Valley, and they set out to stain the little ship dark red with a decoction of its bark, but as the supply ran short the result was not altogether happ

y. However, she floated on an even keel and was as tight as a drum, forty feet over all, ten feet beam, decked all over and yawl rigged. Spars and sails they had in plenty from the treasure trove of the beach, and Captain Cathie undertook to take her all the way to Sydney if need be. He also expressed the explicit intention of overhauling the first ship or island he came across for a supply of paint, all of one colour, sufficient to go all round her.

Nevertheless, and in spite of her lack in such minor details, their hearts were very full as they lined the beach, with their eyes on the little ship, and in their ears Blair's voice ringing strong and true with gratitude and hope, as he prayed God's blessing on the accomplished work of their hands, and on the work she had still to do.

When the ceremony was over, and Blair happened to be standing for a moment alone, Captain Pym came up to him and wrung his hand heartily.

"Blair," he said, and his old shipmates on the Bonita would not have known either his voice or the look on his face, "I'm glad I came here. But for my poor fellows who are gone, I could almost say I'm glad I was wrecked here. I have learnt a great deal," and Blair answered him with a cordial grip and a beaming smile.

On the morrow, Blair and Pym and Cathie and a crew of six, three Torches, and three Bonitas, took leave of the rest and sailed for Kanele.

Jean felt this parting terribly, the little ship looked so small, so uncouth, so unequal to emergencies. But she kept a brave face, and waved her farewells from the shore with a fervent prayer for their safety, and then went quietly about her work, with her own Kenni-Kenni clinging to her skirts, while his namesake carried his father away across the seas to possible dangers, to possible-- Nay, she would have faith in that protecting hand which had brought them through so many difficulties before, and to fear was to doubt.

Waved her farewells from the shore.

So her heart sang valiantly, "God's in His heaven, all's well!" and after that first hour her face was calm and hopeful, and she was counting the days to their return.

The secret passages of the old temple made capital homes. The men had snatched odd moments from their other labours, and material from their abundant stores, and had boarded off the interior darknesses and ghostly possibilities, and had knocked together some rough tables and stools. They had food enough, though they were all tiring somewhat of fish, fish again, and always fish. Blair had laughingly assured them it was good for the brain, and Aunt Jannet asserted that she was getting so brainy that, unless a change of diet came soon, she would not answer for consequences. But in reality there was very little to complain of. The health of the whole party had been excellent, and Blair's high spirits had permitted no one else's to droop for a moment.

Jean had more than once suggested their return to their work among the brown men and women. But, in view of this first trip round the islands, to which he had been looking forward with much eagerness, Blair judged it best for them to remain where they were.

"As soon as we're rid of Captain Pym and Cathie and the rest, we'll go back and tackle the work," he said. "The brown folks are getting on all right in the meantime. They're actually beginning to learn how to help themselves."

"Jean, my dear," said Aunt Jannet, one day after the Kenni-Kenni sailed, "it's just wonderful the way you stand it all."

"Stand it, Aunt Jannet? Why, what do you mean? What is there to stand?"

"Why-heaps. Look at your dress, for instance. And when one remembers that you've got £10,000 a year or so!-yes, I say, it's just wonderful."

"I've done my best with it, and it's very rude to comment on people's clothes before their faces. Besides, your own is no better, and the needle Captain Cathie made for you out of that fishbone was very much better than mine."

"Well, well," laughed Aunt Jannet. "It wasn't your dress I was meaning, child--"

"You're getting fish on the brain, dear. Isn't that enough to make any woman happy?"

That, of course, was Kenni-Kenni, whose great delight it was at this time to rush through and through the shining stream that babbled across the temple floor, kicking up diamond showers with his pink toes and squealing with delight as the sparkling drops played round him.

"Yes, it does one good just to look at him," said Aunt Jannet. "But I do wish you could get him to wear some more clothes. He's--"

"Clothes!" said Jean scornfully. "What does a boy like that want with clothes?"

Kenni-Kenni was developing rapidly. He had one day thrown a stone at a little black pig which sought his acquaintance. And when the piglet fled Kenni-Kenni came suddenly to the knowledge of his prowess and thereafter became a mighty hunter of small pigs whenever chance offered.

He had also, after considerable hesitation, thrown a pebble at one of the stone gods, of which he had hither-to stood in much awe. And as no ill results followed he had become bold and warlike, and thought nothing of challenging the bearded sailormen to mortal combat. And they delighted in him exceedingly, and had promised to teach him to box and to swim as soon as the boat was finished.

Nai was getting about again and would soon be as well as ever. The broken arm and leg were mending, and never was invalid more tenderly ministered to, or more grateful to her nurses. It was upon Ha'o that the catastrophe seemed to have had the most lasting effect, and that, after all, was perhaps not unnatural. The country was his, and the people were his, and they had suffered terribly. His faith in Kenneth Blair underwent no visible eclipse, however, and he laboured at the boat-building with the rest.

The days passed very slowly for those left behind, and when the limit allowed for the voyage was exceeded by one day, two days, three days, Jean's anxieties began to show head again.

"Don't worry, child!" said Aunt Jannet. "That boat has probably proved even slower than they expected. My only wonder was that it would sail at all. Not one of them ever built a boat in his life before, and I'm sure it looked a deal more like a big washtub with a cover on than a ship. They'll turn up all right in time. If they'd been meant to be drowned they'd every chance when all the rest were."

And surely enough, on the eleventh day, the Kenni-Kenni came wafting slowly down the lagoon, having come in by the upper entrance and made a short call on the brown men in the old quarters.

They were all well and brought a full cargo of news and stock and plants, and Blair himself was in the highest of spirits and hungry to get to work on the new plantations.

The other islands had suffered somewhat from the big wave, chiefly in the matter of boats. The news of the dire happenings on Kapaa'a had filled them with amazement. The Evanses and Stuarts, and all their works and belongings, were flourishing mightily. They sent endless condolences to Jean and Aunt Jannet and Nai and Ha'o, and had been for embarking at once to their consolation. But as the Kenni-Kenni was to start on her longer journey as soon as she could be provisioned, that was out of the question, as it would have been impossible for them to get back home again.

"Yes," acknowledged Captain Cathie, in reply to a pointed question of Aunt Jannet's respecting the sailorly qualities of his boat, "I'm bound to say she's not exactly what you might call a fast boat. But she's sure, and if you give her wind enough and time enough she gets there all right."

They had a busy three days preparing for the long voyage. Captain Cathie reckoned they might make the Marquesas in twelve days with good weather. So they made provision for twenty, out of the stores they had brought from Kanele and Anape. He had borrowed Evans's pocket compass, but vowed he could find his way without it.

"If we go west with a touch of south in it we're bound to hit either the Marquesas or Paumotus," he said cheerfully. "You may look for that schooner here in six weeks from to-day-that is, if there's one to be had, and if I can find a trader who'll negotiate the drafts."

Jean had been racking her brains as to how they were to get hold of some of the money waiting to be used in London, for all her papers had disappeared in the deluge. But Blair had thought the whole matter out, and had brought over paper and pens and a bottle of ink. And among them they drew up a number of documents which, with Captain Pym's verification of the circumstances, would, they thought, procure for Captain Cathie all the money he needed as soon as he reached Sydney, and possibly before that.

And a very busy man would Captain Cathie be, if ever he reached Sydney. For he had to buy a new Torch and a multitudinous cargo; engage new hands-to a limited extent, however, this time, for henceforth they hoped to utilise largely the services of the brown men; and last, but by no means least, to provide, so far as money could do it, adequate recompense for the families of the men whose lives had been given in the service of the Dark Islands. So far as forethought and hard thinking could do it they had attended to everything, and Captain Cathie's programme might have daunted a less valiant man.

And so, very early one morning, before the sun had topped the hills behind, though the outer sea danced and sparkled merrily, there was a great leave-taking on the white beach at the mouth of the valley where the old village used to stand. The Kenni-Kenni had brought them all up the day before, with all their belongings, in a couple of trips, and they were among their own brown people once more, ready and anxious to be at their work again.

The last hearty handshakes had been given and the last words said. The shallop they had built for use with the larger boat, and which was to be left behind, had just put Captain Pym and Captain Cathie on board. The sails ran up, and the Kenni-Kenni's nose turned determinedly for the passage and the long journey westward.

Kenneth Blair and his wife Jean, and Aunt Jannet Harvey stood in the centre of a line of brown folk and waved the farewells and benedictions their voices could no longer carry, and little Kenni-Kenni waved and shouted because the others did. His namesake bobbed and rose to the swell of the passage and was lost to sight behind the spouting jets of the reef.

The line of watchers on the beach climbed the hillside behind them, and watched and waved till the white sails alone were visible, till they became a tiny white speck, till they disappeared.

Then Kenneth Blair kissed his wife very tenderly, for his heart was very full. And he turned to the brown folk, and said-

"We will ask God's blessing on their journeying, for it means much to us all, and then we will get to our work. Let us pray!" and the brown folk bent their heads.

On the little ship, Captain Cathie had given the helm to Jim Gregor, and stood looking back at the peaks of the little land where he had spent so many full days.

And to him came Captain Pym, and said-

"That is one of the finest men I ever met, Captain Cathie. I count it a privilege to have known him. He will do great things yet."

"Yes, sir," said Cathie quietly, for the parting was still on him. "The brown men call him White Fire, and so he is, and his wife's another, and so is Mrs. Harvey. Salt of the earth, sir, every one of them. If there were more like them the world would be a sight better to live in than it is."

The Gresham Press,

UNWIN BROTHERS, LIMITED,

WOKING AND LONDON.

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