CHAPTER XIII  DEATH VEILED WITH LICHEN

    "Mr. Button," said she, when the latter had descended, "there's a little barrel;" she pointed to something green and lichen-covered that lay between the trunks of two trees something that eyes less sharp than the eyes of a child might have mistaken for a boulder.

    "Sure, an' faith it's an' ould empty bar'l," said Button, wiping the sweat from his brow and staring at the thing. "Some ship must have been wathering here an' forgot it. It'll do for a sate whilst we have dinner."

    He sat down upon it and distributed the bananas to the children, who sat down on the grass.

    The barrel looked such a deserted and neglected thing that his imagination assumed it to be empty. Empty or full, however, it made an excellent seat, for it was quarter sunk in the green soft earth, and immovable.

    "If ships has been here, ships will come again," said he, as he munched his bananas.

    "Will daddy's ship come here?" asked Dick.

    "Ay, to be sure it will," replied the other, taking out his pipe. "Now run about and play with the flowers an' lave me alone to smoke a pipe, and then we'll all go to the top of the hill beyant, and have a look round us.

    "Come 'long, Em!'' cried Dick; and the children started off amongst the trees, Dick pulling at the hanging vine tendrils, and Emmeline plucking what blossoms she could find within her small reach.

    When he had finished his pipe he hallooed, and small voices answered him from the wood. Then the children came running back, Emmeline laughing and showing her small white teeth, a large bunch of blossoms in her hand; Dick flowerless, but carrying what seemed a large green stone.

    "Look at what a funny thing I've found!" he cried; "it's got holes in it."

    "Dhrap it!" shouted Mr. Button, springing from the barrel as if some one had stuck an awl into him. "Where'd you find it? What d'you mane by touchin' it? Give it here."

    He took it gingerly in his hands; it was a lichen-covered skull, with a great dent in the back of it where it had been cloven by an axe or some sharp instrument. He hove it as far as he could away amidst the trees.

    "What is it, Paddy?" asked Dick, half astonished, half frightened at the old man's manner.

    "It's nothin' good," replied Mr. Button.

    "There were two others, and I wanted to fetch them," grumbled Dick.

    "You lave them alone. Musha! musha! but there's been black doin's here in days gone by. What is it, Emmeline?"

    Emmeline was holding out her bunch of flowers for admiration. He took a great gaudy blossom--if flowers can ever be called gaudy--and stuck its stalk in the pocket of his coat. Then he led the way uphill, muttering as he went.

    The higher they got, the less dense became the trees and the fewer the cocoa-nut palms. The cocoa-nut palm loves the sea, and the few they had here all had their heads bent in the direction of the lagoon, as if yearning after it.

    They passed a cane-brake where canes twenty feet high whispered together like bulrushes. Then a sunlit sward, destitute of tree or shrub, led them sharply upward for a hundred feet or so to where a great rock, the highest point of the island, stood, casting its shadow in the sunshine. The rock was about twenty feet high, and easy to climb. Its top was almost flat, and as spacious as an ordinary dinner table. From it one could obtain a complete view of the island and the sea.

    Looking down, one's eye travelled over the trembling and waving tree-tops, to the lagoon; beyond the lagoon to the reef, beyond the reef to the infinite-space of the Pacific. The reef encircled the whole island, here further from the land, here closer; the song of the surf on it came as a whisper, just like the whisper you hear in a shell; but, a strange thing, though the sound heard on the beach was continuous, up here one could distinguish an intermittency as breaker after breaker dashed itself to death on the coral strand below.

    You have seen a field of green barley ruffled over by the wind, just so from the hill-top you could see the wind in its passage over the sunlit foliage beneath.

    It was breezing up from the south-west, and banyan and cocoa-palm, artu and breadfruit tree, swayed and rocked in the merry wind.

    So bright and moving was the picture of the breeze-swept sea, the blue lagoon, the foam-dashed reef, and the rocking trees that one felt one had surprised some mysterious gala day, some festivalof Nature more than ordinarily glad.

    As if to strengthen the idea, now and then above the trees would burst what seemed a rocket of coloured stars. The stars would drift away in a flock on the wind and be lost. They were flights of birds. All-coloured birds peopled the trees below blue, scarlet, dove-coloured, bright of eye, but voiceless. From the reef you could see occasionally the seagulls rising here and there in clouds like small puffs of smoke.

    The lagoon, here deep, here shallow, presented, according to its depth or shallowness, the colours of ultra-marine or sky. The broadest parts were the palest, because the most shallow; and here and there, in the shallows, you might see a faint tracery of coral ribs almost reaching the surface. The island at its broadest might have been three miles across. There was not a sign of house or habitation to be seen, and not a sail on the whole of the wide Pacific.

    It was a strange place to be, up here. To find oneself surrounded by grass and flowers and trees, and all the kindliness of nature, to feel the breeze blow, to smoke one's pipe, and to remember that one was in a place uninhabited and unknown. A place to which no messages were ever carried except by the wind or the sea-gulls.

    In this solitude the beetle was as carefully painted and the flower as carefully tended as though all the peoples of the civilised world were standing by to criticise or approve.

    Nowhere in the world, perhaps, so well as here, could you appreciate Nature's splendid indifference to the great affairs of Man.

    The old sailor was thinking nothing of this sort. His eyes were fixed on a small and almost imperceptible stain on the horizon to the sou'-sou'-west. It was no doubt another island almost hull-down on the horizon. Save for this blemish the whole wheel of the sea was empty and serene.

    Emmeline had not followed them up to the rock. She had gone botanising where some bushes displayed great bunches of the crimson arita berries as if to show to the sun what Earth could do in the way of manufacturing poison. She plucked two great bunches of them, and with this treasure came to the base of the rock.

    "Lave thim berries down!" cried Mr Button, when she had attracted his attention. "Don't put thim in your mouth; thim's the never-wake-up berries."

    He came down off the rock, hand over fist, flung the poisonous things away, and looked into Emmeline's small mouth, which at his command she opened wide. There was only a little pink tongue in it, however, curled up like a rose-leaf; no sign of berries or poison. So, giving her a little shake, just as a nursemaid would have done in like circumstances, he took Dick off the rock, and led the way back to the beach.


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