CHAPTER XV  FAIR PICTURES IN THE BLUE

    "I don't want my old britches on! I don't want my old britches on!"

    Dick was darting about naked on the sand, Mr. Button after him with a pair of small trousers in his hand. A crab might just as well have attempted to chase an antelope.

    They had been on the island a fortnight, and Dick had discovered the keenest joy in life to be naked. To be naked and wallow in the shallows of the lagoon, to be naked and sit drying in the sun. To be free from the curse of clothes, to shed civilisation on the beach in the form of breeches, boots, coat, and hat, and to be one with the wind and the sun and the sea.

    The very first command Mr. Button had given on the second morning of their arrival was, "Strip and into the water wid you."

    Dick had resisted at first, and Emmeline (who rarely wept) had stood weeping in her little chemise. But Mr. Button was obdurate. The difficulty at first was to get them in; the difficulty now was to keep them out.

    Emmeline was sitting as nude as the day star, drying in the morning sun after her dip, and watching Dick's evolutions on the sand.

    The lagoon had for the children far more attraction than the land. Woods where you might knock ripe bananas off the trees with a big cane, sands where golden lizards would scuttle about so tame that you might with a little caution seize them by the tail, a hill-top from whence you might see, to use Paddy's expression, "to the back of beyond"; all these were fine enough in their way, but they were nothing to the lagoon.

    Deep down where the coral branches were you might watch, whilst Paddy fished, all sorts of things disporting on the sand patches and between the coral tufts. Hermit crabs that had evicted whelks, wearing the evicted ones' shells- an obvious misfit; sea anemones as big as roses. Flowers that closed up in an irritable manner if you lowered the hook gently down and touched them; extraordinary shells that walked about on feelers, elbowing the crabs out of the way and terrorising the whelks. The overlords of the sand patches, these; yet touch one on the back with a stone tied to a bit of string, and down he would go flat, motionless and feigning death. There was a lot of human nature lurking in the depths of the lagoon, comedy and tragedy.

    An English rock-pool has its marvels. You can fancy the marvels of this vast rock-pool, nine miles round and varying from a third to half a mile broad, swarming with tropic life and flights of painted fishes; where the glittering albicore passed beneath the boat like a fire and a shadow; where the boat's reflection lay as clear on the bottom as though the water were air; where the sea, pacified by the reef, told, like a little child, its dreams.

    It suited the lazy humour of Mr. Button that he never pursued the lagoon more than half a mile or so on either side of the beach. He would bring the fish he caught ashore, and with the aid of his tinder box and dead sticks make a blazing fire on the sand; cook fish and breadfruit and taro roots, helped and hindered by the children. They fixed the tent amidst the trees at the edge of the chapparel, and made it larger and more abiding with the aid of the dinghy's sail.

    Amidst these occupations, wonders, and pleasures, the children lost all count of the flight of time. They rarely asked about Mr. Lestrange; after a while they didn't ask about him at all. Children soon forget.


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