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I grew weary of living on cold meat, for it was really too hot to cook; and my servants used to send me over, every second day, cold fowls or pies; besides, one seemed to live in a whirl and confusion of dust, and bleating, and barking. After the day's work was fairly over, F---- used to rush in, seize a big bath-towel, cry "I am off for a bathe in the creek," and only return in time for supper and bed. The weather was all that a sheep-farmer could desire. Bright, sunny, and clear, one lovely summer day followed another; hot, almost to tropical warmth, without any risk or fear of sun-stroke or head-ache, and a delicious lightness in the atmosphere all the time, which merged into a cool bracing air the moment the sun had slowly travelled behind the high hills to the westward.
But all these details, though necessary to make you understand what I had been doing, are not the story itself, so to that we will hurry on.
The shearing was over; Sat.u.r.day evening had come, as welcome to poor imprisoned me as to any one, and the great work of the New Zealand year had been most successfully accomplished. F---- was in such good humour that he even deigned to admit that his own comfort had been somewhat increased by my living at the home station, so I felt quite rewarded for my many dreary hours. The shearers had been paid, and were even then picking their way over the hills in little groups of two and three; some, I grieve to say, bound for the nearest accommodation-house or wayside inn, and others for the next station, across the river, where the skillions were full, and waiting for them to begin on Monday morning. Only half-a-dozen people, instead of thirty, were left at our place, and there would not even have been so many if it had not been thought well to keep a few there until the bale-loft was empty.
Generally it was arranged for the wool-drays to follow each other every two days with a load down to Christchurch; for the greatest risk a sheep-farmer runs is from his shed taking fire whilst it is full of bales of wool. This had happened often enough in the colony, and even in our neighbourhood, to make us more and more careful every year; and, as I have said, amongst our precautions, was that of keeping as little wool as possible in the shed. Most flock-owners waited until the shearing should be quite over before they carted the wool away; but in that case, a spark from a pipe, a match carelessly dropped in a tussock outside, when a nor'-wester was blowing,--and the slight wooden building would be blazing like a torch, and your year's income vanishing in the smoke!
Even at the last moment, when the cart had already started homewards, with the tin bath balanced once more on the top of the mattresses and boxes; when the house was empty, and I was waiting, my hat and jacket on, and flax-stick in hand, eager to set out, a doubt arose about the expediency of our return home. Some accidental delay had prevented the dray from arriving in time to start for Christchurch with the last load, and between two and three hundred pounds worth of wool still remained in the shed,--packed and labelled indeed, but neither insured nor protected from the risk of fire in any way. F---- was very loath to leave them there; but, yielding to my entreaties, he called Pepper, the head shepherd, and solemnly gave the wool-shed and its contents over into his charge, with many and many a caution about fire. Pepper was as trustworthy and steady a shepherd as any in the colony, and promised to "keep his weather-eye open," as he phrased it, in nautical slang picked up from some run-away sailor.
All the way home F---- said from time to time, anxiously, "I wish the shed was empty;" but I cheered him up, and told him he was over-tired and unreasonably nervous, and so forth, but with a great longing myself for Monday morning to come, and for the dray to take its load and start. I need not dwell on how delicious it was to return home, where everything seemed so comfortable and nice, and the bed felt especially soft and welcome to tired limbs. Early were our hours, you may be sure, and we slept the sleep of the hard-worked until between two and three o'clock the next morning. Then we were roused up by some one knocking loudly against our wide-open latticed window.
I was the first to hear the noise, and cried, "Who's there? what is it?"
all in a breath.
"The wool-shed on fire," murmured F----, in a tone of agonized conviction.
"It's you that's wanted, please mum, this moment, over at the home station!" I heard Pepper say, in impatient tones.
"It's the wool-shed," repeated F----, more than half asleep, and with only room for that one idea in his dreamy mind.
"Nonsense!" I cried, jumping out of bed. "I should not be wanted if the wool-shed were on fire. Don't you hear Pepper say he wants me?"
"All right, then," said F----, actually turning over and proposing to go to sleep again. But there was no more sleep for either of us that night.
Whilst I hastily put on my riding-habit, Pepper told me, through the window; an incoherent tale of some one being at the point of death, and wanting me to cure him, and the master to bring over pen and ink, to make a will, and dying speeches and cold shivers, all mixed up together in a tangle of words. F---- took some minutes to understand that it was Fenwick, a gigantic Yorkshireman, who had been seized with what Pepper would call the "choleraics," and who, in spite of having swallowed all the mustard and rum and "pain-killer" left on the premises, grew worse and worse every moment. "He's dying, safe enough," concluded Pepper, "but he's main anxious to see you, mum, and the master; and he wants a Bible brought to swear him, and he's powerful uneasy to make his will."
I knew quite as little of medicine as my husband did of law, but of course we decided instantly that we ought both to go and see what could be done in any way to relieve either the body or mind of the sufferer.
We said to each other while we were hastily dressing, "How shall we ever catch the horses? They have all been turned out, of course, as no one thought they would be wanted until Monday; and who knows where they have gone to?--miles away, perhaps; and it's pitch dark." Judge, then, of our delighted surprise, when, on going out into the verandah, preparatory to starting off to look for our steeds, we found them standing at the gate, ready saddled and bridled. It seemed like magic, but the good fairies in this case had been the two guests to whom I have alluded as having arrived just as we were starting for our picnic life. They were both "old chums," and understood the situation instantly. Whilst we were questioning Pepper (you can hear every word all over a New Zealand house), they had jumped up, huddled on their clothes, and gone over the brow of the hill to look for the horses. By great good fortune the whole mob was found quietly camping in the sheltered valley full of sweet gra.s.s, on its further side. To walk up to my pretty bay mare Helen, and lay hold of her mane, and then, vaulting on her back, ride the rest of the mob back into the stockyard, was, even in the deep darkness of a midsummer night, no difficult task for eyes so practised to catching horses under all circ.u.mstances. So here was one obstacle suddenly smoothed, and as I hastily collected my few simple remedies, consisting chiefly of flannel, chlorodyne, and brandy, I could only trust and pray that poor Fenwick's case might not be so desperate as Pepper represented it.
To our impatience, the difficult track, with its swamps and holes, its creeks to be jumped, and mora.s.ses to be avoided, seemed long indeed; but to judge from the continued profound darkness,--that inky blackness of the sky which is the immediate forerunner of daylight,--the dawn could not be far off. How well I remember the whole scene! F---- tied his white handkerchief on his arm, that Helen and I might have a faint speck of light by which to guide ourselves. Pepper rode close to me, pouring into my ears dismal predictions of Fenwick's end; whilst I, amid all my anxiety, could only think of the dangers of the track, and whether, in the pitchy darkness, we should ever get to the home station. The dew fell so heavily that more than once I thought it must be raining, but those were only wind-clouds brooding in the great dark vault above us.
More welcome than ever sounded the bark of the dogs, which told us we had reached the end of our stumbling ride; and the moment their tongues woke up the silence, a lantern showed a ray of light to guide us to the hut door.
I jumped off my horse instantly, and went in. At first I thought my patient was dead, for he lay, rigid and grey, in his bunk. At a glance I perceived that nothing could really be done to help him whilst he was lying on a high shelf, almost out of my reach, in a small hut filled with bewildered men, who kept offering him from time to time a "pull"
at a particularly good pipe, having previously poured all the grog they could muster down his throat, or rather over his pillow (his saddle performed that duty by night), for he had been unable to swallow for some hours. I remembered that there were the bedsteads we had used at the house, and also some firewood still left in the kitchen. Explaining to Pepper how he was to wrap poor Fenwick in every available blanket in the place, and carry him across the open s.p.a.ce into the parlour, I hastily ran on before, got some one to help me to drag one of the light frames into the sitting-room, laced it before the fireplace, and then made up a good blazing fire on the open hearth. By the time the dry wood was crackling and sparkling out its cheery welcome, my patient arrived, and was laid down, blankets and all, on the rude little bedstead, before the blaze. By its fitful and uncertain light I proceeded to examine the enormous frame stretched so helplessly before me, feeling half afraid to touch him at all. F---- was very trying as an a.s.sistant, for he looked on without making any suggestions, and only said from time to time, "Take care: the man is dead." To my inexperienced eyes he indeed seemed past all human help. His skin was icy cold, and as wet as if he had been lying out in the dew. No flutter of pulse, nor sign of breath, could my trembling efforts discover; but I fancied there was the least little sign of pulsation about his heart. Of course I had not the vaguest notion of what was the matter with the man, for all Pepper could tell me was that "Fenwick's been powerful bad, you bet." This does not sound a minute diagnosis to go on, and the only remedies which presented themselves to my mind were those I had studied as being useful for the recovery of drowned persons. So to work I set, as if the poor fellow had just been fished out of the creek; and whenever any one wanted to teaze me afterwards they would declare I had insisted on Fenwick's being held up by his heels. But of course that was all nonsense. What I did really do was this, and a doctor in Christchurch, whom I afterwards consulted as to my treatment, a.s.sured me, laughingly, that it was "capital."
I made Pepper and another man both rub the cold clammy body, as hard as they could with mustard and hot flannel. I got some bottles filled with hot water (for it did not take five minutes to boil the kettle) and placed to his icy-cold feet and under his arms, then I mixed a little very strong and hot brandy and water, to which I added a few drops of chlorodyne, and gave him a teaspoonful every five minutes. For the first half-hour there was no sign of life to be detected, and the same horrible bluish pallor made poor Fenwick's really handsome face look ghastly in the flickering light. My two a.s.sistants were getting exhausted, and Pepper had more than once murmured, with the recollection of the past fortnight's work strong upon him, "Spell, oh!" or else "Shears!" [Note: the shearer's demand for a few minutes rest] whilst his companion inquired pathetically, "What was the use of flaying a dead man?" To these hints I paid no attention, though my damp riding habit was steaming from the heat of the fire and I felt dreadfully tired; for certainly there seemed to my eyes a healthier tinge stealing over the rigid features, and it could not be my fancy which detected a stronger effort to swallow the last spoonful of brandy.
I need not go into the details of my jumbled-up remedies; probably I should bring upon myself serious remonstrances from the Royal Humane Society, if my treatment of that unhappy man were made public. It is enough to say that I "exhibited" mustard by the pound and brandy by the quart, that I roasted him first on one side and then on the other, that his true skin was rubbed off, that I chlorodyned him until he slept for nearly a week, and that when he finally recovered he declared he felt "as if he'd been dead:" "And no wonder," as Pepper always remarked. The only clue I could get to the cause of his illness was a shy confession, about a week afterwards, that he had eaten a few mushrooms. Fenwick's idea of a few of anything was generally a liberal notion. I questioned him narrowly as to what he had had for supper the night he was taken ill, and this was his bill of fare:--
"Well, you see, mum, I wasn't rightly hungry: it must have been them gripses coming on. So I only had a shoulder (of mutton, _bien entendu_; when Fenwick had really a good appet.i.te he regarded anything less than a whole leg of a sheep as an insult) that night, half-a-dozen slap jacks, and a trifle of mushrooms." "How big were the mushrooms?" I asked. "Oh, they was rather fine ones, mum, I won't deny: they might have been the bigness of a plate." Now even supposing them to have been perfectly wholesome, a few dozen mushrooms of that size, eaten half raw with a whole shoulder of mutton, are quite enough to my ignorant mind to account for so severe a fit of the "choleraics."
Chapter XVII: Odds and ends.
My nerves had hardly recovered the shock of having the care of such a huge patient thrust on me; for, seriously speaking, Fenwick took a good deal of nursing and attention before he got well again, when we had another night alarm. Our beautiful summer weather was breaking up; high nor'-westers had blown down the gorges for days, and now a cold wet gale was coming up in heavy banks of fleecy clouds from the sou'-west.
Everything looked cold and wretched out of doors, but the sheep-farmers were thankful and pleased. Their "mobs" could find excellent shelter for themselves, for it takes _very_ bad weather to hurt a Merino sheep, and the creeks had been running rather low. "We shall have a splendid autumn after this is over," said all the squatters gleefully, "with lots of feed: there's Tyler's creek coming down beautifully."
So I was fain to be content, though my fowls looked draggled and wretched, and my pet patch of mignonette became a miniature desert, its fragrance being all blown and rain-beaten away. Good fires of lignite and wood made the house cheery, and we went to bed, hoping for fine weather next day. In the middle of the night everyone was awakened by a tremendous, echoing noise outside, whilst the frail wooden house vibrated perceptibly. It could not be caused by the wind: for, although the rain kept pouring steadily down, the furious sou'-west gusts had long ago been beaten into a sullen silence by the descending torrents.
For a moment, and half-awake, an old tropical reminiscence floated through my sleepy, startled mind: "Can it be an earthquake?" I dreamily wondered. But, no earthquake of my acquaintance was ever yet so resounding and noisy, for all its crumbling horror: yet, the house was certainly shaking. "What is it? What are you doing?" rang in shouts through the little dwelling, as its dwellers came thronging, one after another, to our door. Frightened as I was, I can perfectly remember how indignant I felt, when it became clear to my mind that they all thought _we_ were making such an uproar. How could we do it, if even we had wished to get out of our warm beds, and create a disturbance on such a wild night.
"Good gracious! the house is coming down," I cried, as a fresh shudder ran through the slight framework of, our little wooden home. "Pray go out, and see what is the matter." Thus urged, F---- opened a cas.e.m.e.nt on the sheltered side,--if any side could be said to be sheltered in such weather,--and cautiously put his head out. I peered over his shoulder, and never can I forget the ridiculous sight which met our eyes. There, dripping and forlorn, huddled together under the wide roof of our summer parlour, as the verandah used to be often called, the whole mob of horses had gathered themselves. The garden gate chanced to have been left open, and, evidently under old Jack's' guidance, they had all walked into the verandah, wandered disconsolately up and down its boarded floor, and after partaking of a slight refreshment in the shape of my best creepers, had proceeded to make themselves at home by rubbing their wet sides against the pillars and the wooden sides of the house itself.
No wonder the noise had aroused us all. Ironshod hoofs clattering up and down a boarded verandah is riot a silent performance; and Jack was so cool and impudent about it, positively refusing to stir from the sheltered corner by the silver-pheasants' aviary, which he had chosen for himself. The other horses evidently felt they were intruders, and were glad enough, on the flapping of a handkerchief, to hurry out of their impromptu stables, making the best of their way through the narrow garden gate, and so out upon the bleak hills again. But Jack's conduct was very trying; he found himself perfectly comfortable, and evidently intended to remain so; neither for wishing nor coaxing, for fair words nor foul, would he stir. It seemed so horrid to have to dress and go out in such a downpour of rain, that we weakly deliberated on the expediency of letting the cunning old stock-horse remain; but fortunately, at that moment he began to scratch his ear with his hind foot, waking up a thousand echoes against the side of the house as he did so, and making the pictures dance again on the canvas and paper walls. "This will never do," cried we all, desperately: "he sure must be taken to the stable or he'll come back again." That was exactly what Jack meant and wanted: so to the stable he went, under poor shivering Mr. U----'s guidance, and the old rogue spent a dry, warm night under its roof.
It was the more absurd Jack pretending to be afraid of a wet night, when he had walked many and many a weary mile over the rough mountain pa.s.ses towards the West-Coast, with a heavy pack on his back and in all sorts of weather. A tradition existed in our neighbourhood that Jack had once been met crossing the Amuri Downs with a small barrel-organ, an American cooking stove, and a sow with a litter of young ones, all packed on his back, "and stepping out bravely under them all," as my informant added.
But I cannot vouch for the truth of the items of this load. Jack's fame as a stock-horse, as well as a pack-horse, stood high in the Malvern Hills, but his conduct in the shafts was eccentric, to say the least of it. He could not bear to be guided by his driver, and was always squinting over his blinkers in the most ridiculous manner. If he perceived a mob of cattle or horses on a distant flat, he would set off to have a look at them and determine whether they were strangers or friends, dragging the gig after him "over bank, bush, and scaur."
Once when we were in great despair for a cart-horse, Jack was elected to the post, but long before we had come to the journey's end we regretted our choice. It was during the first summer of my life in the Malvern Hills, and whilst the nor'-westers were still steadily setting their breezy faces against such a new fangled idea as a lawn. I had wearied of sowing gra.s.s seed at, a guinea a bag, long before those extremely rude zephyrs got tired of blowing it all out of the ground. There was my beautiful set of croquet, fresh from Jacques, lying idle in its box in the verandah, and there was my charming friend, Alice S----, longing for a game of croquet. When pretty young ladies wish for anything very much, and the house is full of gentlemen, it goes hard, but that they get the desire of their innocent hearts. So it was in this case. One fine afternoon Alice wandered into the verandah and peeped for the hundredth time into the box. "What beautiful things," she sighed, "and how hard it is we can't have a game." "I know a patch of self-sown gra.s.s," sang one of the party, "whereon we might play a game." "Where: oh, where?" we asked, in eager chorus. "About two miles from this, near a deserted shepherd's hut; it is as thick and soft as green velvet, and the sheep keep it quite short." "Is the ground level?" we inquired. "As flat as this table," was the satisfactory answer.
Of course we wanted to start immediately, but how were we to get the croquet things there, to say nothing of the delightful excuse for tea out of doors which immediately presented itself to my ever-thirsty mind.
A dray was suggested (carriages we had none; there being no roads for them if we had possessed such vehicles); but alas, and alas! the proper dray and driver and horse were all away, on an expedition up a distant gulley getting out some brush-wood for fires. "There's Jack," some one said, doubtfully. He had never even drawn a dray in his life, so far as we knew, but at the same time we felt sure that when once Jack understood what was required of him, he would do his best to help us to get to our croquet ground. So we flew off to our different duties. Alice to see that the b.a.l.l.s, hoops, and mallets were all right in numbers and colours, &c.; I to pack a large open basket with the materials for my favourite form of dissipation--an out-door tea; and the gentlemen to catch Jack and harness him into the cart.
Peals of laughter announced the setting forth of the expedition; and no wonder! Inside the dray, which was a very light and crazy old affair, was seated Alice on an empty flour-sack; by her side I crouched on an old sugar bag, one of my arms keeping tight hold of my beloved tea-basket with its jingling contents, whilst the other was desperately clutching at the side of the dray. On a board across the front three gentlemen were perched, each wanting to drive, exactly like so many small children in a goat carriage, and like them, one holding the reins, the other the whip, and the third giving good advice. In the shafts stood poor s.h.a.ggy old Jack, looking over his blinkers as much as to say, "What do you want me to do now?" Our good humoured and stalwart cadet Mr. U----, walked backwards, holding out a carrot and calling Jack to come and eat it.
In this extraordinary fashion we proceeded down the flat for two or three hundred yards, one carrot succeeding the other in Jack's jaws rapidly. Mr. U---- was just beginning to say "Look here: don't you think we ought to take turns at this?" when Jack caught sight of a creek right before him. He only knew of one way of crossing such obstacles, and that was to jump them. No one calculated on the sudden rush and high bound into the air with which he triumphantly cleared the water; knocking Mr.
U---- over, and scattering his three drivers like summer leaves on the track. As for Alice and me, the inside pa.s.sengers, we found the sensation of jumping a creek in a dray most unpleasant. All the croquet b.a.l.l.s leapt wildly up into the air to fall like a wooden hailstorm around us. The mallets and hoops bruised us from our head to our feet; and the contents of my basket were utterly ruined. Not only had my tea-cups and saucers come together in one grand smash, but the kettle broke the bottle of cream, which in its turn absorbed all the sugar.
Jack looked coolly round at us with an air of mild satisfaction, as if he thought he had done something very clever, whilst our shrieks were rending the air.
What a merry, light-hearted time of one's life was that! We all had to work hard, and our amus.e.m.e.nts were so simple and Arcadian that I often wonder if they really did amuse us so much as we thought they did at the moment. Let all New Zealanders who doubt this, look into those perhaps closed chapters of their lives, and as memory turns over the leaves one by one, and pictures like the sketches I try to reproduce in pen and ink, grow into distinctness out of the dim past, it will indeed "surprise me very much," if they do not say, as I do,--my pleasant task ended,--"Ah, those were happy days indeed!"