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Station Amusements

Chapter XI. Changing Servants

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Chapter XI. Changing Servants.

To the eyes of an English housewife the title of this chapter must appear a very bad joke indeed, and the amusement what the immortal Mrs. Poyser would call “a poor tale.” Far be it from me to make light of the misery of a tolerably good servant coming to you after three months’ service, just as you were beginning to feel settled and comfortable, and announcing with a smile that she was going to be married; or, with a flood of tears, that she found it “lonesome.” Either of these two contingencies was pretty sure to arise at least four times a year on a station.

At first I determined to do all I could to make their new home so attractive to my two handmaidens that they would not wish to leave it directly. In one of Wilkie Collins’ books an upholsterer is represented as saying that if you want to domesticate a woman, you should surround her with bird’s-eye maple and chintz. That must have been exactly my idea, for page 182 the two rooms which I prepared for my maidservants were small, indeed, yet exquisitely pretty. Of course I should not have been so foolish as to buy any of the unnecessary and dainty fittings with which they were decorated, but as all the furniture and belongings of an English house, a good deal larger than our station home, had been taken out to it, there were sundry toilet tables, etc., whose destination would have been a loft over the stable, if I had not used them for my maids.

I had seen and chosen two very respectable young women in Christchurch, one as a cook, and the other as a housemaid. The cook, Euphemia by name, was a tall, fat, flabby woman, with a pasty complexion, but a nice expression of face, and better manners than usual. She turned out to be very good natured, perfectly ignorant though willing to learn, and was much admired by the neighbouring cockatoos, or small farmers. Lois the housemaid, was the smallest and skimpiest and most angular girl I ever beheld. At first I regarded her with deep compassion, imagining that she was about fifteen years of age, and had been cruelly ill-treated and starved. How she divined what was passing in my mind I cannot tell, but during our first interview she suddenly fired up, and informed me that she was twenty-two years old, that she was the seventh child of a seventh child, and therefore abso- page 183 lutely certain to achieve some wonderful piece of good luck; and furthermore, that she had been much admired in her own part of the country, and was universally allowed to be “the flower of the province.” This statement, delivered with great volubility and defiant jerkiness of manner, rather took my breath away; but it was a case of “Hobson’s choice” just then about servants, and as I was assured she was a respectable girl, I closed with her terms (£25 a year and all found) on the spot. The fat pale cook was to get £35. Now-a-days I hear that wages are somewhat lower, but the sums I have named were the average figures of six or seven years ago, especially “up-country.”

Here I feel impelled to repeat the substance of what I have stated elsewhere,—that these rough, queer servants were, as a general rule, perfectly honest, and of irreproachable morals, besides working, in their own curious fashion, desperately hard. Our family was an exceptionally small one, and the “place” was considered “light, you bet,” but even then it seemed to me as if both my domestics worked very hard. In the first place there was the washing; two days severe work, under difficulties which they thought nothing of. All the clothes had to be taken to a boiler fixed in the side of a hill, for the convenience of the creek, and washed and rinsed under a blazing sun (for of page 184 course it never was attempted on a wet day) and amid clouds of sand-flies. Not until evening was this really hard day’s work over, and the various garments fluttering in the breeze up a valley behind the house. The chances were strongly in favour of a tremendous nor’-wester coming down this said valley during the night, and in that case there would not be a sign next morning of any of the clothes. Heavy things, such as sheets or table cloths, might be safely looked for under lee of the nearest gorse hedge, but it would be impossible even to guess where the lighter and more diaphanous articles had been whisked to. A week afterwards the shepherds used to bring in stray cuffs and collars, and upon one occasion “Judy,” the calf, was discovered in a paddock hard by, breakfasting off my best pocket handkerchiefs with an excellent appetite. Of course everything was dirty, and needed to be washed over again. We had a mangle, which greatly simplified matters on the second day, but it used not to be uncommon on back-country stations to get up the fine things with a flat stone, heated in the wood ashes, for an iron. After the washing operations had been brought to a more or less successful ending, there came the yeast making and the baking, followed by the brewing of sugar beer, preserves had to be made, bacon cured, all sorts of things to be done, page 185 besides the daily duties of scrubbing and cleaning, and cooking at all hours for stray visitors or “swaggers.”

But I am overcome with contrition at perceiving into what a digression I have wandered; having strayed from my maids’ rooms to their duties. They arrived as usual on a dray late in the evening, tired and wearied enough, poor souls. In those early days I had not yet plucked up courage to try my hand in the kitchen, and our meals had been left to the charge of F——, who, whatever he may be in other relations of life, is a vile cook; and our good-natured cadet Mr. U——, who was exceedingly willing, but profoundly ignorant of the elements of cookery. For fear of being tempted into another digression, I will briefly state that during that week I lived in a chronic state of hunger and heartburn, and sought forgetfulness from repeated attacks of indigestion, by decorating my servants’ rooms. They opened into each other, and it would have been hard to find two prettier little nests. Each had its shining brass bedstead with chintz hangings, its muslin-draped toilette table, and its daintily curtained window, besides a pretty carpet. I can remember now the sort of dazed look with which Euphemia regarded a room such as she had never seen; whilst Lois considered it to be an instalment of her good luck, and proceeded to contemplate her sharp page 186 and elfish countenance in her looking-glass, pronouncing it as her opinion that she wanted more colour. That she certainly did, and she might have added, more flesh and youthfulness, while she was about it. However, they were greatly delighted, and Euphemia who was of a grateful and affectionate disposition, actually thanked me, for having with my own hands arranged such pretty rooms for them.

This was a very good beginning. They were both hard-working, civil girls, and got on very well together, leaving me plenty of leisure to attend to the quantities of necessary arrangements which have to be made when you are settling yourself for good, fifty miles from a shop, and on a spot where no other human being has ever lived before. F—— congratulated myself in private on my exceptional good luck, and attributed it partly to my having followed the Upholsterer’s advice in that book of Mr. Wilkie Collins. But as it turned out, F—— was dwelling in a fool’s paradise. In vain had it been pointed out to me that a certain stalwart north countryman, whose shyness could only be equalled by his appetite, had been a most regular attendant for some weeks past at our Sunday evening services, accepting the offer of tea in the kitchen, afterwards, with great alacrity. I scouted these insinuations, appealing to the general sense of the page 187 public as to whether Moffatt had ever been known to refuse a meal anywhere, or under any circumstances, and declaring that, if he was “courting,” it was being done in solemn silence, for never a sound filtered through the thin wooden planks between the kitchen and the dining room, except the clatter of a vigorously plied knife and fork, for Moffatt’s teas always included a shoulder of mutton.

But I was wrong and others were right. Early in October, our second spring month, I chanced to get up betimes one delicious, calm morning, a morning when it seemed a new and exquisite pleasure to open each window in succession, and fill one’s lungs with a deep, deep breath of that heavenly atmosphere, at once so fresh and so pure.

Quiet as the little homestead lay, nestled among the hills, there were too many morning noises stirring among the animals for any one to feel lonely or dull, I should have thought. From a distance came a regular, monotonous, lowing sound. That was “Hetty,” the pretty little yellow Alderney, announcing from the swamps that she and her two female friends were quite ready to be milked. Their calves answered them dutifully from the English grass paddock, and between the two I could see Mr. U——’s tall figure stalking down the flat with his cattle dog at his heels, page 188 and hear his merry whistle shrilling through the silent air. Then all the ducks and fowls about the place were inquiring, in noisy cackle, how long it would be before breakfast was ready, whilst “Helen’s” whinneying made me turn my head to see her, with a mob of horses at her heels, coming over the nearest ridge on the chance of a stray carrot or two going begging. All the chained-up dogs were pulling at the staples of their fastenings, and entreating by short, joyous barks, to be allowed just one good frisk and roll in the sparkling dewy grass around. But even I, universal spoiler of animals that I am, was obliged to harden my heart against their noisy appeals; for quite close to the stable, on the nearest hill-side, an immense mob of sheep and young lambs were feeding. That steep incline had been burnt six weeks before, and was now as green as the clover field at its base, affording a delicious pasturage to these nursing mothers and their frisky infants. I think I see and hear it all now. The moving white patches on the hill-side, the incessant calling and answering, the racing and chasing among the curly little merino lambs, and above all the fair earth the clear vault of an almost cloudless sky bent itself in a deep blue dome. Just over the eastern hills the first long lances of the sun lay in bright shafts of silver sheen on the dew-laden tussocks, and that page 189 peculiar morning fragrance rose up from the moist ground, which is as much the reward of the early riser as the early worm is of the bird.

Was it a morning for low spirits or sobs and sighs? Surely not; and yet as I turned the handle of the kitchen door those melancholy sounds struck my ear. I had intended to make my entrance with a propitiatory smile, suitable to such a glorious morning, proceed to pay my damsels a graceful compliment on their somewhat unusual early rising, and wind up with a request for a cup of tea. But all these friendly purposes went out of my head when I beheld Euphemia seated on the rude wooden settle, with its chopped tussock mattrass, which had been covered with a bright cotton damask, and was now called respectfully, “the kitchen sofa.” Her arm was round Lois’s waist, and she had drawn that young lady’s shock head of red curls down on her capacious bosom. Both were crying as if their hearts would break, and startled as I felt to see these floods of tears, it struck me how incongruous their attitude looked against the background of the large window through which all nature looked so smiling and sparkling. The kettle was singing on the fire, everything seemed bright and snug and comfortable indoors. “What in the world has happened?” I gasped, really frightened.

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“Nothing, mem: its only them sheep,” sobbed Euphemia, “calling like. They always makes me cry. Your tea ’ll be ready directly, mem” (this last with a deep sigh.)

“Is it possible you are crying about that?” I inquired. “Yes, mem, yes,” said Euphemia, in heart-broken accents, clasping Lois, who was positively howling, closer to her sympathetic heart. “Its terrible to hear ’em. They keeps calling and answering each other, and that makes us think of our home and friends.” Now both these women had starved as factory “hands” all their lives, and I used to feel much more inclined to cry when they told me, all unconscious of the pathos, stories of their baby work and hardships. Certainly they had never seen a sheep until they came to New Zealand, and as they had particularly mentioned the silence which used to reign supreme at the manufactory during work hours, I could not trace the connection between a dingy, smoky, factory, and a bright spring morning in this delightful valley. “What nonsense!” I cried, half laughing and half angry. “You can’t be in earnest. Why you must both be ill: let me give you each a good dose of medicine.” I said this encouragingly, for there was nothing in the world Euphemia liked so much as good substantial physic, and the only thing I ever page 191 needed to keep locked up from her was the medicine drawer.

Euphemia seemed touched and grateful, and her face brightened up directly, but Lois looked up with her frightful little face more ugly than usual, as she said, spitefully, “Physic won’t make them nasty sheep hold their tongues. I’m sure this isn’t the place for me to find my luck, so I’d rather go, if you please, mem. I’ve prospected-up every one o’ them gullies and never seen the colour yet, so it ain’t any good my stopping.”

This was quite a fresh light thrown upon the purpose of Lois’s long lonely rambles. She used to be off and away, over the hills whenever she had finished her daily work, and I encouraged her rambles, thinking the fresh air and exercise must do her a world of good. Never had I guessed that the sordid little puss was turning over every stone in the creek in her search for the shining flakes.

“Why did you think you should find gold here?” I asked.

“Because they do say it lies in all these mountain streams,” she answered sullenly; “and I’m always dreaming of nuggets. Not that a girl with my face and figure wants ‘dust’ to set her off, however. But if its all the same to you, mem, I’d rather leave when Euphemia does.”

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“Are you going, then?” I inquired, turning reproachfully to my pale-faced cook, who actually coloured a little as she answered, “Well, mem, you see Moffatt says he’s got his window frames in now, and he’ll glass them the very first chance, and I think it’ll be more company for me on Saddler’s Flat. So if you’ll please to send me down in the dray, I should be obliged.”

Here was a pretty upset, and I went about my poultry-feeding with a heavy heart. How was I to get fresh servants, and above all, what was I to do for cooking during the week they were away? These questions fortunately settled themselves in rather an unexpected manner. I heard of a very nice willing girl who was particularly anxious to come up as housemaid, to my part of the world, on condition that I should also engage as cook her sister, who was leaving a place on the opposite side of a range of high hills to the south. I shall only briefly say that all inquiries about these damsels proved satisfactory, and I could see Euphemia and Lois depart, with tolerable equanimity. The former wept, and begged for a box of Cockles’ pills; but Lois tossed her elfish head, and gave me to understand that she had never been properly admired or appreciated whilst in my service.