With the Lost Legion in New Zealand
Chapter III — I Start to Join the Lost Legion
I Start to Join the Lost Legion
It was on the 14th September 1865 the ship Queen Bee was towed down the river and dropped anchor at Gravesend, so as to allow the crew to sober up, and the captain to join. In the meantime my servant and myself arranged and made comfortable my state-room, stowing away and making fast everything in its place. I may also, while we are at anchor, take the opportunity of bringing to your notice my man, Tim Egan. He had not been with me very long, but as the circumstances under which I met him, and subsequently engaged him, were unique, and as he not only faithfully served me, but stood by me, as a gallant comrade and a true, if humble, friend for many years, until a Kaffir bullet put an end to his life, I may be pardoned should I digress and relate them.
It happened some months previously, when I was staying at Brighton, I had been asked to play in a cricket match against a crack light infantry regiment, and on the evening previous to the first day's play had proceeded to the town at which they were quartered. On my arrival I was sitting at a window of the principal inn when my attention was attracted to a couple of soldiers coming along the road, one of whom was very drunk indeed, while his comrade, a fine, slashing-looking young page 29fellow, was trying to convoy him home to barracks, which was a difficult job, as the drunken man was not only a big, heavy fellow, but also hung back and resisted.
These two warriors were followed by a crowd of jeering roughs and hobbledehoys, who annoyed them, and seemed inclined to obstruct their journey. The drunken man resented this conduct, wishing to stop and fight, but the sober one took no notice of the gang and only tried to get his comrade along, until they came just opposite to where I was sitting, when a big rough jostled the votary of Bacchus, evidently trying to trip him up and upset them. It would have been better for him had he left them alone, for, placing his helpless comrade against the wall, the Tommy turned on his aggressor, who, encouraged by the rabble, was about to renew his attempt, exclaiming in a voice that at once denoted he belonged to my own country: "Arrah, ye blaggard, ye want it, do ye? Thin begorra ye shall have it," and with that he lashed out with his left, landing his opponent flat on his back in the middle of the road. Then stepping back, he stood in front of his mate, hitting out right and left at the gang of roughs, who now tried to rush him. I was running out to assist him when six or seven policemen came up, who without the least inquiry proceeded to arrest the two soldiers. But this piece of brutal Saxon injustice to Ould Ireland was more than my countryman, whose fighting blood was now up, could stand, for no sooner had a bobby placed his hand on him than he knocked him down, and as the others rushed in he served them the same page 30way, until the footpath was strewn with recumbent Peelers, and I believe he would have come out top dog had not a rough legged him, when he was brought to the ground, sat upon and captured. I had never seen a more gallant resistance, and my heart warmed to the victim, so that I immediately proceeded to the barracks, called on the adjutant and gave him full particulars of the row, offering, at the same time, to bear witness of the correct conduct of his man. This in due course of time I did, when my evidence saved the poor fellow from imprisonment. Now it had always been a family custom that when ever one of us joined the service he should take with him, as servant, some young man or other reared on the estate, and as I should shortly want a servant, and had taken a fancy to this man, I asked to see him. When I did so he warmly expressed his gratitude for my volunteering evidence on his behalf. "But sure," said he, "ave a Burke of Clonkil wouldn't stand by a poor boy from his own county, who wud?" "Oh, so you are a countyman of mine?" I asked. "Deed I am, yer honour, and mind ye and your brothers well. Bright boys ye were, an' full of divilment." "Well," said I, "I am joining the service soon, and want a servant. If I buy your discharge, would you like to come to me? Of course you will have to enlist in any regiment I may have to join." "Is it come to you and sarve ye I'd like? Troth I'd give an arum for the chance. An' do ye mane it, Mr Dick? Do you mane it, sor? Be the holy cross of Clonkil, I'll sarve ye as long as life blood rins, and me four bones hang together." So then and there the compact was page 31made. I lodged the money and directed Tim to report himself to my uncle at Brighton, so soon as he should receive his discharge. All this had taken place and Tim, accompanying my uncle up to town, had joined me, when I explained to him my change of plans, at the same time offering to take him with me, provided he saw fit to follow my very uncertain fortunes. "Is it go to New Zaland wid ye, Mr Dick?" quoth he. "Sure it's to hell I'd go wid ye, and maybe that's farther. An' it's fighting ye say there is in thim outlandish parts. Well, an' why not, sure it's our trade it is, an' maybe there's some loot to be picked up, an' some purty gurls to colougue wid, an' it's thankful I'll be to visit form' parts, for sure so many young women have been so kind to me that it's bothered I am, for it's Mormon I must turn, to satisfy them all, God bless 'em."
Both my uncle and Jack considered it was right for me to be accompanied in my exile by a faithful follower who could be depended on to stand by me, so that when the good ship Queen Bee sailed from London port she carried the two of us to seek our fate in the antipodes. Tim Egan was indeed a man any young fellow might be proud to have at his call. Standing five feet eleven in height, he was a picture of a beau-ideal Irish soldier, square in the chest, broad in the shoulders, narrow in the flanks and well set up, every bit of him looked made for strength and activity, while his handsome, clean-cut face, that usually carried a pleasant smile, and his dark blue, merry eye made him one that must attract the notice of a girl be she white, black or brown. Such page 32was Tim Egan, and I may say here that a truer, braver comrade, friend and soldier, never took the Queen's shilling.
As soon as the tide suited, and the crew had slept off the thick of their drink, all hands were roused out, the anchor weighed, and the tug, getting hold of our hawser, towed us, during the early hours of the morning, out to sea, casting us loose as we opened the Channel, when with a fair wind we hoisted topsails and topgallant sails, to the good old-time chanty of "Renzo, boys, Renzo," and with our main royal set we bore away on our course to the other side of the world.
Going to sea in the sixties was a very different matter from going to sea nowadays. At present you step on board a huge floating hotel, with all the comforts and most of the luxuries of the best London establishments, finding innumerable well-dressed stewards to attend to every want, while your comfortable though small cabin is provided with everything necessary. Then again the cold storage chamber furnishes the table with fresh meat, game, poultry, fish and ice for every meal. While in those days you were accommodated with an empty square cell lighted by a dim port hole, this chamber being called a state-room, and you could furnish it to your fancy at your own expense. Then as regards the commissariat, here there was a great difference—no ice, no cooling drinks, no well-filled menu—true a number of sheep, pigs and poultry were carried, but these rarely lasted out the voyage, and in our case a heavy gale we ran up against in the North Atlantic deprived us of most of ours, and I have frequently seen the steward page 33and cabin boy washed into the lee scuppers, together with the dinner they were conveying aft to the cuddy, from the galley that was located abaft the foremast. Again at the present time you know to the day, even to the hour, when you will reach your destination, while then you did not even know, to the month, when you would get there. Still I loved the old wind-jamming days, and can look back to many a jolly hour lazed away on the breezy decks of the old Queen Bee. Our saloon passengers consisted of an old major, going out to take up a grant of land and settle in New Zealand; three or four young subs, just off the barrack square, en route to join their regiments; and eight young fellows who, as the old song runs: "Had played in the eleven, or pulled five or six or seven in the 'Varsity or else their college boat," who were going out to learn sheep farming; at least, poor lads, they thought so.
In the 'tween decks were one hundred and twenty single women sent out under the aegis and, I believe, at the expense of Miss Burdett-Coutts, and in the fore part of the ship were some forty Tommies and twenty male emigrants, so she had the makings of a very gay ship. I am not, however, going to write a history of that voyage, as a good many of the incidents that took place on board would not bear telling, as they were very gay, and as regards the passage itself nothing very startling took place. We met two very severe gales, but weathered them safely, only losing one boat and two topsails, blown to rags, and we also passed close to a large raft, but as there was nothing on it we did not stop to examine it, so after a passage of page 34one hundred and eighteen days we dropped anchor in the beautiful harbour of Wellington on the 10th January 1866, and were very glad to get our feet on dry land once more.
New Zealand in 1866, the year I landed, was in a very bad way indeed. The war in the North Island, begun in 1860, showed still no signs of terminating, and blazed up wherever the white settler came in contact with the native. For although General Sir Duncan Cameron had, with overwhelming numbers, forced his way into the interior of the country, and had built chains of forts with which to hold it, yet no white man's life was safe out of rifle range of these works, and the settlers, especially on the west coast, had all to abandon their farms, and send their women and children to the South Island for safety, while they themselves had to take up arms and form themselves into defence forces. A year or so before there had been a great impulse given to the trouble by the invention of the new religion, called Pai Marire, that had turned the Maoris, both Christian and pagan, from chivalrous, if savage, enemies into howling, bloodthirsty fanatics who murdered in cold blood, with every vile atrocity, man, woman and child not only of the white race but even also of the Maoris who refused to join their crazy faith. It is not my purpose, however, to write a history of New Zealand and its troubles, but of how I came to join for good the Lost Legion, the men who live and die on the frontiers of the Empire, and who, reckless of life, health and everything else that makes existence endurable to the carpet soldier, have gradually rolled out the page 35limits of Old England's possessions as the deft hand of a cook rolls out the lump of dough on a pastry board.
Directly we landed I made inquiries as to the whereabouts of Sir Duncan Cameron, but was quickly informed he had resigned the command of the forces to Sir Trevor Chute, and that the latter was at present on the west coast, but that it was impossible to say where. This was a disappointment, but as I had more than one string to my bow I bent my way to the Mount Cook Barracks, as, among others, I had a strong letter of introduction to the colonel commanding the regiment stationed there. I was most hospitably received, asked to dine, and, after a few minutes' chat about mutual friends in the old country, I asked the best way how to get to the front and take a hand in the fighting.
The Colonel looked surprised, but said, "Well, look here, Mr Burke, if you really want to see what they call fighting in this country" (he had served through the Crimea and Mutiny and like all the rest of the regular officers was sick and disgusted with the long-drawn-out war), "the best thing for you to do would be to join one of the colonial defence forces. We get news very slowly here but the day for regular troops in this country is past, and before another twelve months is over there will be but few left in the island. The only way to put an end to the war will be for small bands of irregulars to follow the Hau Haus into the bush, live, or rather starve, in the bush, and keep in pursuit of the enemy until they are worn down and killed off. Now I will, if you like, page 36at the club this evening, introduce you to some of the colonial leaders and you can discuss the matter with them, but you will find it a hard, brutal life without any chance of gaining honour or distinction."
After a pleasant dinner he took me down to the club, and there I met several leaders on their way from the east coast to the west, for, as the enemy held the whole of the interior of the island and there were no roads, all communications between the two coasts had to be sea-borne. I was also introduced to several members of the Colonial House of Parliament who were at that time in the capital, and, among others, to the Defence Minister, to whom I mentioned my desire of taking service. He was evidently amused at the idea of a man travelling over fifteen thousand miles to run the chance of getting killed and turned into long pig but assured me there were plenty of openings in the country for a man desirous of seeing hard, rough fighting, and asked me to call at his office next morning. Well pleased with my evening I said good-bye to my host and returned to my hotel, where I found my shipmates full of beer and excitement, drinking in company with some half - dozen tough, weather - beaten, fine-looking young fellows dressed in blue jumpers, Bedford cord riding breeches and smasher hats, who on being introduced to me I discovered to be troopers in the Colonial Field Force. They were all men who belonged to the class that go to public schools and Varsities, and in a very short time I discovered that most of them had come out to learn sheep farming, but finding the cadet business page 37to be a swindle had thrown it up and joined the irregular forces. Their tales of the wild life they led quickly captivated my companions, who one and all declared they would join the irregulars and let the sheep farming go swing. Other men trooped in, and seeing every likelihood of a very wet night I slipped off to bed and managed to get some hours of sleep, notwithstanding the rough choruses that were howled out for some hours as the troopers, taking the only chance they had, after months of hard work, and knowing they were on the threshold of another campaign, were determined not to let that chance slip but employ it so as to knock down their cheques and blue all the hard-earned pay they had in their pouches.
Next morning at breakfast, which was partaken of by all the guests at a sort of table d'hote, there were many troopers present and I got into conversation with one of them. Up to the present I had been rather surprised to see the principal hotel of the New Zealand capital thronged with men serving in the ranks, but my eyes were quickly opened by my new acquaintance, who told me that the corps to which he himself and most of the men present belonged was the Wanganui Defence Force, and that as every able-bodied man in that district was forced to serve, most of them at table with us were well-to-do men, holding good positions in the country but, having been forced to abandon their farms and businesses, had been enrolled into a corps; that they had been serving on the east coast, and had been recalled to the west coast; that the day previous their transport had put into Wellington, where it was page 38going to remain three days, so that they were taking advantage of the stoppage to enjoy a few days' life of civilisation between the two campaigns.
They seemed to be all very keen about the new campaign, as they considered the new general to be a far better man, for the work, than the one who had lately resigned, whose method of conducting the last five years' operations they criticised in the most unmerciful manner, while their open comments on the inutility of the regulars, both officers and men, made me wince with astonished indignation, so that it was with the greatest difficulty I could restrain myself from starting a row.
The man I was sitting next to evidently noticed my vexation, for he said: "If you have finished breakfast let's go out on the back verandah and have a smoke, and, if you have nothing better to do, a chat for an hour or two."
As he seemed a very good fellow, and I was most anxious to gain knowledge, I gave him my card, telling him I had only landed the day previous. "Yes," said he, "I can see you are a new chum, and I saw you were getting riled at the talk of the boys inside, but you must remember that the majority of those men have been ruined by the pig-headed procrastination of the General, who with twenty thousand men at his disposal has not been able, after five years' warfare, to gain any permanent advantage over savages who have never at any one time exceeded two thousand righting men. Now," he went on, "my name is West. I own a large farm on the west coast. I have been out in this country seventeen years, page 39and, having sunk my capital in land and stock, had put in twelve years' hard work in clearing ground, fencing farm and improving stock. Five years ago I was well off, with every prospect of becoming a rich man, having a comfortable house, a wife and two children, good horses, valuable cattle and sheep, and was contemplating a trip home for twelve months. The war broke out. I just saved the wife and kids; my house is burned, my stock and horses driven away and looted, my fences destroyed and my farm a wilderness, so that when this wretched business terminates I shall have to begin again. I am just completing three years' service in this force, and as far as I can see we are no nearer to the end than what we were the day we began."
"But why blame the General and troops?" I asked. "Surely you have out here thousands of officers and men whose splendid conduct and courage during the Crimea and Mutiny will live in history as long as the old flag flies?"
"Mr Burke," he answered, "you do not understand. The man who speaks a word against the courage and devotion of H.M. troops lies in the throat, but nevertheless, from the General downwards, they are simply useless for this sort of work. If you have the patience, and," with a laugh, "promise not to go for me, I will try and explain. The facts are these. The General and a vast majority of the senior officers are hide-bound in the old traditions and customs of the British army, so much so that they are quite incapable of adapting a new style of warfare to novel circumstances, while the training of the men itself page 40renders them unfit for bush warfare. I read, as a boy at school, how General Braddock, refusing to take the advice of his colonial officers, was cut up in an American forest. It is the same here, and it has only been our overwhelming strength that has saved similar disasters in this country. Look here, let me give you a few examples of what has happened in the past five years. You have, you say, been educated for a soldier, and have come to this country to lend us a hand; it will therefore do you no harm to hear and ponder over some of the absurdities that have been perpetrated, remembering that I am speaking with no ill-will against the General or troops but only just telling you how Maoris should not be fought. In 1860, when the war broke out in the Taranaki district, and we settlers saw our life's work go up in smoke, although the Europeans outnumbered the natives ten to one, it seemed that nothing could be done. The Maoris built pahs at the edge of the bush, often on deserted farms. General Pratt, then in command there, would besiege these, as if they were Sebastopols, and when with a vast amount of hard work he had sapped up to them he would find them deserted, the natives having withdrawn into the bush, where the General refused to follow them. The Maoris therefore used to plant their potatoes in perfect security, then, while their crops were growing, would announce the shooting season to be open, and invite their friends to come and pot white men, making raids into our country right up to musket range of the forts, killing and looting everyone and anything they came across. Occasionally the General (the page 41Maoris called him the rat, from his burrowing and sapping propensities) would ginger up and try to make what he called a combined movement, and even to venture into the bush, but always to come to grief. Par exemple, at one of the very first fights, the attack on the pah at Waireka, Colonel Murray with two hundred regulars and one hundred and twenty Colonials were detached to take it, the latter being ordered to make a detour through some very rough country and take up a position in rear of the place, while the regulars were to rush it from the front. The Colonials after a sharp skirmish took up the position assigned to them and held it all day, but the attack was never made, and at nightfall the regulars drew off and returned to the town, leaving the Colonials planted there with their retreat cut off and ammunition nearly all expended. They were in a tight fix, and it would have gone hard with them had not Captain Cracroft, R.N., who with a party of sixty bluejackets had just landed from H.M.S. Niger, heard of their predicament. He at once took action, got hold of three young fellows to guide him, and started off with his jacks to do their best to help their stranded countrymen. Captain Cracroft wasted no time over formulating complicated plans or strategy but made straight for the pah; it was pitch dark and when he reached the vicinity of it his party fell across a mob of the enemy. One volley the bluejackets fired, then out cutlass and revolver and charged the astonished natives, who fled for the protection of their works with the sailors in close pursuit. The stockade is reached, but that does not check the shell-backs, page 42who, giving one another a leg up, enter the place, and gut it as clean as a red herring. The Maoris, who had bailed up the Colonials, hearing the row ran to see what was up, and the latter, taking advantage of their absence, retired in safety. So far so good, but the conduct of the soldiers' O.C. in botching the show caused heaps of ill-feeling.
"Subsequently, after an immense amount of talk and preparations, a field force goes out to attack Puketakauere, more combined movements and high-falutin strategy, all of which, when it comes to the point, proved unworkable in the bush, and we have to clear out after losing sixty soldiers, shot down like sheep. Again, look at the game Cameron has played in the Waikato. With an overwhelming force he attacks Rangiriri. Mind he is fully cognisant that the natives have neither food nor water in the pah. He surrounds the place, and instead of waiting for them to be starved out he assaults the pah three times, getting beaten back with the loss of over one hundred and thirty men.
"Next day the pah surrendered, as its defenders are dying of thirst. The following year at Orakau he played the same silly game. He knew the enemy had neither food nor water, yet he tries five times to rush the place, loses heaps of men, and the Maoris, unable any longer to endure the pangs of thirst, sally out, break through the surrounding troops, and many of them escape.
"I was with the mounted portion of the force, and the first day out the column had marched fifteen miles when it was halted, early in the afternoon, to pitch camp. The Adjutant-General, Johnston, had picked out a site at Nukumaru. My O.C., an old hand, who knew the country well (I was acting as his orderly) rode up to the staff. 'General,' said he, 'don't you think we are rather too near the bush, especially as that long Toe-toe grass grows right up to the tents, and we are only five miles distant from the Weraroa pah, the principal stronghold of the enemy.' 'Pooh, pooh, Major,' answered the General, 'do you imagine, sir, for one moment, that any body of natives would dare to attack two thousand of H.M. troops?' 'Yes, sir,' said the Major, 'fifty Maoris are quite capable of doing so.' But it was no good talking, so we rode away to our lines. 'Keep your horses saddled, boys,' said the Major, 'we may be wanted any moment,' and we did so.
"Well, sir, the troops had just finished pitching the tents when rip comes a volley from the Toe-toe grass. Over rolled Adjutant-General Johnston and sixteen men dead, and there was hell to pay: men rushing to the piles of arms, bugles blowing and officers shouting contradictory orders, while the natives continued blazing into the camp, some of them even rushing in with their tomahawks, page 44one of them being killed within twenty yards of the General's own tent.
"At the first shot our O.C. had yelled out 'Mount,' and as we were standing to our horses we were on them in a moment. 'Charge,' sings out the O.C., and we charged through the long grass right into the middle of the Hau Haus, there not being more than fifty of them all told. Maoris won't stand mounted men, so we swept them back to the bush, killing a good lot. On our return to camp we found all the soldiers standing in rows, looking very pretty, and the General very angry, declaring it was not warfare for fifty savages to attack two thousand British troops.
"Now the General ought to have learned something from that lesson, but he didn't, for next night, a gale of wind blowing, the column was halted to bivouac in long dry fern. Fine beds for tired men long dry fern makes, provided there is not a gale of wind blowing and the Hau Haus are not hostile, but on this occasion such was the case, and we were roused out by shots and bugle calls to see a wall of fire, twenty feet high, charging us faster than a horse can gallop. Gad, sir, it was a case of sauve qui peut, and we all bolted for the sand-hills like redshanks, the Maoris tomahawking five of the 18th R.I. picket and a lot of others. This last affair so disgusted the General that he refused to leave the beach, and, without making another attempt of any sort, consumed fifty-seven days to march fifty-four miles, while the Maoris, only a handful in number, used to chaff us and called the General the lame seagull.
"I'll give you one more instance of incapacity, or page 45call it what you like. Sir George Grey asked the General to attack Weraroa pah. The General insisted it was impregnable to the force he had at his disposal, and that he should require at least six thousand men to do so. After a lot of blarney he sanctioned an attack to be made by Sir George, who, with less than five hundred Colonials and friendly Maoris, took the place.
"Now look here, we settlers are sick of the war, and want to get back to our farms and businesses. We are paying the British Government forty pounds sterling per annum for every regular, and when it takes an army fifty-seven days to march along an open beach fifty-four miles we don't think we are getting our money's worth. Besides we can tackle the natives better ourselves. We men you see here are on our way back from the east coast, where, without the help of a single regular, we have smashed the Hau Haus, taking their pah Waerenga-a-Hika, and, with only twenty-three casualties, have killed one hundred and fifty of the enemy, and forced four hundred more of them to surrender, two hundred of whom have been transported to the Chatham Islands, so that they are out of the way.
"Now the reason I have told you all this is, you say you have come out here to see fighting. That being so, my straight tip to you is to join a colonial corps; all the fighting during the coming campaign will be done by them. Don't bother about a commission; join the ranks under Von Tempsky or McDonnell and learn your work; then, after you have done that, you may take a commission if you like, and your men will think all the more page 46of you. Now then I'm dry with talking, come and have a drink, and I'll walk with you as far as the Defence Minister's; he is an old pal of mine. What, you don't drink? Well so much the better for you, so let's get."
With my new friend discoursing on things in general we strolled along to the Government Buildings, where we had not to wait many minutes before we were shown into the minister's office. This is a funny country, I thought, where a trooper in uniform, if such a garb can be called uniform, can call unasked on an important minister; but new countries, new customs, so I made no remark but accompanied my companion into the presence of the big man, who greeted him with much cordiality.
Presently, turning to me, he said, "Mr Burke, you are fortunate in making the acquaintance of my old friend West, and you will be wise in taking any advice on colonial matters he may offer you. I have been thinking over your case. Now this is how it appears to me. Although you have been educated and trained as a soldier, still you have had no experience in bush fighting, and without that are of no use to us. I should therefore recommend you to join a colonial corps as a private, and you will quickly gain promotion, when you have gone through the mill and gained the required knowledge. Pay, I believe, is of small consequence to you; the hardships and dangers of the campaign, which are very great, must be borne equally by officers and men alike. Good birth and education are desirable, but it is the best men we want, and the best man gets ahead in this country. You have travelled fifteen thousand miles to page 47see fighting, and therefore don't want to serve as a town guard, so I will give you a letter to Colonel McDonnell, one of our most experienced officers, and can promise you that you will see enough savage warfare and experience every phase of irregular fighting. What do you say, West?"
"You have given him the same advice as I have already done, so that if you will scribble a chit to McDonnell and give Burke a pass up in the St Kilda I will look after him and see him through."
The advice was sound and I determined to profit by it, so, thankfully receiving the letter and pass, the latter including the name of Tim, we shook hands with the minister and backed out.
No sooner were we clear of the Government Buildings than West said: "Let's go down to Prosser's; we are sure to find some of McDonnell's men there, and you can make acquaintance with them. You will find them a warm lot, but all right in the field, and perfect devils to fight."
Prosser's, at that time, was the great sporting headquarters of the up-country man, and was much frequented by the driver and stock-rider class, every one of whom is more or less a sportsman and lover of horseflesh. An odd prizefighter or rowing man might be found there occasionally, while diggers on their way to and from the gold-fields used it largely. It was, however, a well-run establishment, owned by a very good fellow. On our entrance we found the place swarming with men of a type I had not as yet met, but although I have used the word "type," and anyone could see they were men who followed the same occupation and had much in common, yet in nationality, birth, page 48education and manners they differed greatly, and this difference was far more marked than had been the case among my old comrades in the Papal Zouaves.
Here, carelessly lounging against the wall, you saw a man whose clean-cut features, correct mannerism, cultivated voice and easy abandon proclaimed him unmistakably to have been a former denizen of the club and drawing-room. Yet he is talking and drinking with a huge, burly fellow whose sunburnt face, open jumper, tattooed arms and shoulder-of-mutton fist branded him as a shell-back from before the stick. Yes, they were all there, the ex-public schoolboy, the ex-army man, the ex-sailor, stock-rider, bushman, gold-digger, professional man, ay, and, had you looked carefully, you would no doubt have found the unfrocked parson. The great majority of them are British, but among them is a sprinkling of vivacious Frenchmen, stolid Germans, hang-dog-looking Dagos, and even a few half-caste Maoris and South Sea Islanders. No matter what nationality they belonged to, they all had the same indescribable air of reckless good-nature, combined with determination and latent ferocity, which fully convinced an observer that although they might be a dangerous and godless crew, yet they were a fearless one, and that he could plank down his bottom dollar on the assertion that they would stick to a leader of their own choice to the last gasp.
West knew some of them, and, having spotted the man he wanted to get hold of, we elbowed our way through the crowd towards him, refusing many invitations to drink en route. My appearance page 49seemed to cause considerable excitement among them, and I was nearly deafened with the number of chaffing questions put to me. "Hullo, mate," quoth one, "what's the last news from the big smoke?" "How's Kate and Rose thriving, and is the old market as naughty as ever?" "Have a drink, pal, and tell us what you were lagged for," bellows another. "Good old collars and cuffs, who's the best girl in London nowadays?" While one big fellow raised a laugh by roaring out: "Come and have a wet, new chum. Don't you tumble, boys, to it? Why, he must be the new little general who's been sent out to teach us how to lick the Hau Haus."
Taking no notice of these embarrassing but good-natured remarks, I pushed on after my leader, till we reached the man he was making for, who was a tall, good-looking, bearded fellow whom I at once saw to be a man in every sense of the word. "Hutton," quoth West, "come out of this. I want you to come over and tiffin, also to introduce you to a new chum friend of mine. Mr Burke, Mr Hutton. Now you know each other, come along."
We shoved our way outside and soon reached the comparatively quieter hotel, where under the back verandah we sat down to chat. "See here, Hutton," said West, as soon as we had been served with long drinks, "I want you to give our young friend a hand. He is going up with us in the St Kilda, taking a letter from the Defence Minister to McDonnell, whom he is going to join as a Ranger. Now we were both of us new chums once, and you can do him plenty of good turns, as I do not expect to go myself farther than Wanganui."page 50
Hutton looked me over for a minute, and said: "I don't want to be inquisitive, Mr Burke, but I think I know a good deal about you. I used to know London well years ago, and have still an old pal in the Guards who writes to me. I expect you are the Dick Burke who made himself rather notorious by fighting duels, blowing up your ancestors and joined the Papal Zouaves. Well, if such is the case I think you will do for a Ranger, provided you can stand the work and hardships. We are chiefly composed of individuals who have run awful muckers, the balance being men from the gold-diggin's, together with the sea-drift of the Pacific slope and the South Seas. But why on earth should you plunge into the pit? Remember a man who once joins Les Enfants Perdus is lost for ever, not one man in a hundred ever returning to civilised society. Look here, Burke—we have no misters in the Rangers—I was once the same as you are now. Good old family, public school, crack regiment, best society in London, and all the rest. What am I now? A knock-about adventurer, stock-rider, prospector, digger, all those I've been and plenty more. I ran a mucker, never mind how, but do you think I never regret the past? My God!" and his face became suffused with blood and his eyes glared, "you see me and hundreds of others like me. You see us drink, hear us augh and shout, and think what a jovial, high-spirited crowd we are. Jovial, forsooth, yes, with the joy of hell in our hearts and the high spirits born of rum in our laughter; and do you think there is no thought or longings for the old life and the sweet women whose companionship page 51our folly has cut us off from for ever? Yes, by God, as the man dying of thirst in the desert longs for water, so we long for the past life we shall never live again."
"Yes, yes, old chap," said West soothingly; "but remember the honours you have gained."
"Honours!" almost shouted Hutton. "Do you think that one of our fellows, in a corps like ours, whose name will be forgotten in this country six months after we are disbanded, and will never be even heard of in England, count honours for anything, when even if we won them we could not share them with those who are never, save when we are drunk, out of our minds? No, West, my dear fellow, you fight for your home, for your wife and kids, and for the country of your adoption, but what have we to fight for? New Zealand to us is only a wayside station passed on our journey through life. Yes, by the Lord Harry, I may well ask you what we do fight for. It's not for our six bob a day, for any man can make his pound a shift at the diggin's for half the fatigue and none of the exposure; no, nor is it for the offal served out to us called rations; nor for the gilt and glory of war, for there is none here. So I ask you again, West, what is it that makes a man like me, another like Ginger Dick the blackbird catcher, or Holy Joe, the drunken, unfrocked parson, fight like we do and suffer the hardships we have to undergo? Why is it, answer me that?"
West said not a word, but pointed at the flag that floated at the peak of a ship of war, removed his hat and whistled a bar or two of "God Save the Queen."page 52
In a moment Hutton was on his feet. "Yes, by Satan, you've struck it!" he shouted. "It's the Queen and flag, God bless them, that claims us, and gives every one of us skallywags and ne'erdo-wells a chance and right, no matter what we have done in the past, to at all events die like gentlemen in their service. But look here, you fellows, I must apologise, must have gone a bit dotty. It's Burke's fault. Why the deuce do you come among us with your London-built coat and your Bond Street rig-out, to make a poor devil remember? Never mind, care killed the cat. There goes the tiffin gong. Let's make the most of our remaining chances at the fleshpots of Egypt, for in a short time, Burke, you will have to exist on rations that you only eat to keep body and soul together, so sling ahead and let's russle our hash."
After lunch I informed the horrified Tim that we were to join the Forest Rangers as privates, that for a time the difference between master and man must be forgotten, and that in future we must be comrades on the same plane.
The worthy man took some time to absorb the information, and when he had fully grasped the idea blurted out: "Well, begorra, we won't. Fancy the likes of me being chummy with the likes of you, Mr Dick. Av course, sor, av you join as private, I join too, but I'm your man, sor, still, and be this an' be that, I'll be so."
Later on, under the guidance of Hutton, I purchased my own and Tim's outfit. Riding breeches and boots, also good flannel shirts, in those days called Crimean shirts, we had already, but after Hutton had picked out two blue jumpers he page 53selected with great care two strong and warm but light woollen shawls.
"What on earth are these for?" I asked, as we had plenty of rugs.
"Oh." he replied, "when we enter the bush we discard breeches and trousers and wear shawls round our waists like kilts."
"And what for am I to be turned into a Hielander, sor?" quoth Tim.
"Why," replied our mentor, "you see we have often to use a creek or river-bed as a road, either to wade up it or keep on crossing it, and it's deadly work having to march in wet trouser-legs, but with a shawl you can raise it out of the water, and continue your route with ease, also make an extra blanket of it, and, my word, you need it. Remember you will have to act as your own pack horse here; every man has to hump his own swag—that is, you will have to carry on your own backs everything you take out with you on a foot patrol."
Orders were given out that night that every man must muster at noon next day, so the reckless boys set to work to blue their remaining money, and Wellington was painted scarlet. As for me, I persuaded Hutton, West and some others to dine with me. All the rest of my shipmates had joined various corps, and we not only had a first-rate dinner but a jolly good spree after it. Tim had packed up, all our goods had been warehoused, so next morning I had nothing to do but pay my bill and walk down to the St Kilda that was to sail at two P.M. for Wanganui.