A Romance of Lake Wakatipu
The Otago Goldfields—Bill Fox, the Arrow River Discoverer—Full and correct Account of his Adventures as told by Himself—The Dunedin Gaoler—The Lakes Trade—The Devil's Staircase—The Little Old Man with a Grizzly Beard.
On the scroll of Otago's* goldfields fame, during the memorable days of the sixties, the name of Bill Fox stands third. First on the list is that of Gabriel Read, of Tuapeka, Hartley and Riley of the Dunstan being second. Then came our friend Bill, by whose pluck and perseverance the hunt for auriferous riches extended to the Arrow, the Shotover, and the Wakatipu.
By pursuit Bill was a sailor-man, of the dare-devil kind. In his wanderings he drifted into Port Otago,* Otago being then in the zenith of its goldfields fame.
Ships' captains in these days had good times. They had large prices for their freights; but, still, they had big responsibilities, amongst which the responsibility of preventing their crews from bolting—leaving them single-handed to man the ship—was not by any means the least. The word single-handed is no mere figure of speech, as in many instances the diggings proved quite as attractive to the officers as they did to the men. Indeed, it was no uncommon thing for the skipper of a vessel to wake up of a morning and find himself securely battened down, and on regaining his liberty, which was not unfrequently preceded by periods of lengthened detention, to find the ship deserted by all hands.page 2
In some cases stringent measures were resorted to, and after-consequences ensued. In the then primitive state of society in Otago, however, these were not of a serious cast. It is a matter of unwritten history that so very limited was the gaol-accommodation that when more than three were committed at the one time the extra prisoners had to be hoarded out. The discipline must have been equally mild, as we find by authentic record the gaoler on one occasion threatening to lock out the prisoners for the night unless they returned to their quarters at a timely hour. A régime of that kind suited Jack to a nicety; and it can be understood that, as a rule, he bore the punishment with exemplary patience.
It was one of Bill Fox's proudest boasts that he did his month like a man, and then made tracks for the Dunstan. His Arrow River discoveries having replenished his purse, Bill appears to have renewed his hankerings after seafaring life. His own admissions prove that his mind, for a time, was sorely perplexed on the point. "When I compared the fo'c's'le," he would say, "with my own snug little cabin on the Arrow River* I could not but feel how far-and-away better the one was to the other; but when I looked abroad on the waters of the lake, and saw them tumbling about in a good, stiff, sou'-wester, I could not help thinking I was becoming a perfect landlubber, and that thought getting uppermost in my mind made life insupportable. It was no use telling me that in a young country like New Zealand, with democratic tendencies, all things were possible to the man of enterprise, and that I might one day rise to the helm of affairs—get command of the Molyneux punt, or boss the spoon-dredge in Dunedin Harbour."
It was at this stage of his cogitations that Bill Fox finally resolved upon abandoning the Arrow, and launched out on the lake. He rigged out a fore-and-aft schooner, which he named the "Nancy," in loving memory of an old sweetheart, who, according to his own showing, led him a pretty dance, and then jilted him.
The lakes trade through Southland† at this time was eagerly prosecuted, and, seeing his opportunity, Bill engaged to ply his craft regularly between Kingston and Queenstown.page break page break page 3
The passage to and from these places lay between lofty mountains, one of the sublime, though stern, features of the now famed Lakes District.* At places the banks run up from the water's edge into the sides of the subordinate hills and stretches of table-land. In many respects these fells, being well-proportioned and undulating, lend charm and variety to such rugged heights as the Remarkables, the Earnslaws, Ben Lomond,† and other monuments of stately grandeur with which this part of the colony is so richly endowed.
At one place the passage becomes narrow-gutted and precipitous beyond anything to be met with in New Zealand, the Fiords country and its environments always excepted. This is what is known as the Devil's Staircase; and we venture to add that, of all the hundreds of diggers who rushed the Wakatipu by way of Southland and the Longford, not one could hear the name mentioned, even at this distant day, without experiencing the proverbial cold shudder. It seems at one time, in prehistoric ages, to have been a coupling-link between main ranges on the east and west sides of the lake, and in that way to have formed one of nature's barriers against the further encroachment of the waters.
Behind that, a vast accumulation of water-power must have been stored, there being evidence to show that at one tune the lake was much higher than it is at present. This vast hydraulic power, aided no doubt by some other force in nature, would seem to have forced the passage, leaving perpendicular walls of granite on each side, with a deep gulf in the centre. Thus forced, the lake now extends ten or twelve miles beyond its original limits.
In pure sympathy with external circumstances, Bill's brain got into a muddle, and, being in danger of losing his head, he closed his eyes and lay down at full length on the deck. In that condition a most astonishing vision broke in upon his disturbed faculties. A little old man, with a grizzly beard, walked coolly in over the stern, and, with the utmost sang froid, sat down alongside Bill's prostrate form.
"Got a match?" said the little old man, producing a short cutty pipe.
With a purely mechanical effort, although a trifle tremulous, Bill handed him the required match, which he declares was one of an ordinary tin box full of wax vestas purchased that morning at two boxes a tanner. That explanation he deems absolutely requisite, for, as the sequel shows, it turned out one of the most eventful matches on record.
The old man struck the match against the bowl, in the ordinary way observed amongst patrons of cutty pipes, when, lo and behold! a light was produced which, if Bill can be believed on his word of honour, far exceeded the sun, moon, and stars in their combined efforts at illumination. The waters of the lake, hitherto dark and turbid, became smooth and transparent as a looking-glass, so much so that objects at the bottom became distinctly visible.
Looking down, Fox could see an exact counterpart of the little old man with the grizzly beard lying dead at the bottom, with a deep gash on the forehead. To Bill's sensitive mind the sight was so appalling that he instinctively turned his head to look in another direction. There fresh astonishments met his bewildered gaze. The wall of rock had melted away into a kind of noonday transparency, so that objects became distinctly visible for miles around. Beneath a heap of rubbish in the vicinity of the old man's hut, which Fox now recognised as belonging to a man who had been at work on the upper branch of the Nevis, and who had suddenly disappeared, no one knew how or where, he saw what he took to be a pile of gold wrapped up in a chamois-leather bag.page 5
Having feasted his eyes on these wonderful sights, Bill naturally turned to his mysterious companion for further explanations.
"Fool that you are," said the little old man, "can you not see down into the mystery, or is the light not strong enough for you to read the riddle?"
Bill faltered out that he thought he had seen as far through the whin-stone as any man, hut, as an embodiment of all the facts of the case, his observations were somewhat faulty. He therefore begged the old man would assist him to pick up the broken threads in the narrative."
"Broken threads, indeed," said the little old man ironically; "say, rather, broken heads; done to death by a ruffian. He thought to rob me of my trust, but he was mistaken. To wipe out all traces of his bloody deed he hurled me over yonder beetling cliff; and now, 'Down among the dead men, there I lie.'" These last words were uttered in a sing-song, drawling tone, which was immediately taken up with tremendous energy, as if the combined efforts of a thousand foghorns had been let loose, and, in shrill cadence, the whole gulch, from end to end, resounded to the chorus—
Down, down among the dead men,
There I lie.
"Ah," said the little old man, leering over his grizzly beard, "let's try it in another key." So saying he repeated the chant in a singularly clear, melodious voice, which, as previously, was taken up and repeated by the unseen choir.
Fox describes the sounds emitted on that occasion as being perfectly enchanting. Every known, and many unknown, parts in music were represented with a sweet blending of voices which rendered the performance rapturous. Its like, Bill says, he never heard, albeit he had been present at musical festivals in which stars of the first magnitude had taken part.
As the last strains of the melody died away the light went out, and all around became density and darkness, as it was I before the striking of the eventful match.
The little old man rose to take his departure.page 6
"You know all about it now," said he. "You know where the chamois-leather bag is, and you know where they put me. So good night, and here goes it."
So saying the old man stepped overboard, and, just as the waters closed in upon him, sang out at the top of his voice—
Down, down, down among the dead men,
There I lie.
Up to this point Bill's narrative, although not what would be called circumstantial, is nevertheless complete. What transpired afterwards is not by any means so conclusive.
When memory next asserted its sway Bill tells us he awoke out of a troubled sleep, and found his boat some distance above the gulch, moored alongside the bank, and the morning's sun well up in the heavens.
Bill's friends ventured to think the whole thing was an optical delusion—a creature of the fevered imagination. That view, however, he repudiates as being a slur on his sobriety, and, in defence thereof, puts forward the following: First, he asserts that, while a large proportion of his cargo was bottled beer, bulk could not have been broken, as no demand was ever made for ullage; secondly, he is still able to show a tin box of wax vestas from which one match at least has disappeared; and third, and last, Bill gives it as his candid opinion, if sceptics would take the trouble of dredging the lake, he has no doubt the body of the little old man with the grizzly beard would be fished up. As for the pile of gold in the chamois-leather bag, he is sure of finding it; and, as will be shown at the proper time, so firm was his belief that he made good his promise.