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A South-Sea Siren

Chapter IX

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Chapter IX

Advance Sunnydowns!’ was the inspiriting motto that was placarded over the leading business establishments of the budding township, and that also headed the glowing advertisements announcing the sale of vacant allotments within this favoured locality.

The enterprising founder of the settlement, Mr Sunny, who had purchased the original block of land upon which it stood at five pounds per acre, on terms, had then cut it up into quarter-acre lots, and was selling them at twenty pounds a-piece, at the fall of the hammer; the pushing storekeepers, who had run up numerous iron sheds in the course of a few months, and who vied with one another in every effort to attract custom; the “canny” McDonald, who had built a large hotel to eclipse the rougher accommodation house held by his rival, Bagot—all these people, with a host of smaller fry, were eager to push ahead, and enthusiastic for the future of Sunnydowns.

Consequently the order of the day was to ‘blow’.

The new township was heralded to the world as possessing every charm that indulgent Nature could bestow, together with every commercial advantage that a central position in a thriving district could confer upon it. Beauty with utility combined, business with pleasure!

It possessed—all to itself—a mountain, only six miles off; a river, without any water in it, except at flood times, when it had rather too much; a harbour, at the mouth of said river; with an impassable bar across its entrance.

No such perfect site had ever been selected before; nothing at all resembling it was ever likely to be discovered in the future, and it was truly pointed out, through the medium of the press, that capitalists, speculators, investors, and others who neglected the present opportunity of securing the few town allotments still available for purchase, might never again have the chance of such a bargain offered to them.

Nothing more was wanting to ensure success to Sunnydowns, to make it all it deserved to be, and give it a proud pre-eminence over all other competing ventures—there were a good many of them—but a distinguishing title, a fine, high-sounding cognomen.

It did not remain long without one. To the genius of the local medical practitioner was due the name by which Sunnydowns will be page 101 known to all future times; he christened it—‘The Sanitarium of the Southern Hemisphere’.

Notwithstanding this unrivalled condition of healthiness, and the inutility of medical assistance under the circumustances, yet the doctor soon got a confrère. For if few persons went out of the world at Sunnydowns, it was some consolation to the medical faculty that a large number came in. The birth rate might be considered highly gratifying, or else appalling, according to the ‘stand-point’ of the parties most concerned. The first medicus endeavoured to practice as surgeon and physician, and found nothing to do; the second one announced himself as accoucheur, and did a splendid business.

A keen rivalry animated the energetic pioneers of the new settlement; every man tried to outshine or outrun his neighbours, but it was all out of public spirit—for the progress and prosperity of Sunnydowns.

Even in religion did this healthy spirit of emulation prevail. The Methodists were foremost in the field of piety, and they built the first chapel, with an inscription on the foundation stone—‘To the glory of God’.

The Episcopalians were, however, not to be outdone—they could only afford a smaller building, but they called it a church, and their inscription was—‘To the greater glory of God’.

The worthy inhabitants were practical men; they realised that in order to secure materials advancement it was necessary to go beyond the limits of prayers and advertisements—they would have to exert themselves.

Accordingly they proceeded to more vigorous and effectual measures: they agitated; they held indignation meetings; they summoned their members; they formed themselves into deputations; they petitioned the Government for roads, for bridges, for drains, for institutes, for schools, for everything they wanted, or thought they wanted, and for money into the bargain.

Police protection was especially insisted on, although it was shown that law and order peacefully prevailed, without the presence of ‘the force’.

Now, it so happened that the Government was short of money—no unusual occurrence—and had to temporise with these numerous demands. A policeman was offered, and refused. Nothing would satisfy the ambition of Sunnydowns but a full-blown inspector, two mounted troopers, and a lock-up.

The Government resisted, but political influence was brought to bear, and eventually the demand was granted. A stipendiary magis- page 102 trate and a court-house had to follow. A public school, a public library, a public pound came next. These, with the addition of a post and survey office, and a council-hall, formed an imposing array of public buildings.

Nor was private enterprise altogether lacking in this general forward movement. The Bank of Oceana started a branch, and immediately the Antipodean Banking Corporation followed suit. Both these financial institutions had to be satisfied with small beginnings. The former was lodged in a little three-roomed cottage, of which the first apartment was dubbed ‘office’, and the other two reserved for the accommodation of the banker and his wife. The second establishment was even of smaller dimensions, and consisted in a sort of iron sentry box in which ‘the manager’ sat in state during office hours, and was supposed to sleep at night, taking his meals at the public-house over the way.

Both the bank managers were very young men—

As smooth as Hebe's their unrazor'd lips.

They received very small salaries, and were entrusted with very limited supplies of cash, but they fully expected their business to grow with the township, and within a short space of time to ‘better their condition’.

Trades and handicrafts were not very abundant at Sunnydowns, but they also were advancing.

Two sturdy blacksmiths hammered in opposition, on either side of the main street there were also two wheelwrights, two cobblers, two saddlers, &c.; every trade in couples, except storekeepers who flourished in abundance, and the undertaker who languished in the single state. The township had not reached such a high point of civilisation as to warrant a tailor, but there were several dressmakers, and even a milliner's shop with the latest Parisian fashions exhibited in a window about two feet square.

For the first few years of the settlement there had not been a lawyer in it, and those were happy times—too good to last. Then one came; he announced himself as solicitor, barrister, and notary public, all combined; but notwithstanding this multiplicity of occupations he could not thrive alone. Then a second one, Mr Perverse, came to help him. He was a man of parts and resources, but unstable; a free lance, who loved to prowl from place to place, in search of prey, committing fearful depredations on the peaceful communities wherein he dwelt. He was a man of a facetious turn, excellent company, and candid page 103 withal; one who loved his joke even at the expense of his clients. There was something of the tiger in his face, but he looked fiercer than he really was; his manners were most affable, but his smile spelt damnation.

‘It is a strange fact,’ he used to remark complacently over his glass, ‘that wherever I settle myself, I unsettle everybody else.’

When informed that he was going into a peaceful neighbourhood where not even one lawyer could make a living, he would reply mildly in the words of the saying: ‘It needs two to make a quarrel;’ and then he would explain jocosely that whereas in every other business or profession competition had a tendency to reduce the profits of those engaged, it was just the reverse with lawyers. ‘We make our own game,’ he said, ‘but it requires at least a couple of us to play it—battledore and shuttlecock. As for me, I make a splendid second—I never failed yet.’ All this was very amusing to hear about; it became much less so when carried into practice at the expense of his clients.

Sunnydowns became litigious. The superabundant energies of the people found vent not so much in action as in bringing actions. Society was soon split up into numerous factions that quarrelled incessantly with one another and also among themselves. Everybody, on the smallest provocation, took proceedings, and everybody, in turn, had to pay costs.

It was an epidemic of law, with no end of cases, and ‘no case’ with most of them. In the meantime the presiding magistrate had his hands full, and applied for an increase of salary on account of the additional work; his clerk received—under protest—his share of the pickings, and lawyers divided between them the bulk of the plunder.

The surroundings of Sunnydowns formed its chief attraction. The neighbourhood was select and pleasant. Over the breezy downs that encircled it about were dotted numerous small farms that in many cases were held by a superior class of settlers—not the common ‘cockatoo’, but gentlemen farmers, trying their hands at agricultural pursuits. For it was all the vogue in those days for a certain class of people of good social position, but with very little capital, less knowledge and no practical experience whatever, to emigrate to New Zealand, and settle down upon a section of land—from a forty-acre allotment upwards—and attempt to live ‘according to Nature’. Some of them brought their houses with them—packed in pieces to be put logether on the spot; others, with more sense, trusted to Providence and the local supplies of timber; but nearly all of them brought very page 104 exalted notions concerning the dignity of labour, the resources of the land, and high-class farming.

These ingenious settlers, if they did not all succeed, at least they formed a goodly company—while they lasted.

There were also some genial and pleasant people among the older colonists, including several of the larger runholders. Among the latter the O'Neils enjoyed a high popularity for hearty hospitality and good whisky. ‘No ceremony’ was the pass word to their house. They made every one welcome, and expected every one who came there—whether friend or stranger—to remain as long as possible. It was easy to get to their station; the difficulty was to get away again, for it was no unusual thing for a visitor who had made himself particularly agreeable over night at their house to find in the morning that his horse had escaped out of the paddock, and could not be recovered for a day or two. An enforced stay at these hospitable quarters was the result. The worst of the place was the crowd of poor relations and hangers-on that congregated there. They were a common lot of people, and a decided nuisance, but the ‘old man’ would not turn any one away, and his good wife, although she might grumble a little, made them all welcome. The O'Neils lived in a primitive style in a large wooden house, with a large table and a large family round it, and a large decanter of whisky constantly upon it.

Everybody smoked in every room, and ‘spun yarns’ on every available occasion. When there were not sufficient beds for the whole of the company present some people had to take ‘shake downs’ on sofas and stretchers, and even on the floor, and make the best of the accommodation obtainable. Two sheep were killed every morning and a bullock on Saturdays for home consumption. The boys spent most of their time galloping about the run and assisting in the work of the station, and if their ‘schooling’ was elementary they were at least strong and hearty, excellent horsemen, and ‘dab hands’ at drafting sheep, or cutting out cattle. Even the girls could crack a stock-whip.

On Sunday, with praiseworthy regularity, paterfamilias, his wife, and little ones would drive to church in a huge American wagonette, the rest of the party following on horseback. The Sunday dinner was a heavy meal, partaken of at two o'clock punctually, and with rather more formality than usual; it was seasoned with grace before meat, and plenty of beer with it, and whisky to follow. On the Sunday afternoon it was the rule of the house that everybody should go to sleep.

There was a sameness about the life, a routine that was but rarely page 105 varied by any intellectual diversion, and had it not been for the whisky—but then, there was always plenty of that.

Another family of note were the Dugalds. They lived a few miles further north, and were very much in the same style as their neighbouring squatters, only rather more pretentious. They claimed to belong to the beau monde. For there was a grown-up daughter of the house who strummed on the piano; croquet and afternoon tea on the lawn, and some attempt at keeping up appearances. In other respects, however, this affectation of superiority was only skin deep. At heart, they were plain sort of people, who preferred a plain joint to any amount of kickshaws, and who looked very uncomfortable in their dress clothes.

Among the smaller settlers residing in the district there were several retired officers, both of the army and navy. They had brought their wives and families with them, and all had farms, or, at least, they all made some ostensible attempts at farming, and talked a great deal about it; but with what practical results seemed often very doubtful.

These good people had brought the refined habits of the Old World with them, but although bred in luxury, and accustomed to expensive tastes, they were generally found to adopt themselves cheerfully to their altered conditions of life. The ladies especially would take to menial work, and ‘roughing it’, with astonishing complacency. Delicate women, who had never soiled their hands in their former homes, might be daily seen busily engaged at the wash-tub or in the kitchen, as if they rather liked it.

Then, after a morning spent in dusting, cooking, and washing-up, they would remove their coarse aprons and preside at afternoon tea, in their neatly decorated little sitting rooms, with all the grace of a fashionable matron. There could be but scant ostentation of life in this enforced simplicity, yet people made the most of their small belongings, and were not without the vanity that shows itself in little things; it is possible to be house proud even in a bush shanty.

Genial sociability generally prevailed amongst neighbours; it was shown in frankness of manner and open-heartedness. Nobody was supposed to stand upon ceremony. Expensive and elaborate entertainments were out of the question, but these were amply compensated for by the charm of freedom, and a multitude of social gaieties that cost little more than the goodwill of those engaged in them. Parties, pic-nics, and concerts were got up on the spur of the moments; friends would ‘drop in’ uninvited, and sometimes a whole troop of young people would make a raid on some unsuspecting neighbour and take the house by storm, when the rooms would have to be page 106 cleared for a dance on the shortest possible notice. Riding parties were especially in vogue, as every one rode in those days, and the open character of the country offered every inducement for that bracing exercise.

It was a sort of patriarchal existence in modern life, primitive yet cultured; rough in exterior, but refined at heart; with the charm of civilised society, without many of its irksome restraints and cold artificialities.

Unfortunately, human nature, with its many discordant elements, remains very much the same under varying conditions, and jealousy and dissension would sometimes mar the harmony of this peaceful little coterie.

Some people would give themselves airs, which other people would resent; some people would ape their betters, or else their ideas of propriety were different from other people's, and some people could not help remembering in their lowliness their former claims to social distinction, which other people did not possess. Then scandal, ever rife in small communities, was particularly busy at Sunnydowns. It was the black spot on the otherwise fair face of an artless and amiable existence. There was so little to occupy attention in these secluded parts that gossip ran wanton. Everybody had something to say about everybody else. In most cases it was only tittle-tattle, but prying eyes and backbiting tongues were never loth to seize upon the most trivial incidents, and turn them to the worst possible account.

• • • • •

The leading personage of the place was undoubtedly the Honourable Alfred Dionysius Cerulean, Member of the Legislative Council, a prominent politician, a wealthy squatter, and a pillar of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, he built a chapel almost entirely for his own use, and that of his family, although he would send round his carriage of a Sunday to gather in a more humble congregation. He lived in a big house and in a large way; he drove a grand four-in-hand drag, and his Irish dependants, by whom he was surrounded, called him ‘a great man entirely’.

In consequence of so much greatness Mr Cerulean cultivated a drawl and assumed certain airs of pomposity, but in other respects he was a very fine fellow. His sphere in life was to direct, his favourite occupation to preside, and he was liberal both in advice and subscriptions to all local institutions.

Mrs Cerulean was My Lady Bountiful; the patroness of all good people and all good works. She was very delicate and rather too exquisite; reserved, prim, and pious. She did not mix with the vulgar page 107 herd, nor associate much with heretics, but dispensed charities and encouraged humble worth. Altogether a very estimable person, given to confession. She presided over the female element in the district, both in virtue of her husband's exalted position and her own rank, for she was a grand-daughter of a baronet.

The Queen of Hearts was Mrs Seagul; a lady of mature charms, but of more juvenile ambition. She was a widow, with a clever head, in which the bump of ‘love of approbation’ was largely developed, and a strong will, which could not brook contradiction—consequently she proved an excellent client to her lawyer, Mr Perverse. She had a bevy of fair daughters, whose budding charms, however, were kept in the background by the engrossing pretensions of the mother; for Mrs Seagul was partial to young men on her own account, and loved to surround herself with an admiring audience.

She was aesthetic—a poetess; tender in matters of sentiment, but a very hard nail in matters of business.

She assumed to be une femme supérieure, or what we should call in plain English ‘a strong-minded woman’. She affected advanced views—a free-thinker in religion, a radical in politics.

She despised vulgar prejudices, and claimed the utmost freedom for the exercise of her own tastes and predilections, but it was observed that she was not always disposed to grant a similar latitude to others, for she ruled her family with a rod of iron, and was considered a very domineering person in society.

In some respects she was a decided acquisition to Sunnydowns, for she was indefatigable as the organiser of musical and dramatic entertainments, but with the one drawback that she insisted on managing everybody and everything, and in always taking a leading part for herself—a stipulation that soon became extremely irksome to the local committees, and was so little appreciated by an indulgent public that this kind of amusement fell into disfavour. For if it was difficult to work with the widow, it was well-nigh impossible to do without her.

Mrs Seagul was not popular with her own sex. It could hardly have been otherwise, for she was abrupt in her manners, and satirical in her remarks. She considered herself superior to the trivialities of ordinary feminine interest, she despised small-talk, refused to truckle to the conventionalities of society, and was so unmindful of the requirements of dress that, at a time when crinoline was still in fashion, she went about in close-fitting skirts—‘an object’, as her lady friends disdainfully remarked.

As she was never ill herself she derided medicine, and denounced page 108 all doctors as ‘quacks’, while making provokingly light of those numerous ailments which play so important a part in the lives of most females. As she took no notice of her own children, except to correct them, she could hardly be expected to admire other peoples'; but, above all, she detested any exhibitions of juvenile precocity. ‘The proper place for children,’ she would curtly remark, ‘is the nursery, and the best argument to use with them in those frequent differences that occur with parental authority, is a strap.’ Such sentiments were not likely to be acceptable to the parties most concerned in the proposed treatment, and consequently the authoritative widow was cordially hated by the little ones. She became a sort of disciplinarian bogey, held up to the terror of unruly children; while the fact that her principles of training met with some qualified approval from obdurate fathers, rendered them all the more distasteful to the opposite faction of indulgent mothers.

Mrs Seagul reserved all her smiles and blandishments for the sterner sex. She loved especially to beam upon youth and talent, and she greatly prided herself in the art of judiciously distributing her favours to all comers, and of adapting her conversation to the social conditions of her company. She could talk politics with politicians, and farming with farmers; she could discourse as learnedly on the Darwinian Theory as upon the relative merits of Merino and Long-wool sheep; was equally conversant with ‘stock’ on the Exchange as in the cattle market; yet her own particular element was poetry and the Fine Arts. Unfortunately neither of these aesthetic accomplishments flourished in New Zealand in those days. Colonists, as a rule, were practical men, and their prevailing idea of progress was ‘to make two blades of grass grow where only one grew before’.

Distinguished visitors, such as a popular author taking notes, a renowned painter making sketches, a learned entomologist collecting beetles, or a celebrated tragedian ‘doing the world’, were few and far between; but whenever one of these ‘stars’, illuminating that distant sphere, did cross her orbit, she never missed the opportunity of attracting it within her charmed circle. Then she could expatiate to her heart's content in congenial company, and express her undisguised contempt for her ordinary colonial surroundings. In the absence of great minds, however, Mrs Seagul had to make the most of the little ones, and she would even condescend to patronise local talent.

As such she had graciously favoured Mr Richard Raleigh with her discriminating attention, but that gentleman had not responded to her advances in a cordial manner. He resented patronage, disliked the ‘blue stocking genus’, and obstinately refused to be drawn out of his page 109 shell. But the captivating widow still persisted in her designs upon him, and after a time some friendly relations were established between the two, for when the recluse would not come to ‘the Bluff’ it was not unusual for the numerous progeny of the Seaguls, led by their venturesome mother, to take flight to ‘the Growlery’, and to terrify the lonely bachelor into submission. ‘They would not be so appalling,’ he would piteously exclaim, after undergoing such an ordeal, ‘if they were not so many.’

This entente cordiale was not, however, fated to last very long, for The Widow was a jealous widow, who would suffer no supremacy beside her own.

Between Mrs Seagul and Mrs Wylde there arose a feud—no common feud made up of petty spite and feminine dislikes, but a deadly one, founded on rival attractions.

The two women hated one another right royally, and lost no opportunity of wounding and reviling one another with the bitterest animosity. No terms were held; no quarter given; it was un duel à mort.

It must be admitted that the quarrel, in the first instance, was entirely of the widow's making; for Mrs Wylde was not naturally of a quarrelsome disposition. She personally disliked open combat, and her conquests, however treacherous, were mostly of a peaceful character. Moreover, fully realising the wisdom of the old adage that ‘he who lives in a glass house should not throw stones’, the mistress of Dovecot did not deal willingly in projectiles, unless forced to do so in self-defence, when she was not particular as to the means adopted, and could bespatter mud, as well as shoot poisoned darts, and the more legitimate missiles of feminine warfare.

Mrs Wylde was therefore not the aggressor, and would rather have gone out of the way to secure peace, but she could be venomous if trodden on. Now Mrs Seagul went out of the way to tread upon her.

Once at daggers drawn the two women fought desperately, nor did the conflict remain long confined to themselves; others were soon drawn into it, and after a time the whole district was up in arms, and few people could refrain from taking part in the struggle.

Mrs Seagul conducted her campaign with remarkable skill. She fought under the banner of the High Moral Tone; she gathered all the Proprieties around her, and attacked her rival with Virtuous Indignation.

Mrs Wylde replied with a running fire of Ridicule and Contempt; Scoures and Innuendoes were thrown into the enemy's camp, causing page 110 severe damage, while the heavier ordnance of Defamation made havoc in the ranks.

But Mrs Seagul brought the biggest guns to bear. She had Prudery and Decorum with her, and they always command Scandal on their side. Soon the British Matron became alarmed for Morality, and joined the cause of the Strong Minded Widow, and then Mrs Grundy, with all her shrieking train, followed suit.

The day looked badly for ‘the Siren’. Alarming defections had taken place on her side, while her vigorous opponent was gaining in power and numbers every moment. Yet there still remained a chance for a rescue. There stood the Church. The widow was a free-thinker; she had flouted her religion, and did not even subscribe to the incumbent's stipend, while the other, although possibly a black sheep, was still numbered within the sacred fold, and contributed for the shepherd. It was noticed also that the dangers and difficulties of Mrs Wylde's position had brought about a serious change in her demeanour. She had suddenly become very devout. She attended both morning and evening service, she taught at the Sunday school, she collected subscriptions, and she not only won over the worthy parson, but—a far more difficult task—also his wife, by standing godmother to their first baby. Even the commodore, similarly inspired, became an altered man; he accepted the vacant post of churchwarden, and on Sundays went decorously round with the plate.

This caused a strong revulsion of feeling among the congregation, which represented an influential party. It was intensified when the repentant Celia prayed aloud for her sinful and misguided detractor, and lamented publicly over the evil fate of the little Seaguls, brought up in godless neglect of their religious duties, and ignorant even of the Short Catechism.

But Mrs Wylde's greatest achievement was to gain a footing at the Ceruleans. These exclusive people were strict Catholics, and as such might be supposed to be utterly indifferent to the state of the parties in the local ‘Establishment’; but on the other hand, like many of their faith, they were acutely alive to the prospects of proselytism.

Now, it cannot but be admitted that Mrs Wylde, as a subject, afforded hopeful anticipations in that direction.

She was naturally a highflyer, her notions were decidedly elevated; she cultivated the sublime, she indulged in the ecstatic; consequently she favoured the High Church, and she showed every disposition to soar even higher.

Nor were outward signs wanting of this impending conversion, for the walls of her bedroom were hung with sacred prints, in which the page 111 Madonna figured conspicuously, a large crucifix was suspended over her dressing-table, and Romish books of devotion found their way into the most inmost recesses of her boudoir.

She also cultivated devout company. She was always with ‘the Sisters’, or else the Sisters were with her; she waylaid Father Patrick on one of his periodical rounds, lured him to Dovecot, and besides feasting, she profoundly impressed the holy man, with the result that a few days later on she received a formal invitation to the Ceruleans.

This was a master-stroke of policy, and a serious check to the opposite faction; it gained a ‘coign of vantage’ of unquestionable respectability, while Mrs Seagul encountered fresh difficulties with her new allies, and was taken to task on questions of dogma, her weakest side, for whatever might be though of her conduct in life, there was no disputing the fact that her tenets were utterly damnable.

This caused a split in the camp. The Wylde party recovered ground, and thus the battle raged on with varying success. Had the fascinating Celia, with her priestly supporters, only remained firm on holy ground, she might have held her own; unfortunately she was weak in everything but vanity, and fickle to every cause but that of adulation; she forsook the Church and the Church forsook her; like Cleopatra at Actium, she turned and fled while the action was still uncertain, and ended the contest in a disreputable rout.