The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 9 (December 2, 1935)
Limited Night Entertainments
The sun was still very hot although the shadows were lengthening, as Santa Claus came into view of the long white road which runs across Cabbage Tree Flat. His disguise was perfect, for, so far from being a rotund old gentleman in a red flannel suit, he was lean and spare, dressed in shabby clothes, and, in place of the traditional sack of Christmas presents carried a rolled up swag and billy. Indeed there was little about him by which he might have been recognised, unless it were his eyes. Quick, merry eyes of the brightest blue and full of the old spirit of peace and goodwill.
The first object that attracted his attention as he halted at the bend in the road was the mailman's buggy standing in the shade of a mighty puriri tree, the horses idly whisking their tails and the mailman's dog asleep beneath the back axle. Of the mailman himself there was no sign.
Santa Claus hitched up his swag and strode over to investigate. The dog, a fine Irish setter woke up, and seeing who it was (animals and birds it seems, are always much quicker than human beings to recognise the Saint) did not bark, but wagged his tail and ran off round the tree with that, “Come with me—and I'll show you what's up,” air that dogs are so well able to express. Santa Claus followed him, and there, at full stretch with his mouth wide open and snoring like a blacksmith's bellows, lay the mailman.
Santa Claus pushed back his weatherbeaten hat and laughed, and bending down shook the mailman by the shoulder. But the dog barked impatiently as though to say: “Sure, it's not a bit of use doing that—for we dined at O'Reilly's this day and O'Reilly, he opened up a bottle of parsnip wine, and then bedad, he opened another and two more, so he did. An’ the pair of them they forgot it was Christmas Eve and himself with a big load of mail to deliver, and they began running races and wrasslin', and jumpin’ over the clothes line, until they wore themselves out entirely!”
Santa Claus rolled himself a cigarette and looked thoughtful.
“I think it would be best if you stayed here and looked after your boss, old man,” he said at length. “I'll go on and deliver the mail and pick you up here this evening. We can't let people go without their mail on Christmas Eve.”
So the setter lay down beside his master while Santa Claus climbed into the buggy, chirruped to the horses, and drove off down the dusty road.
Cabbage Tree Flat is a fertile valley given over chiefly to dairying. The houses are, for the most part, well back from the road, and at the main gate of each, farm is the usual creamstand and mail box, the latter consisting of anything from an old soap-box to a proper galvanised iron affair furnished with a flag and name plate.
At the first gate Santa Claus had put letters in the box and deposited one or two parcels on the cream stand. He was about to start his team again when he heard someone shouting “Hoy!” and saw a stout little man running along the fence line waving a hoe.
He waited and the little man presently came alongside.
“Hey, Joe,” he puffed, “why didn't you blow your whistle?”
“Hullo,” he added, staring at Santa Claus, “you're new aren't you, where's Joe?”
“I'm relieving him,” said Santa Claus, “I never thought about whistling.”
“If you're anything like as dry as I am,” said the little man with a grin, “you couldn't whistle. What about coming up for a cup of tea?” he added. “We've got some letters we want posted.”
“Why, thank'ee,” said Santa Claus.
“Hop up, and I'll turn the horses and drive up to the house.”
“Stranger to these parts, eh?” remarked the little man, as, a few minutes later, they swayed and jolted over the rough track, “what might your name be?”
“Santer,” said Santa Claus, thinking a moment, “Tom Santer.”
The little man looked at him and then burst out laughing.
“Ho!” he cried, “Santer, and you come on Christmas Eve! Don't you let the kids know what your name is Mister, or they'll turn this outfit inside out looking for Christmas presents!”
Santa Claus smiled and said he wouldn't.
“Not but what,” the little man continued, “it wouldn't be a good lurk if you really were Santa. You could do a lot of good round about here.”
“Could I,” said Santa Claus, “what way?”
“Well you could send me three days’ solid rain for a start,” grinned the little man. “You see,” he added confidentially, “I'm in a bad place here, not that the land isn't good—it is—but there's no running water to speak of and it won't stand a drought. I depend on a dam for all the water I get—and after a month like we've had —” he shrugged his shoulders. “You know how it is—cows get bogged, and the pump gets blocked, and one thing and another.
“I've been wanting to put an artesian down for the past two years, but that costs money—and I can't get any money out of the firm while I've got these pests—” He waved his hand toward a big patch of Californian thistle. “The greenest thing on the place,” he added. “Every time the page 26 page 27 agent comes round and I start hinting about artesian bores and loans, he says, ‘Mr. Bean, we can't do anything until you get your paddocks clean.'”
Santa Claus became thoughtful as he drove back to the road after his cup of tea with the Beans. They were nice people, and he felt he would like to do something for them. “After all,” he said to himself, “I don't suppose I shall be coming this way again for many a long day.”
Accordingly, as he stopped his horses at the gate, he felt about in his pockets until he found a stump of pencil and an old envelope. He drew a line down the centre of the envelope and on one side of it wrote “Mr. Bean,” and the other “three days’ rain.”
“That ought to cheer him up a bit,” he smiled, folding the paper and tucking it into the top pocket of his waistcoat.
About a mile further on he came upon a man grubbing gorse in the drain at the roadside. A sour-looking man he was, who gave a surly answer when Santa Claus bid him “good day.”
“What's so good about it?” he growled. “It's alright for you I daresay, sitting up there with nothing to do but hold the reins. You want to have a go at this flaming stuff!”
Santa Claus laughed and swung his legs over the side rail.
“Have a smoke,” he said, tossing down his tobacco and papers, and the man's face lightened somewhat.
“Ah!” he said inhaling gratefully, “that's good, that is—I lost me blanky pipe—it's bad enough having to grub gorse at all—but having no smoke as well—a man might as well be in gaol!”
“Do you have to grub gorse on Christmas Eve?” asked Santa Claus.
“Yes, and on Christmas Day, too, for all that flamin’ Noxious Weed Inspector cares. What d'ye make of a bloke that gives you twenty-eight days to clear a growth like that in? ‘Get it cut before the fifteenth of January, Mr. Dean,’ ‘e says, ‘or I'll have to send you a summons'.” The man passed up the tobacco tin, but Santa Claus shook his head.
“No, keep it,” he said, “it'll keep you going till you can get a new pipe.”
“Well,” said the man, “that's nice of you, that is.” Here he climbed up out of the drain, “Drive along to where me tucker bag is—I've got a bottle of cold tea. I'd ask you to come over to the house, but,” apologetically, “I expect the Missus is in trouble with the stove again. You see,“—they had arrived at the tucker-bag by now, and the man sat down on the edge of the drain and extracted some sandwiches, and the promised bottle of tea—“when they put the power lines across the hills at the back here, the Missus took a fancy to have one of them electric stoves. ‘No chopping kindling, or carting wood in the summer,’ she says, ‘all we do when we want a cup of tea or a four-course dinner is press a button!'
“So out goes the old range and I go to town and buy a secondhand electric stove from a bloke that must have been a great, grandnephew of Ned Kelly's—for from that day to this we never know whether the roast's goin’ to be raw or burnt to a cinder, or whether we'll get a cup of tea or a duck's breakfast!”
“That's too bad,” said Santa Claus.
“It is that,” sighed the man, “but it's just about on a par with things in general. I haven't been too good lately and it seems to have affected everything. The cows are going off already, the turnip seed was crook and didn't take properly, and then this gorse. It only needed that Inspector to come along to put the stopper on things, didn't it?”
Santa Claus nodded. “Suppose,” he said after a moment, “that a fellow came along and said ‘I'm Santa Claus —you can have one wish and I'll grant it, what would you say?”
“Well,” the man laughed, “seeing as I'd probably be stuck into that gorse—I'd say, ‘put the makuta on this stuff, Santa, and it'll be the best day's work you ever did!”
Santa Claus rose, “I must be going,” he said, “I'll leave your mail at the box—Mr. Dean, isn't it?”
“Good oh!” answered the man, “and thanks for the tobacco.”
“You're welcome,” said Santa Claus, “merry Christmas.”
He drove on, and presently crossed a bridge spanning a creek. On the further side stood a little white cottage which, together with its bright flower beds, made a pretty picture against a dark background of macrocarpa. There was native bush here, too, and the tinkling of bell birds. The air was full of the drowsy hum of bees.
A girl in a crisp blue dress stepped from the verandah and Santa Claus felt that it needed only her presence to complete the air of romance that pervaded the place. Trim and dainty, she nevertheless trod the path with a firm step; there was strength and vigour in her carriage, as well as beauty.
Santa Claus glanced at the name painted upon the mail box and began to search through his mail. Twice and a third time he looked, but on no letter or package could he find the name of “Miss Green.”
“I'm sorry,” he said, “there is nothing for you.”page 28 page 29
She laughed shortly, and Santa Claus noticed that for all her grace and beauty her eyes were unhappy. Something deeper than mere disappointment, something to which perhaps even she would find it difficult to put a name lurked in their hazel depths.
“Well,” he said, somewhat abashed, “a merry Christmas to you.”
But as he moved away and watched from the tail of his eye the listless walk of her as she returned to the cottage, he felt that it was a rather vain wish.
The road now began to rise slightly, and lose some of its straightness, winding in and out among low hills. Santa Claus pulled out his envelope and pencil stump, and added to the name of Mr. Bean, that of Mr. Dean, and opposite it, “remove noxious weeds.” Then he wrote tentatively, Miss Green—but here he paused—she had made no request and he found it difficult to solve the problem in her eyes. A problem more vital than the worldly wants of the others.
He was roused from his reverie by the sound of hoof beats, and looking up saw a young man on a thoroughbred mare cantering across the paddock on his right hand.
Straight he came towards a five-foot gate and sweeping off his hat slapped it against the flank of his mount. Turf flew and sunlight flashed on stirrup irons as the mare rose to the jump.
“Hullo there,” cried the young man, as he reined alongside the buggy, “lucky I saw you—I was on my way to the back of the place. You're so late I thought I must have missed you. Any mail for me?” he added, “my name's Jack Keene.”
Santa Claus handed him several letters and the young man examined them as he rode beside the buggy.
“I've got a parcel for you to deliver,” he said thrusting the letters into the pocket of his riding breeches. “I can't deliver it myself because”—he smoothed a brown hand over the pommel of his saddle—“because—well—I haven't got time.”
A bend in the road brought them to a house, rambling and unkempt looking, with long grass growing up to the verandah steps.
“Here we are,” said the young man swinging from his saddle, “now just a minute and I'll get you the parcel.”
In a moment he reappeared in the doorway of the house—a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other. “Come and have a spot,” he called.
Santa Claus grinned, and presently found himself in a room that was genial in its disarray. There were guns and fishing rods upon the walls and in the centre of the worn carpet stood a table littered with books and pipes and loose cartridges. In the wide fireplace were ashes many weeks dead.
“Bachelor quarters,” said the young man with a laugh, “help yourself.”
“All I want you to do,” he continued when Santa Claus had tasted his whisky, “is to call at Miss Green's place and leave this in her mail box,” he lifted a small package from the table, “will you do that?”
Santa Claus nodded, “Gladly,” he replied, “but would it not be better if you took it down yourself?”
“No,” said the young man decidedly, “no, it would not.” And thereafter he fell into a moody silence.
Shortly afterwards Santa Claus took his leave, and from the bend in the road looked back. The young man was standing at the doorway of his ramshackle home, a lonely figure who raised a hand in farewell as the last rays of the sun faded beyond the hills.
The mailman's team was headed for home now and stepped out smartly in the cool of the evening. With his free hand Santa Claus drew the envelope from his pocket and regarded it long and thoughtfully.
Then, perhaps because of the song of crickets in the roadside grass, perhaps because the scent of new mown hay and the lights that were beginning to shine from the houses down the valley roused in him feelings that were more human than saintly, he took an unpardonable liberty, and wrote in the space opposite Miss Green's name, “Jack Keene!”
Very much later that evening Santa Claus was giving his final instructions for the great day which would presently begin. Entrenched behind a desk in the office of a city warehouse, he now appeared as a forceful business man coping with the last minutes of a Christmas rush.
“The success of Christmas Day is assured for another year,” said Santa Claus thankfully, “except for one thing.” He rose and crossed the room to a clothes closet, which, on being opened revealed a number of disguises, among them the shabby clothes he had worn at Cabbage Tree Flat.
He felt in the waistcoat pocket and frowned, he felt in the coat, the trousers, in all the pockets of the old suit, and his frown deepened to a look of dismay as he realised that his precious envelope had gone!
He returned hurriedly to the desk—time was getting short—a messenger must be dispatched before midnight if the people on Cabbage Tree Flat were not to be disappointed. He must make a new list from memory.
“Let me see”—he said, tapping his teeth with a gold pencil, “there were only three items. ‘Three days rain, removal of noxious weeds, and a young man.’ The names were,” he frowned in perplexity as the ridiculous similarity of the names was suddenly borne upon him.
“Green, Bean, Dean, Keene,” he muttered. “Absurd!” He hastily wrote a new list and summoning a messenger, dispatched him just as the clocks began to toll the hour of midnight.
“I'm almost sure,” he said to his secretary, “that I got them in the right order.”
The next morning in defiance of both the wireless forecast and the predictions of local weather prophets, rain fell in the high country at the back of Jack Keene's place. Good steady rain that soaked into the cracks of the parched hillsides and, towards evening, brought down a slip which effectually dammed the creek a mile or so above the spot where it crossed the road by Miss Green's cottage. Throughout the next forty-eight hours the water backed up behind this extempore dam, until, on the evening of the second day after Christmas it burst its way out.
Miss Green had gone to milk her solitary cow. To do so she had to cross the creek on a light plank bridge which had been constructed on that side of her cottage farthest from the road. Returning, she had but set foot upon the bridge, when she was startled to hear a rushing and a roaring as though a great wind lashed the trees in her patch of shelter bush. But there was no wind, instead there came foaming between and beyond the banks of the creek a yellow, crested wave.
Miss Green started to run, but before she was half way over, the wave struck and swirled with alarming force around her knees. She let go her milk pail and grasped the hand rail of the bridge. When the first rush of the flood was past she began to work her way gingerly forward. The water was rising and the frail bridge quivered. It lurched ominously and Miss Green leaped for the bank as the whole structure swung sideways. Her feet sank into loose earth thrown up by the broken sill, roots tore out as her hands grasped them, for an instant she struggled waist-deep and then the muddy water closed over her head.
Earlier that afternoon, Jack Keene, who made his money raising fat stock, and thus had not the ties of his dairy farming neighbours, returned from two days’ absence. He was surprised and not particularly gratified to find his place inundated, for there were cattle in the paddocks bordering the creek, and he made haste to change his clothes and ride over to see how they fared. He found them safe, but marooned on the farther side of a lagoon nearly a hundred feet broad.
Abruptly he turned his horse and cantered along the edge of this everwidening sheet of water until he arrived at the slip.
His first impulse was to return to the house for gelignite and fuse with which to weaken the obstruction, but on second thought realised that such a head of pent-up water suddenly released must cause damage to properties further down; especially Miss Green's ten acres which lay in an elbow with the creek on two sides of it. In imagination he saw the flood sweep down through the shelter bush, carrying away beehives and fowlhouses, and surging right into the cottage itself perhaps. In any case, there was danger of which the girl must be warned.
He arrived at the cottage five minutes after the plank bridge had collapsed and his horse's hoofs splashed soggily over ruined flower beds as he turned a corner of the cottage to view a scene of increasing desolation.page 31
The beehives gone, the fowlhouses upended. He made a cup of his hands and hallooed, and was answered by a faint cry. The next instant horse and rider were plunging in the direction of a bedraggled figure that clung desperately to some overhanging willow branches.
“Please,” said Miss Green, some minutes later, when, aided by Jack Keene's gallant mare, they had emerged from the flood and found themselves, dripping but safe, in the cottage kitchen. “Put me down. You don't have to carry me all round the house you know.”
Her rescuer grinned. “Well,” he said, “I was just considering where to put you. You see you aren't fit to go in the sitting-room, you'll make the cushions all wet. If I leave you on the verandah you'll be in a draught, and the kitchen chairs are rather hard. It's quite a problem, isn't it?”
“I suppose,” said Miss Green, “that where I really want to sit doesn't matter?”
“As Miss Anne Green of the ruined bee farm—no. As the future Mrs. Jack Keene of Kotare Station—perhaps!”
“I don't like that ‘perhaps',” said Miss Green, “I warn you I am in the habit of having my own way.”
“My dear,” replied Jack boldly, “If it's your own way you're having, when you hold me as tightly round the neck as you are at this moment, I shall never have any objection to make!”
Early in the New Year, the neighbours of Cabbage Tree Flat were gathered at the home of the newly married Mr. and Mrs. Jack Keene. In a corner of the dining room Mr. Bean and Mr. Dean were weaving patterns in the air with their beer glasses as they slapped each other's backs in mutual congratulation.
“Harry,” said Mr. Bean, “this is a great occasion.”
“It is that,” agreed Mr. Dean.
“This morning,” said Mr. Bean, “I had a visit from the agent. I'm getting shaved to come up here, so I ask him to have a look round by himself. He's away for about half an hour and when he comes in he says, ‘I congratulate you, Mr. Bean.’ ‘What for?’ I ask. ‘Why,’ says he, looking surprised, ‘for getting rid of your noxious weeds—you must have worked like a galley slave!’ with that I look out of the window, and as true as I stand here, there's not a Californian thistle to be seen. Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather, but of course I don't let on. ‘Oh that’ says I—‘well now, Mr. Sellers, what about putting down an artesian bore or two—you know you promised—‘Say no more, Mr. Bean,” he says, ‘I'll send out a diviner next week'.”
“Haw, haw, haw,” laughed Mr. Dean. “Well now, what d'ye think happened to me? You remember I bought Miss Green's electric stove at her clearing sale? Well it's a hummer! All we have to do now if we want a cup o’ tea or a four-course dinner, is press a button, and—give her her due, Charlie—the old Missus can cook if there's anything fit to cook with.”
“Ha, ha,” said Mr. Bean, “You'd look as if you'd been doing a bit of stoking lately, Harry.”
“I have that,” replied Mr. Dean, “d'ye know what's been wrong with me the last year, Charlie? Indigestion, all on account of that rotten old stove I bought in town.
“You know,” he added sagely, “things don't look the same to a man with indigestion, he can't work and he gets bad tempered. If he can't work, little things like a bit of gorse along his boundary get him down. If he's bad tempered he's no good with cows—I '”
In the vast city warehouse where Santa Claus carried on his business, the blonde secretary was doing a little tidying up. In the bottom of the clothes closet she came across a crumpled envelope, and straightening it out discovered it to be the missing list for Cabbage Tree Flat.
She studied it a moment, then tossed it into the waste paper basket.
“Well,” she said, “it doesn't look the same to me as the one he sent—but maybe it'll turn out alright!”
(Courtesy, Great Western Railway.) An antiquated method of filling the boilers without stopping the engine, before the introduction of the water-trough system.