White Hood and Blue Cap: A Christmas Bough with Two Branches
High up amongst the mountains of Western Otago are those interesting fragments of a pre-historie world, familiarly known as “The Terraces,” built up, grain upon grain and pebble upon pebble, by Nature's plastic hand, in that remote period when the interior of Otago consisted of a vast series of lakes, severed from each other sometimes by intervening ranges, sometimes by huge moraines. Coastwise these lakes were belted round by rocky ramparts of such great altitude that when the island did, at intervals of a few million years—as scientists tell us—take her periodic dip beneath old ocean, the waters thereof penetrated not within those mighty barriers. For not anywhere—neither on the surface of the earth nor in the bowels thereof, so far as man has yet forced his way—have any traces of marine life been found in that region. Shells of a fresh water mussel are found embedded in the clays page 4 which overlie the coal deposits, and the same species may be gathered in the running streams now. And in the extensive masses of “sinter” scattered along the margins of the old lake-beds there are immense numbers of tiny spiral shells, scarcely perceptible to the naked eye. But these are also of fresh water origin; and these are all.
The more ancient of the Terraces are about five hundred feet above the level of the yet existing lakes—Hawea, Wanaka, and Wakatipu—but they, in geological argot, have been so “degraded” and “eroded” in the course of time, that their position and outlines are barely traceable by the educated and practised eye. Lower down there are others so fresh and smooth, so mathematically true in their proportions, and so perfect in form, that they seem comparatively the work of yesterday. Time has wrought but little change in them. Yet an incalculable space of time must have elapsed since they formed the beds and margins of the great lakes by whose agency they were deposited as we now behold them. Far below their surface the rivers now find their way to the sea through rocky gorges, cut by the irresistible glaciers, which ground and tore the opposing mountains in their onward path, leaving everywhere the scars whereby their action is made manifest to the readers of the stone Bible.
It is on these Terraces (many of which are of considerable extent), and in the creeks which intersect them, that our gold miners pursue their avocations, sluicing away the river frontages and burrowing into their inmost recesses, in search of the golden grains which, in greater or less quantities, are dispersed throughout. Theirs is a life of great hardship, and laborious in the extreme; but it is one which seems to elicit the kindliest feelings and most manly sentiments of our common nature—as such lives ever do, on sea or land, save where “the slime of the serpent” has corroded the hearts of men.
Picture to yourself, then, one of these natural Terraces, green with the late autumn rains, and set page 5 amidst stupendous snow-capped mountains, with a river—or, more properly, a torrent—brawling and foaming in its rock-bound and boulder-strewn channel a hundred feet below. Irregularly scattered over the level plateau are some two score huts, constructed of rough slabs of native timber, and well plastered with clay in the chinks, “to keep the wind away.” These are the habitations of the miners. The musical clinking of hammers on the anvil proclaims the presence of a blacksmith's forge; and, conspicuous by their greater size and more pretentious appearance, are two buildings—one being the ubiquitous “General Store,” where every description of merchandise is sold; the other, a public house, rejoicing in the name of “The Maori Hen Hotel,” where alcoholic liquors of great potency, but of doubtful purity, are vended.
Behold, then, the scene. There—in that wild and distant region—it was that the events which I am about to narrate occurred.
Let me now introduce to you the actors in the drama.