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Cheerful Yesterdays

Chapter XVII — The Western Circuit

page 243

Chapter XVII
The Western Circuit

Members of the Bar do not "go on Circuit" in New Zealand, but if they did the Western Circuit would be universally acclaimed the jolliest. For by that I mean the West Coast of the South Island, the genial, hospitable, topsy-turvy land, "over the range," where Samuel Butler laid the scene of his fantastic "Erewhon."

There it was that the great mining rush took place in the sixties, when Hokitika, the chief town, had for a brief space a population of between sixty and seventy thousand people, when sluicing claims washed away whole mountains round Kumara, when stampers working night and day crushed the solid rock at Reefton, and when mineral wealth in profusion tumbled into the lap of the lucky miner. To-day Hokitika's sixty thousand have dwindled to two thousand; Kumara, a village of derelict buildings, is kept on the map only because Richard John Seddon was for many years its Member of Parliament; felling timber is found to be more lucrative than winning coal; and the prosaic callings of dairy-farming and cattle-raising are preferred even by "old-timers" to the romantic but elusive pursuits of "puddling" for gold in the back-waters of rivers that are still among the most beautiful page 244in the world, though their beds no longer fascinate by the old auriferous glitter.

But romance still clings to the Golden West. Old miners, with nut-brown faces and snow-white hair, still spin yarns to tourists round camp-fires; the spirit of adventure which brought their fathers there across the snow and ice of mountain passes sixty years ago still informs the sons and grandsons, and whatever may be the future of the West Coast, it is difficult to conceive that it can ever become commonplace. If there is no longer gold to be found in the crannies of the hills, there are still chuckle-headed "East Coasters" with credulity to be exploited, men whose gullibility constitutes a richer vein than ever was struck on Lone Star Mountain or in Dead Man's Gulch.

The first time I went "special" to Hokitika it was as Counsel for a firm of solicitors over a mining swindle. The relationship of mining mates is sacrosanct on the Coast, but is not always understood by strangers. An adventurous speculator had come across from Australia. He had heard how the shrewd West Coaster in New Zealand often made his living by exploiting the trusting East Coaster. Why should he not exploit the West Coaster in turn? So he set about ferreting out information about old mining claims long since forgotten. He came across two in particular, registered in the Warden's Court in the names of three mates who were still alive, and still in Hokitika, but thoroughly hard-up and therefore easy to deal with. He proposed that they should assign him one-half of each of their claims, remaining mates in the other half. He would then proceed to the page 245East Coast and sell them. They thought he was mad, but he appeared to be "a shrewdy." The claims had lain idle for more than twenty years; even the industrious Chinaman refused to waste time or work on them. They agreed readily enough to his schemes; he, be it understood, bearing all expenses of the projected sale. So he left the West Coast for the East, fully armed with the necessary powers of attorney. Vague rumours reached them of negotiations with capitalists on the East Coast. They heard of mining engineers' reports; opulent-looking speculators came over from time to time and looked, incredible though it was, as though there were something doing. At last there came a telegram from their agent: "Have sold both claims straight out for cash. Returning to-night." The cash must be precious little; even if he had "salted" the claims, no one, they thought, could have been fool enough to buy them.

The three old hands met the Australian at the railway station that night with eager questions, their eyes bulging with excitement. Yes, he had sold, it was quite true; he had been paid in cash, also true; and, tapping his breast-pocket, there it was in his wallet. "How much?" Well, really, he had been travelling all day, and they must have dinner before they talked business. At any rate, they must have a bottle of wine among them first. So they repaired across the road to "The Magpie and Stump," the old miners' inn still owned by one of the mates, and there they drank a quart of real good champagne, for if you know how to set about it, there are few places page 246where you can get better liquor than on the West Coast. The three anxious mates gulped their glasses down, and said:

"Well, now will you tell us what you got?"

But no, he was not to be drawn.

"What's one bottle among four?" said he. "Open another."

They seriously began to fear lest the whole profits of the deal should be spent in liquor. But there was no moving him, so they had another bottle.

And then he deliberately pulled out his wallet, showed them the parchment copy of the deed of assignment, red seals and all, and proceeded to take out a wad of notes.

"For heaven's sake, man, out with it. What did you get?" roared out old Joe Gallagher, an octogenarian, the oldest of the three mates.

"Here is what I got for the claims," said the Australian, "in good banknotes too."

And at last, after a dramatic pause: "Fifteen thousand pounds."

Old Joe reeled back on to the sofa beside the fireplace. The others thought for a moment the excitement had been too much for his old heart, but presently he recovered his breath and gasped:

"My Gawd! Fifteen thousand pounds for a mullock heap!"

This is not a romance. It is all there on oath, taken down as part of the evidence in the case. I don't know that, in my whole career at the Bar, it was ever my pleasure to elicit from witnesses a more dramatic story, or to hear a phrase more apt or more vivid than that phrase" a mullock heap."

The Australian was not content with his half-share page 247of the,£15,000. He cleared out of New Zealand with a portion of what belonged to his partners. Hence the suit, in which I was Counsel for the three "mates."

At the date when this incident took place, however, the true glory of the Coast had already departed. For that lay in the romance of the mining camps. An old friend whom I met in later life as a patient plodder of golf-courses, where for some reason he was always called "The Count," began his career in the early days of the gold rush. He and his mate had pegged out a claim, but had not yet" struck it." The field was so far established that some pious diggers had already got the length of building a wooden shed to serve as a Methodist church. After the manner of Methodism it was opened with a tea-meeting. "The Count" and his mate were, like everyone else, canvassed to purchase tickets, but thought one between them was as much as they could afford. The toss as to which of them should go was won by "the Count," so he dressed himself in "a boiled shirt" and his best suit of clothes, and attended the tea-meeting. In those days raspberry jam—Peacock's Tasmanian Raspberry Jam, in tins—was the staple delicacy on the Coast, and the tables groaned under the weight of raspberry pies and raspberry tarts, and raspberry turnovers. "It seemed kinder mean," said "the Count," "to sit there scoffing tarts, while my mate had to content himself in his tent with pannikin tea and damper."

So while the eyes of the audience were riveted in rapt attention upon the speaker who addressed and exhorted them, "the Count" managed un- page 248observed to slip half a dozen raspberry tarts into the space between his singlet and his shirt front.

When at last the meeting broke up, "the Count" found, to his annoyance, that his lantern wouldn't burn. The night was pitch-dark, and a misty rain was falling. To get to his own claim he had to thread his way amid a maze of mining shafts of varying depths, the shallower ones "dry," the deeper ones "wet"—that is, with water standing to a depth of several feet in the bottom of the shafts. Presently—plump !—he tumbled into a shaft, but as he did so had enough presence of mind to utter a yell that roused the camp

"I've often heard it stated," "the Count" used to say, "that when a man is on the point of sudden death, by drowning or some other accident, his whole past life seems to flash through his mind. But as I went scooting down that shaft there was only one thought in my mind—Was it a wet one? Thank Heaven it was, and, with no bones broken, I spluttered up to the surface of the water again, and managed to grip hold of some timbering at the sides of the shaft. By the time I had clambered to the top several men with lanterns, having heard my shout, were there ready to help me up. I don't know if it was fright or the sudden plunge into ice-cold water, but I fainted, though only for a moment. As I came to, I felt someone unfastening my collar, to give me air, and the first sound I heard was the heart-broken voice of my poor pardner, as he pulled my shirt aside:

"'My Gawd!' he exclaimed,'the poor little blighter is busted.' "

It was not long before life became organised on page 249the West Coast as elsewhere in the Colony. Mining camps became mining towns, and the treacherous tracks between open shafts became streets and roads; one even hears of County Councils and Road Boards at quite an early period in the history of the Coast, for Richard John Seddon, whose name is associated with the earliest years of the West Coast and whose memory will be honoured there to the end of time, made his first appearance in public life when he was elected to the Kumara Road Board. At that time, I think, he kept a store, but he also practised as a miner's advocate in the Warden's Court. His indomitable energy and his torrential eloquence very soon marked him out as a man to be counted with. A good story is told of a prediction confidently made by one of his most ardent admirers on the day he was elected to the Road Board. If the story isn't true, it is certainly characteristic both of the man and the situation. The bar was full of miners awaiting the result of the election. When the voting was announced, Seddon had headed the poll, to the great delight of the miners in the bar and the great profit of the bar-keeper.

"You mark my words," said the prophet, "that young feller Dick Seddon has only just begun. He's on the Road Board now; we'll send him to Parliament next; before long he'll be Premee-er," and then, thumping the bar counter with a fist that made the glasses rattle, "I shouldn't wonder if he ends up by becoming a b?y Governor."

Richard John Seddon had many critics during his long public career, but I never heard that there were any West Coasters among them. If there page 250were, they had the wisdom to keep their mouths shut.

There is one West Coast story for the absolute [gap — reason: illegible]ruth of which I can vouch. It is a legal story, and yet one feels instinctively that it, too, is "racy of the soil" and that it could only have happened on the Coast.

In the early days two mining mates, whom I will designate by their Christian names only, John and Sandy, found their claim petering out. Rumours of cheap land in the North Island induced Sandy to abandon the precarious life of the miner and to adopt farming as better suited to his cautious temperament. So he pulled out of the claim, and, leaving his wife and child to the care of his mate, went to the North. In the course of time he sent for his wife and child, but while the husband was away the wife had incurred liabilities for necessaries amounting to £40. These had been guaranteed by John and the debt was paid by him.

In course of time John too retired from mining, went into business, and prospered exceedingly. In a few years he had become, for a New Zealander, a very rich man. Years passed without his hearing from his old mate; he could only infer that he had been less fortunate than himself, and so forgot the debt. John and Sandy did not meet each other for close upon forty years, and then there came an occasion when all old West Coasters, still in New Zealand, met each other, however far distant their new homes might be from the Golden West of their youth. The occasion was the funeral of Richard Seddon in June 1906. He was buried in the capital city of the Colony he had ruled with page 251such distinction, and which he, more than any other single individual up to that date, had helped to make so well-known a unit of the Empire. Every West Coaster who could raise a steamer ticket or buy a train-fare made his pilgrimage to Wellington from the remotest corner of the Colony, as to the Mecca of his devotions. After the funeral was over, scores of them met in one of the hotels of the city, of which the proprietor was himself an old West Coaster; and, there, after all those years, John and Sandy foregathered.

"And how have you done?" asked John.

"Famously," answered Sandy, "I've got nothing to complain about. My farm is free, and the money standing to my name in the bank is on the right side of the ledger."

John expressed his pleasure at hearing the good news; and then:

"Now, what about that forty pounds you owe me, as you've done so well? It's a pity to have a trifle like that outstanding between us,"

But this struck the yellow streak that was not far below the surface in Sandy. He became abusive and highly indignant.

"You mean old hunks" he said,. "rolling in money—you could buy me out ten times over, and you ask me for a debt like that on a day like this. Anyhow, take this!" and drawing a ten-pound note from his pocket, he threw it on the table.

John, white with rage, picked up the note. He had saved his mate's wife and child from starvation nearly forty years ago, and this was his reward.

John returned to his home in Christchurch, where one of his sons had just begun to practise the law. page 252His friends suggest that at the present time he knows more of the Rules of Cricket than of the Statute of Limitations, having been for several years President of the New Zealand Cricket Council. To-day, too, he is not perhaps so well known in the Courts as on the Turf, where the victories of Count Cavour and other horses bred or owned by him recur with distracting iteration. But in those days he did know quite a lot of law.

"Would you like the rest of that forty pounds, dad? "

"Would I like it? You ought to know I can't get it after six years," said the angry old man.

"Are you prepared to sue him?"

"I'm prepared to hang him," was the answer.

"Well," said his son, "the payment of part of a debt overdue under the Statute of Limitations revives the whole debt. You can recover the other thirty pounds."

And recover it he did. John brought an action in the Hokitika Court; Sandy, instead of confessing judgment or paying the amount into court, put John to proof, and the lawyer son thoroughly enjoyed himself. Of the many West Coasters present in the hotel when the part payment was made he selected as witnesses the three whose homes were most distant from Hokitika, and whose allowances for travelling expenses would therefore be the largest possible. John got judgment for the full amount of his claim, with costs added, and rejoiced exceedingly. But it wasn't the receipt of the money, I fancy, that was the true cause of his rejoicing.