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Follow the Call

Chapter I — My Mount Egmont Dairy Farm

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Chapter I
My Mount Egmont Dairy Farm

When I came home from the Great War, I dropped into the biggest thing in land booms that New Zealand had ever experienced.

I pottered about for a week or two, renewing old friendships, and getting back into civilian routine, and then I got stung by the land bug myself, and commenced to worry about getting a farm.

Everyone was land mad, that year, and that's the only way to express it. Lawyers, clerks, carpenters, tradesmen—anyone with a nest egg saved up—they all started rushing about inspecting farms. It was a great old time for land agents; and farmers who had given up all hope of ever selling their miserable, poverty stricken sections took fresh heart, and unloaded on to ignorant, cheery optimists, who couldn't have made a success of good places, let alone the places they generally fell for.

I started in buying two papers a day, so as not to miss any of the land-agent's advertisements, and when I wasn't tearing about Taranaki in some agent's car, inspecting farms for sale, I was busy at home writing to the owners of places advertised, and demanding particulars. It was a thrilling experience, almost as exciting as gambling, because a man never knew what he was going to see, when he started off.

There was one place in particular that took my fancy. It read in the agent's advertisement as:

50 acres, all in grass. All plowable, subdivided into four paddocks. Two-roomed house and four bailed cowshed on property. Will milk twenty cows. Only £45 per acre.

That place struck me as a nice, snug little one-man farm, just the place for me, and I visited the agent; who had the selling of it, and asked for an inspection.

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It was well up on the slopes of Mt. Egmont, when we got there, and about as big a nightmare of a farming proposition as any man ever saw. And yet there was nothing untrue about the advertisement. The four bail cowshed was there, all right, only the roof had blown off it a few years previous to my visit. The two-roomed house was two-roomed, sure enough, the partition being made of sacks sewn together, and nailed across. Everything else about the place was ripe and rotten, and the “all ploughable” consisted of acres of flat, water-logged swamp. It could be ploughed, without a doubt, after a fellow had spent a few years, and a few hundred pounds, in draining and stumping it.

The most attractive part about the farm was the terms. Only a £100 cash was required, and as that was about the extent of my exchequer, I snapped the place at once, and paid down a deposit on the spot. I didn't want anyone else to slip in, and get the place over my head, by offering another pound an acre, say. But I needn't have been in such a hurry about planking down that deposit. I found out afterwards, that that section had been in half the land-agent's hands in Taranaki, for upwards of ten years, and none of them had ever succeeded in making a deal until I appeared upon the scene.

However, that didn't worry me. I was just as proud of that farm as if it had been the most model place in the Dominion. My relations all shook their heads sadly, when they heard the news. Their idea was, that I should try a year as a farm hand, first, in order to satisfy myself that the life would suit me, but I knew best, of course. Anyone could farm—look at the mugs you see making a success of it all over the district. If they could run a farm, so could I.

I bought about ten shillings worth of agricultural literature, so as to be well up in the scientific side page 13 of the question, and on the first of June, that winter, I took possession.

The next worry was to get stock, but I found that an easy enough proposition because I applied to the Government, and got them to finance me under the Returned Soldiers' Settlement Act. I bought 18 heifers, a horse, dray, three milk cans, and other farm chattels and goods, and got the money at five per cent. through the Government, whereas in all probability ten per cent. would have been the rate, had I been financed by some private firm.

This was my first attempt at farming, and although I put on a brave face, I didn't feel half as confident as I pretended to.

The day I took possession, about fourteen neighbours, all sizes and ages, from boys to old men, dropped in at different times, to see if I wanted any help. It wasn't going to be a lonely locality, that was one comfort.

One old man, in particular, showed himself very friendly. He dropped in and yarned for an hour, and was so nice and kind, and sympathetic, that I let him know I hadn't been farming before.

“Well” said he, “I'm Bill Treadwell. Anyone round here will tell you about me. If there's anything you want to know, at any time, just come to me. I'm not too proud to show a man; we all had to begin.”

He gave me some very encouraging conversation, and as soon as he left me, he dashed over to his next door neighbour, and predicted three things to happen to me, within the next six months. One, that I would get horned to death by one of my new heifers, when I started breaking them in. Two, that I'd make such a ghastly failure of farming that I'd chuck my hand in, in sheer disgust; and three, that if either of those guesses didn't come off, the Government would kick me off the place to save their money, and put a competent man in my place.

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None of these predictions came to pass, but although, as the months rolled by, his chances of proving a true prophet grew less and less, old Bill never wholly gave up hope. If anyone mentioned my name he would shake his head and say: “Umph'mm! He hasn't got on his feet yet,” as if he knew something but didn't quite like to tell it, and the person addressed would go away fully convinced that I was on the verge of bankruptcy, and only hanging on to the place through the tolerance of my creditors.

Everybody in the township knew exactly how much a year I took off the place, how much interest I paid, what my rates ran into, and all the rest of my business. Mr. Treadwell saw to that, although where he got the inside information from, I don't know. As he had similar incorrect information about every other farmer for five miles around, it didn't really matter.

The first thing I did, on taking possession of the farm, was to repair the cowshed. The two-roomed shanty seemed snug enough, especially as I was not used to wallowing in luxury. One half of it I used as a living room, because of the open fireplace, and behind the mouldy old sack partition was my bed chamber.

As I had spent all my money in getting the farm, I had to dispense with furniture until I was in a position to buy it. I made a bed out of rails from the bush, nailing sacking across from side to side. For a mattress, I filled two sacks with sweet hay, and that answered quite as well. My table was a big packing case I begged off the township storekeeper, and my chairs were two smaller boxes, got from the same source.

All day long I bustled about, full of importance, and when evening fell, I lit up my fire and made things snug for the night. It was a new sensation, to sit all alone, in front of a roaring log fire, after washing up the tea things, and dream sweet dreams of affluence.

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Sometimes I'd get a piece of paper and a pencil, and work out how much my cows were going to produce in the season, and how much money I would have saved up in a year.

I've kept some of those calculations out of curiosity; at least they serve to show what a wonderful thing optimism is. I don't think I was ever happier than when I was sitting of an evening in that cosy, fire-lit bach, building castles in the air, and saying to myself, “My own boss! No one to give me an order; no one to criticise what I do!”

I was wrong there, however, because I found plenty of people ready to criticise. One or two used to drop in on me every day, in order to give me good sound advice, and to explain why the way I was doing a job was wrong.

There was one thing about my domicile that aroused my curiosity, during my first week of occupation, and that was a big hook screwed into the ceiling of the bedroom. I used to lie in bed smoking, before blowing out the candle, and wonder why anyone had bothered to put a hook there. It was right above my head, and I could tell it had never been used for hanging a swinging lamp, because there was no sign of smoke or heat around it. I gave it up, at length, but one night it commenced to rain cats and dogs, and then I found out what previous inhabitants had used the hook for.

When I go to sleep, I sleep, and don't just indulge in fitful cat naps, and it takes something unusual to awaken me, until my time arrives for getting up. I got something unusual, that night.

It started off with a pleasant little dream. I was lolling idly in a soft, mossy dell, listening to a bird singing, and watching a lovely maid sprinkling water on to a patch of wild flowers close by. She was perfection! I wondered if she saw me, and was just going to sit up and say “Hullo!” when she turned to me and said:

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“Lie still. Now I'll attend to you.” She threw a handful of water at me, and we both laughed when it caught me under the chin and ran down my neck.

“Now I dare you to sit up, until I've given you your share,” said that beautiful girl, with an arch look.

She splashed me again, and again I sniggered like a fool, and kept still. Then she suddenly lifted up a 200 gallon tank of water, that I hadn't noticed she had there, and poured it all over me. What do you call that, for a fool of a dream?

I woke up with a jolt, to find the room full of water, and a steady stream pouring out of the seams, alongside the hook in the ceiling, and cascading on to my chest. The first two or three times that fair creature had splashed me, must have been when the water was first breaking through, and if I'd only sat up and taken notice at once, I should probably have been in time to hop out and drag the bed out of the way.

In the good old days, when other people had inhabited the house, they had used that hook to hang a bucket on, but the hole in the roof must have grown bigger, since those times, and before I could live in that shack I had to put some new sheets of iron on the outside.

That was my first lesson on the doubtful blessing of being entirely my own boss. You see, I had to fix the roof up myself. If I'd been working for anyone else, and such a thing had happened, look what a fine show of indignation I could have worked up. I could have threatened to leave, or perhaps had two or three days off in bed, with a chill, after such an experience as that. Instead, as it was my own house, I had to go into town and buy corrugated iron for roofing, just at a time when I couldn't afford to. When I told Mr. Treadwell about it, next morning, he looked surprised and said:

“Didn't you know the roof leaked? Why, I could have told you that; it's been like that for years and years.”

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I was taking the dray into town, the next day, to bring out the new roofing, so he said he would go in with me; it would save him using his own horse. The town of Stratford was some seven or eight miles away, and we rigged a plank across the dray to serve as a seat, and had a pleasant drive in.

Mr. Treadwell was well worth his ride. He gave me the history and personal character of every neighbour for miles around. I began to fear that I had settled in a dubious locality; it seemed that I was surrounded with a whole lot of people for neighbours, who by rights ought to have been in jail. There was Sam Dunn. Somebody ought to tell the police about him. Sam used to hook his horse on to big trees, when he was logging up, and then hammer it over the head with a batten, when it couldn't pull the load. When I heard that, I took a dislike to Sam Dunn that it took me three years to get over.

Then there was Peter Watson. Peter came home drunk once every week, and made his poor wife milk the herd of twenty-four cows by herself; and then about 8 p.m. he'd arise from off the sofa and go to market because the poor woman hadn't cooked a hot tea for him. I decided to keep Peter at arm's length. after hearing that.

All the other farmers around had their little peculiarities. It dawned on me that I was in a mighty queer neighbourhood, to say the best for it, and my heart went out to friendly, benevolent old Treadwell. I would cling to his goodwill and friendship—he was all right, anyway.

In Stratford we ran into another neighbour named Andrews, and the three of us went into the Club Hotel for a drink. Andrews called for whisky, and Mr. Treadwell gave me a nudge. I didn't understand what it was for until we were driving home again that evening, and then I was informed that whenever Bob Andrews went on to whisky, it meant that he was hopelessly intoxicated. He never drank whisky page 18 until he was “well sprung,” and as soon as he started on it, that was his finish.

“Most probably,” said Mr. Treadwell, “he won't come home to-night. He might even get locked up.” The idea seemed to tickle his fancy, and he gave a satisfied chuckle.

“By Jove!” said I, “If I'd known he was like that, I'd have stuck to him, and put him on the road home, only he seemed sober enough to me.”

That was one of the maxims of the Army. Never desert a friend or acquaintance, if he seems in any danger through too much liquor, and I'd always played up to it.

“Pooh!” said Mr. Treadwell, “He wouldn't thank you. As like as not he'd take it as an insult. You won't feel like that when you've known Bob as long as I have.”

We stopped once, on the road back, while my new friend introduced me to Mrs. Sam Dunn. She was chasing home some Indian Runner ducks, but found time to pause for a chat.

“I saw Bob Andrews in town to-day,” said Mr. Treadwell significantly, after I had been presented to the lady.

“Oh!” said she, expectantly.

“Yes,” continued he, sadly. “You know! Spirits!”

By her shocked expression I saw that if she didn't know, she thought she did, and then we drove on.

All this passed out of my mind, as soon as I was home, and away from Treadwell, but it was to be brought back to me on many an occasion, in after days. In fact, some of the things I learned during that drive still linger, although I have disproved them time and again.

The neighbours about me were very friendly, and during the few weeks before the milking season got into swing, I visited about a good deal. If it hadn't been for the knowledge I had of all their little failings, page 19 I believe I could have taken quite a fancy to some of those good people. Even as it was, I had to keep on reminding myself that slow, easy going Sam Dunn was in reality a most brutal person, and that fat, jolly old Peter Watson made his wife a regular slave. The way they smothered up their real natures, and turned a smiling face upon the world, was a marvel. I'd be ashamed to look people in the face, if I did the things they did.

When I mentioned this to Mr. Treadwell, one day, he grunted, and then said: “Ah, Mark! That's just it. You see, they think no one knows.”

He seemed to think that settled the argument and accounted for everything.

There was one thing that seemed to give all these good people away, however, and that was the universal dislike they all entertained for my friend. They seldom said anything against old Tready, as they called him, but I could feel it in my boots that they didn't really care for him, at heart.