Chapter X. Swaggers
Chapter X. Swaggers.
Dr. Johnson did not know the somewhat vulgar word which heads this paper. At least he did not know it as a noun, but gives “swagger: v.n., to bluster, bully, brag;” but the Slang Dictionary admits it as a word, springing indeed from the thieves’ vocabulary: “one who carries a swag.” Neither of these books however give the least idea of the true meaning of the expression, which is as fully recognised as an honest word in both Australia and New Zealand as any other combination of letters in the English language. A swagger is the very antithesis then of a swaggerer, for, whereas, the one is full of pretension and abounds in unjust claims on our notice, the swagger is humility and civility itself. He knows, poor weary tramp, that on the favourable impression he makes upon the “boss,” depends his night’s lodging and food, as well as a job of work in page 154 the future. We will leave then the ideal swaggerer to some other biographer who may draw glowing word-pictures of him in all his jay’s splendour, and we will confine ourselves to describing the real swagger, clad in flannel shirt, moleskin trowsers, and what were once thick boots, but might now be used as sieves.
Nothing astonished me so much in my New Zealand Station Life as these visitors. Even Sir Roger de Coverley himself would have looked with distrust upon most of our swagger-guests, and yet I never heard of an instance in our part of the country where the unhesitating, ungrudging hospitality extended by the rich squatters to their poorer compatriots was ever abused. I say “in our part,” because unfortunately, wherever gold is discovered, either in quartz or riverbed, the good old primitive customs and ways die out of themselves in a few weeks, and each mammon-seeker looks with distrust on a stranger. Only fifty or sixty miles from us, as the crow might fly across the snowy range, where an immense Bush clothes the banks of the Hokitika river right down to its sand-filled mouth on the West Coast, the great gold diggings broke out seven or eight years ago, and changed the face of society in that district in a few days. There a swagger meant a man who might rob or murder you in your sleep after you had fed and lodged him; or—under page 155 the most favourable circumstances supposing him to be a “milder mannered man,”—a “fossicker,” who would not hesitate to “jump your claim,” or hang about when you are prospecting, to watch how much of the colour you found, and then go off stealthily to return next day at the head of a “rush” of a thousand diggers.
Even before the famous Maungatapu murders in 1866, swaggers were looked upon with distrust on the West Coast, and after that date hardly any one travelled in those parts without carrying a small revolver in his breast-pocket. Nothing is more tantalising than an allusion to a circumstance which is not well-known; and as I feel certain that very few of my readers have ever heard of what may be called the first great crime committed in the Middle Island, a brief account of that terrible tragedy may not be out of place. Gold of course was at the bottom of it, but the canvas-bags full of the glittering flakes were red with blood by the time they reached the bank at Nelson. The diggings on the West Coast were only two years old at that date, and although it was not uncommon for prospecting parties cutting their way, axe in hand, through the thick bush, to come upon skeletons of men in lonely places, still it might be taken for granted that these were the remains of early page 156 explorers or travellers who had got lost and starved to death within the green tangled walls of this impenetrable forest. The scenery of that part of the Middle Island is far more beautiful than in the agricultural or pastoral districts. Giant Alps clothed half up their steep sides with evergreen pines,—whose dark forms end abruptly where snow and ice begin,—stand out against a pure sky of more than Italian blue, and only when a cleared saddle is reached can the traveller look down over the wooded hills and vallies rolling away inland before him, or turn his eyes sea-ward to the bold coast with its many rivers, whose wide mouths foam right out to where the great Pacific waves are heaving under the bright winter sun.
Such, and yet still more fair must have been the prospect on which Burgess, Kelly, Levy, and Sullivan’s eyes rested one June morning in the mid-winter of 1866. They were, one and all, originally London thieves, and had been transported years before to the early penal settlements of Australia. From thence they had managed, by fair means and foul, to work their way to other places, and had latterly been living in the Middle Island, earning what they could by horse-breaking and divers odd jobs. But your true convict hates work with a curiously deadly hatred, and these four men agreed to go and look round them page 157 at the new West Coast diggings. They found, however, that there, as elsewhere, it would be necessary to work hard, so in disgust at seeing the nuggets and dust which rewarded the toil of more industrious men, they left Hokitika and reached Nelson on their way to Picton, the chief town of the adjoining province of Marlborough. Most of the gold found its way under a strongly armed escort to the banks in both these towns, but it was well-known that fortunate diggers occasionally travelled together, unarmed, and laden with “dust.” So safe had been the roads hitherto, that the commonest precautions were not taken, nor the least secrecy observed about travellers’ movements.
It was therefore no mystery that four unarmed diggers, carrying a considerable number of ounces of gold-dust with them, were going to start from the Canvas-town diggings for Nelson on a certain day, and the men I have mentioned set out to meet them. One part of their long journey led them over the Maungatapu range by a saddle, which in its lowest part is 2,700 feet above the sea-level. The night before the murder, the victims and their assassins camped out with only ten miles between them. So lonely and deserted was the rough mountain track, that the appearance of a poor old man named Battle page 158 alarmed Burgess and his gang dreadfully, and they immediately murdered him, in order that he should not report having passed them on the road. Between the commission of this act of precaution and the arrival of the little band of travellers, no one else was seen. Burgess appears to have shown some of the qualities of a good general; for he selected a spot where the only path wound along a steep side-cutting, less than six feet wide, with an unbroken forest on the upper, and a mass of tangled bush on the lower side. As the doomed men approached the murderers sprang out, and each thrusting a revolver close to their faces, called on them “to hold up their hands.” This is an old bushranger challenge, and is meant to ensure perfect quiescence on the part of the victim. The travellers mechanically complied, and in this way were instantly separated, led to different spots, and ruthlessly shot dead.
It was all over in a moment: Burgess and his men flung the bodies down among the tangled bush, and returned to Nelson rejoicing exceedingly over the simple and easy means by which they had possessed themselves of several hundred pounds. Of course they calculated on the usual supine indifference to other people’s affairs, which prevails in busy gold-seeking communities; but in this instance the public page 159 seemed to be suddenly seized by a violent and inconvenient curiosity to find out what had become of the four men who were known to have started from Canvas-town two or three days before. No one ever dreamed of a murder having been committed, not even when another “swagger” reached Nelson and stated that he had followed the diggers on the road, only a mile or so behind, had suddenly lost sight of them at the spot I have mentioned, and had never been able to overtake them. Instead of leaving the now excited little town, or keeping quiet, Burgess, Kelly, Levy, and Sullivan, may truly be said to have become “swaggerers;” for they loitered about the place, ostentatiously displaying their bags of gold dust. Unsuspicious as the Nelson people were, they acted upon a sort of instinct,—that instinct within us which answers so mysteriously to the cry of blood from the earth,—and arrested these four men. Still, the matter might have ended there for lack of a clue, if one of the party, Sullivan, had not suddenly turned informer, and led the horrified town’s-people to the jungle which concealed the bodies. Here my dreadful story may end; for we need not follow the course of the trial, which resulted in the complete conviction of the three other men. I have only dwelt on so horrible a theme in order to make page 160 my readers understand how natural it was that I should feel nervous, when it became apparent to my understanding that the custom of the country demanded that you should ask no questions, but simply tell any travellers who claimed your hospitality where they were to sleep, and send them in large supplies of mutton, flour, and tea.
On one occasion it chanced that F——, our stalwart cadet Mr. A——, and the man who did odd jobs about the place, were all on the point of setting out upon some expedition, when a party of four swaggers made their appearance just at sundown. No true swagger ever appears earlier, lest he might be politely requested to “move on” to the next station; whereas if he times his arrival exactly when “the shades of night are falling fast,” no boss could be hard-hearted enough to point to mist-covered hills and valleys, which are a net-work of deep creeks and swamps, and desire the wayfarer to go on further. Once, and only once, did I know of such a thing being done; but I will not say more about that unfortunate at this moment, for I want to claim the pity of all my lady readers for the very unprotected position I am trying to depict. F—— could not understand my nervousness, and did not reassure me by saying, as he mounted his horse, “I’ve told them page 161 to sleep in the stable. I am pretty sure they are run-away sailors, they seem so footsore. Good-bye! don’t expect me until you see me!”
Now I was a very new chum in those days, and had just heard of the Maungatapu murders. These guests of mine looked most disreputable, and were all powerful young men. I do not believe there was a single lock or bolt or bar on any door in the whole of the little wooden house: the large plate-chest stood outside in the verandah, and my dressing-case could have been carried off through the ever-open bedroom window by an enterprising thief of ten years old. As for my two maids,—the only human beings within reach,—they were as perfectly useless on any emergency as if they had been wax dolls. One of them had the habit of fainting if anything happened, and the other used to tend her until she revived, when they both sat still and shrieked. Their nerves had once been tested by a carpenter, who was employed about the house, and cut his hand badly; on another occasion by the kitchen chimney which took fire; and that was the way they behaved each time. So it was useless to look upon their presence as any safeguard; indeed one of them speedily detected a fancied likeness to Burgess in one of the poor swaggers, and shrieked every time she saw him.page 162
We were indeed three “lone, ’lorn women,” all through that weary night. I could not close my eyes; but laid awake listening to the weka’s shrill call, or the melancholy cry of the bitterns down in the swamp. With the morning light came hope and courage; and I must say I felt ashamed of my suspicions when my cook came to announce that the “swaggers was just agoin’ off, and wishful to say good-bye. They’ve been and washed up the tin plates and pannikins and spoons as clean as clean can be; and the one I thought favoured Burgess so much, mum, he’s been and draw’d water from the well, all that we shall want to-day; and they’re very civil, well-spoken chaps, if you please, mum!” F—— was right in his surmise, I fancy; for there were plenty of tattooed pictures of anchors and ships on the brawny bare arms of my departing guests. They seemed much disappointed to find there was no work to be had on our station; but departed, with many thanks and blessings, “over the hills and far away.”
Latterly, with increasing civilization and corresponding social economy, there have been many attempts made by new-fangled managers of runs, more than by the run-holders themselves, to induce these swaggers to work for their tucker,—to use pure colonial phraseology. Several devices have been tried, such page 163 as taking away their swags (i.e., their red blankets rolled tightly into a sort of pack, which they carry on their backs, and derive their name from), and locking them up until they had chopped a small quantity of wood, or performed some other trifling domestic duty. But the swagger will be led, though not driven, and what he often did of his own accord for the sake of a nod or a smile of thanks from my pretty maid-servants, he would not do for the hardest words which ever came out of a boss’s mouth. There are also strict rules of honesty observed among these men, and if one swagger were to purloin the smallest article from a station which had fed and sheltered him, every other swagger in all the country side would immediately become an amateur detective to make the thief give up his spoil. A pair of old boots was once missing from a neighbouring station, and suspicion fell upon a swagger. Justice was perhaps somewhat tardy in this instance, as it rested entirely in the hands of every tramp who passed that way; but at the end of some months the boots were found at home, and the innocence of the swaggers, individually and collectively, triumphantly established.
The only instance of harshness to a swagger which came under my notice during three years residence in New Zealand, is the one I have alluded to above, and page 164 contains so much dramatic interest in its details, that it may not be out of place here.
Although I have naturally dwelt in these papers more upon our bright sunny weather, our clear, bracing winter days, and our balmy spring and autumn evenings, let no intending traveller think that he will not meet with bad weather at the Antipodes! I can only repeat what I have said with pen and voice a hundred times before. New Zealand possesses a very capricious and disagreeable climate: disagreeable from its constant high winds: but it is perhaps the most singularly and remarkably healthy place in the world. This must surely arise from the very gales which I found so trying to my temper, for damp is a word without meaning; as for mildew or miasma, the generation who are growing up there will not know the meaning of the words; and in spite of a warm, bright day often turning at five minutes warning into a snowy or wet afternoon, colds and coughs are almost unknown. People who go out there with delicate lungs recover in the most surprising manner; surprising, because one expects the sudden changes of temperature, the unavoidable exposure to rain and even snow, to kill instead of curing invalids. But the practice is very unlike the theory in this case, and people thrive where they ought to die.page 165
During my first winter in Canterbury we had only one week of really bad weather, but I felt at that time as if I had never realized before what bad weather meant. A true “sou’-wester” was blowing from the first to the second Monday in that July, without one moment’s lull. The bitter, furious blast swept down the mountain gorges, driving sheets of blinding rain in a dense wall before it. Now and then the rain turned into large snow-flakes, or the wind rose into such a hurricane that the falling water appeared to be flashing over the drenched earth without actually touching it. Indoors we could hardly hear ourselves speak for the noise of the wind and rain against the shingle roof. It became a service of danger, almost resembling a forlorn hope, to go out and drag in logs of wet wood, or draw water from the well,—for, alas, there were no convenient taps or snug coal-holes in our newly-erected little wooden house. We husbanded every scrap of mutton, in very different fashion to our usual reckless consumption, the consumption of a household which has no butcher’s bill to pay; for we knew not when the shepherd might be able to fight his way through the storm, with half a sheep packed before him, on sturdy little “Judy’s” back. The creeks rose and poured over their banks in angry yellow floods. Every morning casualties in the poultry page 166 yard had to be reported, and that week cost me almost as many fowls and ducks as my great christening party did. The first thing every morning when I opened my eyes I used to jump up and look out of the different windows with eager curiosity, to see if there were any signs of a break in the weather, for I was quite unaccustomed to be pent up like a besieged prisoner for so many succeeding days. We did not boast of shutters in those regions, and even blinds were a luxury which were not wasted in the little hall. Consequently, when my unsatisfactory wanderings about the silent house—for no one else was up—led me that dreadful stormy morning into the narrow passage called the back-hall, I easily saw through its glass-door what seemed to me one of the most pathetic sights my eyes had ever rested upon.
Just outside the verandah, which is the invariable addition to New Zealand houses, stood, bareheaded, a tall, gaunt figure, whose rain-sodden garments clung closely to its tottering limbs. A more dismal morning could not well be imagined: the early dawn struggling to make itself apparent through a downpour of sleet and rain, the howling wind (which one could almost see as it drove the vapour wall before it), and the profound solitude and silence of all except the raging storm.page 167
At first I thought I must be dreaming, so silent and hopeless stood that weird figure. My next impulse, without staying to consider my dishevelled hair and loose wrapper, was to open the door and beckon the poor man within the shelter of the verandah. When once I had got him there I did not exactly know what to do with my guest, for neither fire nor food could be procured quite so early. He crouched like a stray dog down on the dripping mat outside the door, and murmured some unintelligible words. In this dilemma I hastened to wake up poor F——, who found it difficult to understand why I wanted him to get up at daylight during a “sou’-wester.” But I entreated him to go to the hall door, whilst I flew off to get my lazy maids out of their warm beds. With all their faults, they did not need much rousing on that occasion. I suppose I used very forcible words to convey the misery of the object standing outside, for I know that Mary was in floods of tears, and had fastened her gown on over her night-gear, whilst I was still speaking; and the cook had tumbled out of bed, and was kneeling before the kitchen fire with her eyes shut, kindling a blaze, apparently, in her sleep.
As soon as things were in this forward state, I returned to the verandah, and found our swagger guest drawing a very long breath after a good nip of pure page 168 whisky which F—— had promptly administered to him. “I’m fair clemmed wi’ cold and wet,” the swagger said, still bundled up in his comparatively sheltered corner. “I’ve been out on the hills the whole night, and I am deadbeat. Might I stop here for a bit?” He asked this very doubtfully, for it is quite against swagger etiquette to demand shelter in the morning. For all answer he was taken by the shoulder, and helped up. I never shall forget the poor tramp’s deprecating face, as he looked back at me, whilst he was being led through the pretty little dining-room, with its bright carpet, on which his clay-clogged boots and dripping garments left a muddy, as well as a watery track. “All right,” I said, with colonial brevity; and so we escorted our strange guest through the house into the kitchen, where the ever-ready kettle and gridiron were busy preparing tea and chops over a blazing fire. Of course the maids screamed when they saw us, and I do not wonder at their doing so, for neither F—— nor I looked very respectable, with huddled on dressing-gowns and towzled hair; whilst our foot-sore, drenched guest subsided into a chair by the door, covered his wretched pinched face with two bony hands, and burst into tears. I certainly never expected to see a swagger cry, and F—— declared the sight was quite as new to him as to me. However, the poor man’s tears page 169 and helplessness gave fresh energy to my maids’ treacherous nerves, and they even suggested dry clothes. Our good-natured cadet, who at this moment appeared on the scene, was only too happy to find some outlet for his superfluous benevolence, and hastened off, to return in a moment or two with an old flannel shirt, dry and whole, in spite of its faded stripes, a pair of moleskin trousers, and a huge pair of canvas cricketing shoes. It was no time for ceremony, so we women retreated for a few minutes into the store-room, whilst F—— and Mr. A—— made the swagger’s toilette, getting so interested in their task as even to part his dripping hair out of his eyes. He had no swag, poor fellow, having lost his roll of red blankets in one of the treacherous bog-holes across the range.
That man was exactly like a lost, starving dog. He ate an enormous breakfast, curled himself upon some empty flour-sacks in a dry corner of the kitchen, and slept till dinner time; then another sleep until the supper hour, and so on, the round of he clock. All this time he never spoke, though we were dying to hear how he had come into such a plight. The “sou’-wester” still raged furiously out of doors without a moment’s cessation, and we were obliged to have recourse to the tins of meat kept in the store-room for such an emergency. The shepherd told us after- page 170 wards he had ventured out to look for some wethers, his own supply being exhausted, but the whole mob had hidden themselves so cleverly that neither man nor dog could discover their place of shelter. On the Monday night, exactly a week after the outbreak of bad weather; the skies showed signs of having exhausted themselves, and nature began to wear a sulky air, as if her temper were but slowly recovering herself. The learned in such matters, however, took a cheerful view of affairs, and declared the worst to be over,—“for this bout,”—as they cautiously added.
Whether it was the three days of rest, warmth, and good food which unlocked the swagger’s heart, or not, I do not pretend to decide; but that evening, over a pipe in the kitchen, he confided to Mr. A—— that he had been working his way down to the sea-coast from a station where he had been employed, very far back in the hill ranges. The “sou’-wester” had overtaken him about twenty miles from us, but only five from another station, where he had applied towards the evening for shelter, being even then drenched with rain, and worn out by struggling through such a tremendous storm. There, for some reason which I confess did not seem very clear, he had been refused the unvarying hospitality extended in New Zealand to all travellers, rich or poor, squatter or swagger, and page 171 had been directed to take a short cut across the hills to our station, which he was assured could easily be reached in an hour or two more. The track, a difficult one enough to strike in summer weather, became, indeed, impossible to discover amid rushing torrents and driving wind and rain; besides which, as the poor fellow repeated more than once during his story, “I was fair done up when I set out, for I’d been travelling all day.” Mr. A—— told us what the man had been saying, before we all went to bed, adding, “He seems an odd, surly kind of creature, for although he declares he is going away the first thing to-morrow, if the rain be over, I noticed he never said a word approaching to thanks.”
The rain was indeed over next morning, and a flood of brilliant sunshine awoke me “bright and early,” as the country people say. It seemed impossible to stop in bed, so I jumped up, thrust my feet into slippers, and my arms into a warm dressing-gown, and sallied forth, opening window after window, so as to let the sunshine into rooms which not even a week’s steady down-pour could render damp. What a morning it was, and for mid-winter too! No haze, or fog, or vapour on all the green hills, whose well-washed sides were glistening in a bright glow of sunlight. For the first time, too, since the bad weather had set page 172 in, was to be heard the incessant bleat which is music to the ears of a New Zealand sheep-farmer. White, moving, calling patches on the hillsides told that the sheep were returning to their favourite pastures, and a mob of horses could be descried quietly feeding on the sunny flat.
But I had no eyes for beauties of mountain or sky. I could do nothing but gaze on the strange figure of the silent swagger, who knelt yes, positively knelt, on the still wet and shining shingle which formed an apology for a gravel path up to the back-door of the little wooden homestead. His appearance was very different to what it had been three days before. Now his clothes were dry and clean and mended,—my Irish maids doing; bless their warm hearts! He had cobbled up his boots himself, and his felt hat, which had quite recovered from its drenching, lay at his side. The perfect rest and warmth and good food had filled up his hollow cheeks, but still his countenance was a curious one; and never, until my dying day, can I forget the rapture of entreaty on that man’s upturned face. It brings the tears into my own eyes now to recollect its beseeching expression. I do not think I ever saw prayer before or since. He did not perceive me, for I had hidden behind a sheltering curtain, to listen page 173 to his strange, earnest petitions; so he could not know that anybody in the house was stirring, for he knelt at the back, and all my fussings had taken place in the front, and he could not, therefore, have been doing anything for effect.
There, exactly where he had crouched a wretched, way-worn tramp in pouring rain, he knelt now with the flood of sunshine streaming down on his uplifted face, whilst he prayed for the welfare and happiness, individually and collectively, of every living creature within the house. Then he stood up and lifted his hat from the ground; but before he replaced it on his head, he turned, with a gesture which would have made the fortune of any orator,—a gesture of mingled love and farewell, and solemnly blessed the roof-tree which had sheltered him in his hour of need. I could not help being struck by the extraordinarily good language in which he expressed his fervent desires, and his whole bearing seemed quite different to that of the silent, half-starved man we had kept in the kitchen these last three days. I watched him turn and go, noiselessly closing the garden gate after him, and—shall I confess it?—my heart has always felt light whenever I think of that swagger’s blessing. When we all met at breakfast I had to take his part, and tell of the scene page 174 I had witnessed; for everybody was inclined to blame him for having stolen away, scarcely without saying good-bye, or expressing a word of thanks for the kindness he had received. But I knew better.
From the sublime to the ridiculous we all know the step is but short, especially in the human mind; and to my tender mood succeeds the recollection of an absurd panic we once suffered from, about swaggers. Exaggerated stories had reached us, brought by timid fat men on horseback, with bulky pocket-books, who came to buy our wethers for the Hokitika market, of “sticking up” having broken out on the west land. I fear my expressions are often unintelligible to an English reader, but in this instance I will explain. “Sticking up” is merely a concise colonial rendering of “Your money or your life,” and was originally employed by Australian bushrangers, those terrible freebooters whose ranks used to be always recruited from escaped convicts. Fortunately we had no community of that class, only a few prisoners kept in a little ricketty wooden house in Christchurch, from which an enterprising baby might easily have escaped. I dare say as we get more civilized out there, we shall build ourselves handsome prisons and penitentiaries; but in those early days a story was current of a certain jailor who let all his captives out on some festal occa- page 175 sion, using the tremendous threat, that whoever had not returned by eight o’clock should be “ocked”
But to return to that particular winter evening. We had been telling each other stories which we had heard or read of bushranging exploits, until we were all as nervous as possible. Ghosts, or even burglar stories, are nothing to the horror of a true bushranger story, and F—— had made himself particularly ghastly and disagreeable by giving a minute account of an adventure which had been told to him by one of the survivors.
We listened, with the wind howling outside, to F——’s horrid second-hand story, of how one fine day up country, eight or ten men,—station hands,—were “stuck up” by one solitary bushranger, armed to the teeth. He tied them up one by one, and seated them all on a bench in the sun, and deliberately fired at and wounded the youngest of the party; then, seized with compunction, he unbound one of the captives, and stood over him, revolver in hand, whilst he saddled and mounted a horse, to go for a doctor to set the poor boy’s broken leg. Before the messenger had gone “a league, a league, but barely twa’,”—the freebooter recollected that he might bring somebody else back with him besides the doctor, and flinging himself across his horse, rode after the page 176 affrighted man, and coolly shot him dead. I really don’t know how the story ended: I believe everybody perished; but at this juncture I declared it to be impossible to sit up any longer to listen to such tragedies, and went to bed.
Exactly at midnight,—the proper hour for ghosts; burglars, and bushrangers, and such “small deer” to be about, everybody was awakened simultaneously by a loud irregular knocking, which sounded with hollow reverberations all through the wooden house. “Bushrangers!” we all thought, every one of us; for although burglars may not usually knock at hall-doors in England, it is by no means uncommon for their bolder brethren to do so at the other end of the world. It is such a comfort to me now, looking back on that scene to remember that our stalwart cadet was as frightened as anybody. He stood six feet one in his stockings, and was a match for any two in the country side, and yet, I am happy to think, he was as bad as any one. As for me, to say that my heart became like water and my knees like soft wax, is to express in mild words my state of abject terror. There was no need to inquire what the maids thought, for smothered shrieks, louder and louder as each peal of knocks vibrated through the little house, proclaimed sufficiently their sentiments on the subject.page 177
Dear me, how ridiculous it all must have been! In one corner of the ceiling of our bedroom was a little trap-door which opened into an attic adjoining that where the big cadet slept. Now whilst F—— was hurriedly taking down his double-barrelled gun from its bracket just below this aperture, and I held the candlestick with so shaky a hand that the extinguisher clattered like a castanet, this door was slowly lifted up, and a large white face, with dishevelled stubbly hair and wide-open blue eyes, looked down through the cobwebs, saying in a husky whisper, “Could you let me have a rifle, or any thing?” This was our gallant cadet, who had no idea of presenting himself at a disadvantage before the foe. I had desperately seized a revolver, but F—— declared that if I persisted in carrying it I certainly should go first, as he did not wish to be shot in the back.
We held a hurried council of war,—Mr. A—— assisting through the trap door, and the maids breathing suggestions through the partition-planks,—but the difficulty consisted in determining at which door the knocking was going on. Some said one, and some another (for there were many modes of egress from the tiny dwelling); but at last F—— cried decidedly, “We must try them all in succession,” page 178 and shouldering his gun, with the revolver sticking in the girdle of his dressing-gown, sallied valiantly forth. I don’t know what became of Mr. A——: I believe he took up a position with the rifle pointing downwards; the maids retreated beneath their blankets, and I (too frightened to stay behind) followed closely, armed with an Indian boar-spear. F—— flung the hall door wide open, and called out, “Who’s there?” but no one answered. The silence was intense, and so was the cold; therefore we returned speedily indoors to consult. “It must be at the back door,” I urged; adding, “that is the short cut down the valley, where bushrangers would be most likely to come.” “Bushrangers, you silly child!” laughed F——. “It’s most likely a belated swagger, or else somebody who is playing us a trick.” However as he spoke a succession of fierce and loud knocks resounded through the whole house. “It must be at the kitchen door,” F—— said. “Come along, and stand well behind me when I open the door.”
But we never opened the door; for on our way through the kitchen, with its high-pitched and unceiled roof,—a very cavern for echoes,— we discovered the source of the noise, and of our fright. Within a large wooden packing-case lay a poor little lamb, and its dying throes had wakened us all up, as it kicked page 179 expiring kicks violently against the side of the box. It was my doing bringing it indoors, for I never could find it in my heart to leave a lamb out on the hills if we came across a dead ewe with her baby bleating desolately and running round her body. F—— always said, “You cannot rear a merino lamb indoors; the poor little thing will only die all the same in a day or two;” and then I am sorry to say he added in an unfeeling manner, “They are not worth much now,” as if that could make any difference! I had brought this, as I had brought scores of others, home in my arms from a long distance off; fed it out of a baby’s bottle, rubbed it dry, and put it to sleep in a warm bed of hay at the bottom of this very box. They had all died quietly, after a day or two, in spite of my devotion and nursing, but this little foundling kicked herself out of the world with as much noise as would have sufficed to summon a garrison to surrender. It is all very well to laugh at it now, but we were, five valiant souls in all, as thoroughly frightened at the time as we could well be.
The only real harm a swagger did me was to carry off one of my best maidservants as his wife, but as he had £300 in the bank at Christchurch, and was only travelling about looking for work, and they have lived in great peace and prosperity ever since, I sup- page 180 pose I ought not to complain. This swagger was employed in deepening our well, and Mary was always going to see how he was getting on, so he used to make love to her, looking up from the bottom of a deep shaft, and shouting compliments to her from a depth of sixty feet. What really won her Irish heart, though, was his calmly putting a rival, a shepherd, into a water-butt. She could not resist that, so they were married, and are doing well.
Let no one despise swaggers. They are merely travelling workmen, and would pay for their lodging if it was the custom to do so. I am told that even now they are fast becoming things of the past; for one could not “swagger” by railroad, and most of our beautiful happy vallies will soon have a line of rails laid down throughout its green and peaceful length.