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Station Amusements

Chapter XV. A Feathered Pet

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Chapter XV. A Feathered Pet.

No record of those dear, distant days would be complete without a short memoir of “Kitty.” She was only a grey Dorking hen, but no heroine in fact or fiction, no Lady Rachel Russell or Fleurange, ever exceeded Kitty in unswerving devotion to a beloved object, or rather objects.

To see Kitty was to admire her, at least as I saw her one beautiful spring evening in a grassy paddock on the banks of the Horarata. We had ridden over there to visit our kind and friendly neighbours, the C——’s; we had enjoyed a delicious cup of tea in the passion-flower-covered verandah, which looked on the whole range, from East to West, of the glorious Southern Alps, their shining white summits sharply cut against our own peculiarly beautiful sky; we had strolled round the charming, page 242 unformal garden, on either sloping side of a wide creek, and had admired, with just a tinge of envy, the fruits and flowers, the standard apple and rose trees, the tangle of fern and creepers, the wealth of the old and new worlds heaped together in floral profusion; we had done all this, I say, and very pleasant we had found it. Now we were trying to say goodbye: not so easy a task, let me tell you, when there are so many temptations to linger, and when you are greatly pressed to stay. The last device of our hospitable hostess to keep us consisted in offering to show me her poultry-yard. Now I was a young beginner in that line myself, and tormented my ducks and fowls to death by my incessant care: at least that is the conclusion I have arrived at since; but at that time, I considered it as necessary to look after them as if they had been so many children. The consequence was,—as I pathetically complained to Mrs. C——, that my hens sat furiously for a week, and then took to lingering outside, where perpetual feeding was going on, until their eggs grew cold; that my ducks neglected their offspring and allowed the rats to decimate them, and that every variety of epidemic and misfortune assailed in turns my unhappy poultry yard. Kind Mrs. C—— listened as gravely as she could, hinting very gently, that perhaps I took too page 243 much trouble about them; then, fearing least she might have wounded my feelings, she hastened to suggest that I should try the introduction of a different breed.

As a preliminary step to this reformation, she offered to bestow upon me one of her best Dorking hens. It was too tempting an offer to be refused, and I forthwith bestowed my affections on a beautiful grey pullet, whose dignified carriage and speckled exterior bespoke her high lineage. “That’s Kitty,” said Mrs. C——. “I am so glad you fancy her; she is one of my nicest young hens. We’ll catch her for you in a moment.” I must pause to mention here, that it struck me as being very odd in New Zealand the way in which every creature has a name, excepting always the poor sheep. If one sees a cock strutting proudly outside a shepherd’s door; you are sure to hear it is either Nelson or Wellington; every hen has a pet name, and answers to it; so have the ducks and geese,—at least, up-country; of course, dogs, horses, cows and bullocks, each rejoice in the most inflated appellations, but I don’t remember ever hearing ducks and fowls answer to their names in any other country.

But this is only by the way. I gratefully and gladly accepted the transfer of the fair Kitty, and only wondered how I was to convey her to her new home, fifteen miles away. Kitty was soon caught, page 244 and carried off into the house to be packed up for her first ride. Accustomed as I am to ridiculous things happening to me, still I never felt in so absurd a position as when, having mounted “Helen,” who seemed in a particularly playful mood after a good feed of oats, Kitty was handed to me neatly tied up in a pillow-case with her tufted head protruding from a hole in the seam at the side. Although very anxious to carry her home immediately, my heart died within me at the prospect of a long gallop on a skittish mare with a plump Dorking hen tied up in a bag on my lap.

There was no help for it, however, and I tried to put my bravest face on the matter. The difficulties commenced at the very point of departure, for it is not easy to say farewell cordially with your hands full of reins, whip, and poultry. But it proved comparatively easy going whilst we only cantered over the plains. It was not until the first creek had been reached, that I really perceived what lay before me. Helen distrusted the contents of the bag, and kept trying to look round and see what it contained; and her fears of something uncanny might well have been confirmed when she took off at her first flat jump. Kitty screamed, or shrieked, or whatever name best expresses her discordant and piercing page 245 yells. I more than suspect I shrieked too, partly at the difficulty of keeping both Kitty and Helen in any sort of order, and partly at my own insecurity. No sooner had Helen landed on the other side, than she fled homewards as if a tin kettle were tied to her tail. The speed at which we dashed through the fragrant summer air completely took away Kitty’s breath, and the poor creature appeared more dead than alive by the time I dismounted, trembling myself in every limb for her safety as well as my own, at the garden gate.

However, next morning brought a renewed delight in existence to both Kitty and me, and our night’s sleep had made us forget our agitation and peril. After breakfast I introduced her to the poultry yard, and she adapted herself to her new home with a tact and good humour most edifying to behold. Months passed away. Kitty had made herself a nest in a place, the selection of which did equal honour to her head and heart, and she gladdened my eyes one fine morning by appearing with a lovely brood of chicks around her. Who so proud as the young mother? She exhibited them to me, and after I had duly admired them, used to carry them off to a nursery of her own, which she had established among the tussocks just outside the stable door. Mrs. C—— had impressed upon me that page 246 Kitty could be safely trusted to manage her own affairs. No fear of her dragging her fluffy babies out among the wet grass too early in the morning, or losing them among the flax bushes on the hill-side. No: Kitty came of a race who were model mothers, and was to be left to take care of herself and her chickens.

About a week after Kitty had first shown me her large, small family, a friend of ours arrived unexpectedly to stop the night. Next morning, when he was going away, he apologised for asking leave to mount at the stables, saying his led horse was so vicious, and the one he was riding so gay, that it was quite possible their legs might find themselves within the verandah, or do some mischief to the young shrubs which were the pride and joy of my heart. This gentleman rode beautifully, and I used to like to see the courage and patience with which he always conquered the most unruly horse.

“We will come up to the stable and see you mount,” I cried, seizing my hat. Of course every one followed my lead, and it was to the sound of mingled jeers and compliments that poor Mr. T—— mounted his fiery steed, and seized hold of the leading rein of his pack-horse. But this animal had no intention of taking his departure with propriety or tranquillity: he page 247 pranced and shied, flinging out his heels as he wildly danced round to every point of the compass, in a circle. Gradually he drew Mr. T—— and his chestnut a dozen yards away from the stable, and it was just then that I perceived poor Kitty sitting close under a tussock. It chanced to be the hour for the chickens’ siesta, and they were all folded away beneath her ample brooding wings. Perhaps the danger had come too near to be avoided before I perceived it, but at all events my loud shriek of warning was too late to save the pretty crouching head from the flourish of the pack-horse’s glancing heels. Swift indeed was the blow; for scarcely ten seconds could have passed between my first glimpse of poor Kitty’s bright black eye looking out, with such mortal terror in its expression, from beneath the yellow tuft of grass, and my seeing the horse’s heel lay her head right open. The brave little mother never dreamed of saving herself at the cost of her nestlings. She crouched as low as possible, and when the horse had jumped over her I flew to see if she had escaped. No. There lay my pretty pet, with her wings still outspread and her chickens unhurt. But she seemed dead: her head had been actually cut clean open, and I never expected that she would have lived a moment. Yet she did. I took her at once to the well hard by, and page 248 bound up her split head with my pocket handkerchief, keeping it well wetted with cold water. Later on I put forth all the surgical art I possessed, and dressed the wound in the most scientific manner, nursing poor Kitty tenderly in the kitchen, and feeding her with my own hands every two hours. She was for a long time incapable of feeding herself and; even when all danger was over, required most careful nursing. However, the end of the story is that, she recovered entirely her bodily health, but her poor little brain remained clouded for ever. She never took any more notice of her chickens, who had to be brought up by hand, and she never mixed again with the society of the poultry-yard. At night she roosted apart in the coalshed, and she never seemed to hear my voice or distinguish me from others, though she was perfectly tame to everybody. Kitty’s end was very tragical. She grew exceedingly fat, and at last, one time when we were all snowed up and could not afford to be sentimental, my cook laid hold of poor Kitty, who was moping in her usual corner, and converted her into a savoury stew without telling me, until I had actually dined off her. I was very angry; but Eliza only repeated by way of consolation, “She had no wits, only flesh, consequently she was better in my stew-pot nor anywhere else, mum, if you’ll only look at it calm like.” page 249 But it was very hard to be made to eat one’s patient, especially when I was so proud of the way her poor head had healed.

If anybody wanted to teaze me, they suggested that I had omitted to replace my dear Kitty’s brains before closing that cruel wound in her skull.