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Station Amusements

Chapter XVI. Doctoring Without a Diploma

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Chapter XVI. Doctoring Without a Diploma.

So many reminiscences come crowding into my mind,—some grave and others gay,—as I sit down to write these final chapters, that I hardly know where to begin.

The most clamorous of the fast-thronging memories, the one which pushes its way most vividly to the front, is of a little amateur doctoring of mine; and as my patient luckily did not die of my remedies, I need not fear that I shall be asked for my diploma.

Shearing was just over; over only that very evening in fact. We had been leading a sort of uncomfortable picnic life at the home station page 251 for more than ten days, and had returned to our own pretty little home up the valley, late on Saturday night, in time for the supper-dinner I have so often described. It was my doing, that fortnight’s picnic at the home station, and I may as well candidly confess it was a mistake; although, made, like most mistakes in life, with good intentions. Our partner had gone to England, our manager had just left us to set up sheep-farming on his own account, and all the responsibility of shearing a good many thousand sheep devolved on F——. And not only the shearing; the flock had to be carefully draughted, the ewes, wethers, and hoggets, to be branded, ear-marked, and turned out on their several ranges; the wethers for home consumption, which consisted of a good-sized flock of many hundred sheep, turned into the home-paddock,—an enclosure of some five or six hundred acres,—and various other minute details to be seen to; the wool to be sent down to Christchurch, and the stores brought up by the return drays.

My motives for the plan I formed for us to go over, bag and baggage, to the home station, the evening before the shearing began, and live there till it was over, were varied. We will put the most unselfish first, for the sake of appearances. I knew it would be very hard work for poor F—— all that time, and I thought it would add to his fatigue if he had to go backwards and forwards to his own house every day, getting up at five in the morning and returning late at night, besides having no comfortable page 252 meals. The next motive was that I wanted very much to see the whole process of shearing, and all the rest of it, myself; and as it turned out, though I little dreamed of it at the time, this proved to be my only chance. Every body tried to dissuade me from carrying out the scheme, by urging that I should be very uncomfortable; but I did not care in the least for that, and insisted on being allowed at all events to see how I liked it.

Accordingly one evening we set forth: such a ridiculous cavalcade. I would not hear of riding, for it was only a short two miles walk; and as we did not start until after our last meal, the sun had dipped behind Flag-pole’s tall peak, and nearly the whole of our happy valley lay in deep, cool shadow. Besides which, it looked more like the real thing to walk, and that was half the battle with me. The “real thing” in this case, though I did not stop to explain it to myself, must have meant emigrants, Mormons, soldiers on the march, what you will; any thing which expresses all one’s belongings being packed into a little cart, with a huge tin bath secured on the top of all. Such a miscellaneous assortment of dry goods as that cart held! A couple of mattresses (for my courage failed me at the idea of sleeping on chopped tussocks for a fortnight), a couple of folding-up arm- page 253 chairs, though, as it turned out, one would have been enough, for poor F—— never sat down from the time he got up until he went to bed again; a large hamper of provisions, some books, our clothes, and various little matters which were indispensable if one had to live in an empty house for a fortnight. I had sent my two maids over one morning a few days before, with pails and mops and brushes, and they had given the couple of rooms which we were to inhabit, a thorough good cleaning and scouring, so my mind was easy on that point. It would not have answered, for many reasons, to have encumbered ourselves with these damsels during our stay at the home station. In the first place, there was really no accommodation for them; in the next, it would have entailed more luggage than the little cart could hold; and, finally, we should have been obliged to leave them behind at the last moment: for only the evening before we started, a couple of friends arrived, in true New Zealand fashion, from Christchurch, to pay us a month’s visit. It was too late to alter our plans then, so we told them to, make themselves thoroughly at home, and took our departure next day in the way I have alluded to.

We had plenty of escort as far as the first swamp. When that treacherous and well-known spot had page 254 been reached, everybody suddenly remembered that they had forgotten something or the other which obliged them to return directly, so our farewells had to be exchanged from the centre of a flax bush. The cart meanwhile was nearly out of sight, so wide a détour had its driver been forced to make in order to find a place sound enough to bear its weight. But we caught it up again after we had happily crossed the quagmire which used always to be my bug-bear, and in due time we made our appearance, in the gloaming, at the tiny house belonging to the home station. Early as was the hour, not later than half-past eight, the place lay silent and still under the balmy summer haze. All the shearers were fast asleep in the men’s hut, whilst every available nook and corner was filled with the spare hands; the musterers, branders, yard-keepers, and many others, whose duties were less-defined. Far down the flat we could dimly discern a white patch,—the fleecy outlines of the large mob destined to fill the skillions at day-break to-morrow morning; and, although we could not see them distinctly, close by, watchful and vigilant all through that and many subsequent summer nights, Pepper and his two beautiful colleys kept watch and ward over the sheep.

Writing in the heavy atmosphere of this vast page 255 London world, I look back upon that, and such evenings as that, with a desperate craving to breathe once more he delicious air unsoiled by human lungs, and stirred into fresh fragrance by every summer sigh of those distant New Zealand valleys. No wonder people were always well in such a pure, clear, light atmosphere. I try to feel again in fancy the exquisite enjoyment of merely drawing a deep breath, the thrilling sensation of health and strength it sent tingling down to your finger ends. No fleck or film of vapour or miasma could be seen or smelt, though the day had been burning hot, and, as I have said, there were plenty of creeks and swamps hard by. Damp is unknown in those valleys, and we might have lingered bareheaded even after the heavy dew began to fall, without risk of cold, or fever, or any other ailment. But we could not afford to linger a moment out of doors that lovely tempting evening. F—— and the driver of the cart, who had some important part to take in the morrow’s proceedings (I forget exactly what), soon tossed out my little stores, which looked very insignificant as they lay in a heap in the verandah, and departed to see that all was in train for next day’s work. I had no time to enjoy the evening’s soft beauty: the beds had to be made; clothes to be unpacked and hung up; stores must be page 256 arranged on the shelves in the sitting-room,—for the house only consisted of two small rooms in front, with a wide verandah, and a sort of lean-to at the back, which was divided into a small kitchen and store-room. This last was empty. I confess I thought rather regretfully of my pretty, comfortable, English-looking bed-room at the other house, with its curtains and carpet, its wardrobes and looking-glasses, when I found myself surveying the scene of my completed labours. Two station bunks,—i.e., wooden bed-frames of the simplest and rudest construction, with a sacking bottom,—a couple of empty boxes, one for a dressing-table and the other for a wash-stand, a tin basin and a bucket of water, being the paraphernalia of the latter, whilst some nails behind the door served to hang our clothes on, such was my station bedroom and all my own doing too! Certainly it looked uncomfortable enough to satisfy any one, but I would not have complained of it for the world, lest I might have been ordered home directly.

Hard as was my bed that night, I slept soundly, and it appeared only five minutes before I heard a tremendous noise outside the verandah. The bleating of hundreds of sheep announced that the mob were slowly advancing, before a perfect army of men and dogs, up to the sheep yards. What a din they all page 257 made! F—— was wide awake, and up in a moment. I, anxious to show why I had insisted on coming over, got up too, and made my way into the little kitchen, where I found a charming surprise awaiting me in the shape of some faggots of neatly-stacked wood, cut into exactly, the right lengths for the American stove; and also a heap of dry Menuka bushes, which make the best touchwood for lighting fires in the whole world. The tiny kitchen and stove were both scrupulously clean, and so were my three saucepans and kettle. This had been, of course, my maids’ doing, but the fuel was a delicate little attention on Pepper’s part. How he blushed and grinned with delight when I thanked him before all his mates! This was indeed station-life made easy! It did not take two minutes to light my fire, and in five more I had a delicious cup of tea and some bread-and-butter all ready for F——. It was nearly cold, however, by the time I could catch him and make him drink it. Of course, being a man, instead of saying, “Thank you,” or anything of that sort, he merely remarked, “What nonsense!” but equally of course, he was very glad to get it, and ate and drank it all up, returning instantly to his shed.

After this little episode, I set to work to unpack a little, and make the sitting-room look the least bit page 258 more home-like; then I laid the cloth for breakfast, put out the pie and potted meat, etc. (no words can say how heartily tired of pies we both were before the week was over), and arranged everything for breakfast. Then I waylaid one of the numerous stray “hands” which hang about a station at shearing time, and got him to fetch me a couple of buckets of water as far as the verandah. These I conveyed myself into the little sleeping-room, and finished my toilette at my leisure: tidying it all up afterwards. I wonder if any one has any idea what hot work it is making a bed? So hot, in fact, that I resolved in future to be wise enough to finish all these domestic occupations before I had my bath. The worst of getting up so early proved to be that by nine o’clock I was very tired, and had nothing else to do for the remainder of the long, noisy day. As for the meals, they were wretchedly unsociable; for F—— only came in to snatch a mouthful or two, standing, and it was of little use trying to make things comfortable for him. I must confess here, what I would not acknowledge at the time, that I found it a very long and dull visit. My husband never had time to speak to me, and when he did, it was only about sheep. I grew weary of living on cold meat, for it was really too hot to cook; and my servants used to send me over, every second day, page 259 cold fowls or pies; besides, one seemed to live in a whirl and confusion of dust, and bleating, and barking. After the day’s work was fairly over, F—— used to rush in, seize a big bath-towel, cry “I am off for a bathe in the creek,” and only return in time for supper and bed. The weather was all that a sheep-farmer could desire. Bright, sunny, and clear, one lovely summer day followed another; hot, almost to tropical warmth, without any risk or fear of sun-stroke or head-ache, and a delicious lightness in the atmosphere all the time, which merged into a cool bracing air the moment the sun had slowly travelled behind the high hills to the westward.

But all these details, though necessary to make you understand what I had been doing, are not the story itself, so to that we will hurry on. The shearing was over; Saturday evening had come, as welcome to poor imprisoned me as to any one, and the great work of the New Zealand year had been most successfully accomplished. F—— was in such good humour that he even deigned to admit that his own comfort had been somewhat increased by my living at the home station, so I felt quite rewarded for my many dreary hours. The shearers had been paid, and were even then picking their way over the hills in little groups of two and three; some, I grieve to page 260 say, bound for the nearest accommodation-house or wayside inn, and others for the next station, across the river, where the skillions were full, and waiting for them to begin on Monday morning. Only half-a-dozen people, instead of thirty, were left at our place, and there would not even have been so many if it had not been thought well to keep a few there until the bale-loft was empty. Generally it was arranged for the wool-drays to follow each other every two days with a load down to Christchurch; for the greatest risk a sheep-farmer runs is from his shed taking fire whilst it is full of bales of wool. This had happened often enough in the colony, and even in our neighbourhood, to make us more and more careful every year; and, as I have said, amongst our precautions, was that of keeping as little wool as possible in the shed. Most flock-owners waited until the shearing should be quite over before they carted the wool away; but in that case, a spark from a pipe, a match carelessly dropped in a tussock outside, when a nor’-wester was blowing,—and the slight wooden building would be blazing like a torch, and your year’s income vanishing in the smoke!

Even at the last moment, when the cart had already started homewards, with the tin bath balanced once more on the top of the mattresses and boxes; when page 261 the house was empty, and I was waiting, my hat and jacket on, and flax-stick in hand, eager to set out, a doubt arose about the expediency of our return home. Some accidental delay had prevented the dray from arriving in time to start for Christchurch with the last load, and between two and three hundred pounds worth of wool still remained in the shed,—packed and labelled indeed, but neither insured nor protected from the risk of fire in any way. F—— was very loath to leave them there; but, yielding to my entreaties, he called Pepper, the head shepherd, and solemnly gave the wool-shed and its contents over into his charge, with many and many a caution about fire. Pepper was as trustworthy and steady a shepherd as any in the colony, and promised to “keep his weather-eye open,” as he phrased it, in nautical slang picked up from some run-away sailor.

All the way home F—— said from time to time, anxiously, “I wish the shed was empty;” but I cheered him up, and told him he was over-tired and unreasonably nervous, and so forth, but with a great longing myself for Monday morning to come, and for the dray to take its load and start. I need not dwell on how delicious it was to return home, where everything seemed so comfortable and nice, and the bed felt especially soft and welcome to tired limbs. Early page 262 were our hours, you may be sure, and we slept the sleep of the hard-worked until between two and three o’clock the next morning. Then we were roused up by some one knocking loudly against our wide- open latticed window.

I was the first to hear the noise, and cried, “Who’s there? what is it?” all in a breath.

“The wool-shed on fire,” murmured F——, in a tone of agonized conviction.

“It’s you that’s wanted, please mum, this moment, over at the home station!” I heard Pepper say, in impatient tones.

“It’s the wool-shed,” repeated F——, more than half asleep, and with only room for that one idea in his dreamy mind.

“Nonsense!” I cried, jumping out of bed. “I should not be wanted if the wool-shed were on fire. Don’t you hear Pepper say he wants me?”

“All right, then,” said F——, actually turning over and proposing to go to sleep again. But there was no more sleep for either of us that night. Whilst I hastily put on my riding-habit, Pepper told me, through the window; an incoherent tale of some one being at the point of death, and wanting me to cure him, and the master to bring over pen and ink, to make a will, and dying speeches and cold shivers, all page 263 mixed up together in a tangle of words. F—— took some minutes to understand that it was Fenwick, a gigantic Yorkshireman, who had been seized with what Pepper would call the “choleraics,” and who, in spite of having swallowed all the mustard and rum and “pain-killer” left on the premises, grew worse and worse every moment. “He’s dying, safe enough,” concluded Pepper, “but he’s main anxious to see you, mum, and the master; and he wants a Bible brought to swear him, and he’s powerful uneasy to make his will.” I knew quite as little of medicine as my husband did of law, but of course we decided instantly that we ought both to go and see what could be done in any way to relieve either the body or mind of the sufferer.

We said to each other while we were hastily dressing, “How shall we ever catch the horses? They have all been turned out, of course, as no one thought they would be wanted until Monday; and who knows where they have gone to?—miles away, perhaps; and it’s pitch dark.” Judge, then, of our delighted surprise, when, on going out into the verandah, preparatory to starting off to look for our steeds, we found them standing at the gate, ready saddled and bridled. It seemed like magic, but the good fairies in this case had been the two guests to whom I have alluded as page 264 having arrived just as we were starting for our picnic life. They were both “old chums,” and understood the situation instantly. Whilst we were questioning Pepper (you can hear every word all over a New Zealand house), they had jumped up, huddled on their clothes, and gone over the brow of the hill to look for the horses. By great good fortune the whole mob was found quietly camping in the sheltered valley full of sweet grass, on its further side. To walk up to my pretty bay mare Helen, and lay hold of her mane, and then, vaulting on her back, ride the rest of the mob back into the stockyard, was, even in the deep darkness of a midsummer night, no difficult task for eyes so practised to catching horses under all circumstances. So here was one obstacle suddenly smoothed, and as I hastily collected my few simple remedies, consisting chiefly of flannel, chlorodyne, and brandy, I could only trust and pray that poor Fenwick’s case might not be so desperate as Pepper represented it.

To our impatience, the difficult track, with its swamps and holes, its creeks to be jumped, and morasses to be avoided, seemed long indeed; but to judge from the continued profound darkness,—that inky blackness of the sky which is the immediate forerunner of daylight,—the dawn could not be far off. page 265 How well I remember the whole scene! F—— tied his white handkerchief on his arm, that Helen and I might have a faint speck of light by which to guide ourselves. Pepper rode close to me, pouring into my ears dismal predictions of Fenwick’s end; whilst I, amid all my anxiety, could only think of the dangers of the track, and whether, in the pitchy darkness, we should ever get to the home station. The dew fell so heavily that more than once I thought it must be raining, but those were only wind-clouds brooding in the great dark vault above us. More welcome than ever sounded the bark of the dogs, which told us we had reached the end of our stumbling ride; and the moment their tongues woke up the silence, a lantern showed a ray of light to guide us to the hut door.

I jumped off my horse instantly, and went in. At first I thought my patient was dead, for he lay, rigid and grey, in his bunk. At a glance I perceived that nothing could really be done to help him whilst he was lying on a high shelf, almost out of my reach, in a small hut filled with bewildered men, who kept offering him from time to time a “pull” at a particularly good pipe, having previously poured all the grog they could muster down his throat, or rather over his pillow (his saddle performed that duty by night), for page 266 he had been unable to swallow for some hours. I remembered that there were the bedsteads we had used at the house, and also some firewood still left in the kitchen. Explaining to Pepper how he was to wrap poor Fenwick in every available blanket in the place, and carry him across the open space into the parlour, I hastily ran on before, got some one to help me to drag one of the light frames into the sitting-room, laced it before the fireplace, and then made up a good blazing fire on the open hearth. By the time the dry wood was crackling and sparkling out its cheery welcome, my patient arrived, and was laid down, blankets and all, on the rude little bedstead, before the blaze. By its fitful and uncertain light I proceeded to examine the enormous frame stretched so helplessly before me, feeling half afraid to touch him at all. F—— was very trying as an assistant, for he looked on without making any suggestions, and only said from time to time, “Take care: the man is dead.” To my inexperienced eyes he indeed seemed past all human help. His skin was icy cold, and as wet as if he had been lying out in the dew. No flutter of pulse, nor sign of breath, could my trembling efforts discover; but I fancied there was the least little sign of pulsation about his heart. Of course I had not the vaguest notion of what was the matter with the man, page 267 for all Pepper could tell me was that “Fenwick’s been powerful bad, you bet.” This does not sound a minute diagnosis to go on, and the only remedies which presented themselves to my mind were those I had studied as being useful for the recovery of drowned persons. So to work I set, as if the poor fellow had just been fished out of the creek; and whenever any one wanted to teaze me afterwards they would declare I had insisted on Fenwick’s being held up by his heels. But of course that was all nonsense. What I did really do was this, and a doctor in Christchurch, whom I afterwards consulted as to my treatment, assured me, laughingly, that it was “capital.”

I made Pepper and another man both rub the cold clammy body, as hard as they could with mustard and hot flannel. I got some bottles filled with hot water (for it did not take five minutes to boil the kettle) and placed to his icy-cold feet and under his arms, then I mixed a little very strong and hot brandy and water, to which I added a few drops of chlorodyne, and gave him a teaspoonful every five minutes. For the first half-hour there was no sign of life to be detected, and the same horrible bluish pallor made poor Fenwick’s really handsome face look ghastly in the flickering light. My two assistants were getting page 268 exhausted, and Pepper had more than once murmured, with the recollection of the past fortnight’s work strong upon him, “Spell, oh!” or else “Shears!” 3 whilst his companion inquired pathetically, “What was the use of flaying a dead man?” To these hints I paid no attention, though my damp riding habit was steaming from the heat of the fire and I felt dreadfully tired; for certainly there seemed to my eyes a healthier tinge stealing over the rigid features, and it could not be my fancy which detected a stronger effort to swallow the last spoonful of brandy.

I need not go into the details of my jumbled-up remedies; probably I should bring upon myself serious remonstrances from the Royal Humane Society, if my treatment of that unhappy man were made public. It is enough to say that I “exhibited” mustard by the pound and brandy by the quart, that I roasted him first on one side and then on the other, that his true skin was rubbed off, that I chlorodyned him until he slept for nearly a week, and that when he finally recovered he declared he felt “as if he’d been dead:” “And no wonder,” as Pepper always remarked. The only clue I could get to the cause of his illness was a shy confession, about a week page 269 afterwards, that he had eaten a few mushrooms. Fenwick’s idea of a few of anything was generally a liberal notion. I questioned him narrowly as to what he had had for supper the night he was taken ill, and this was his bill of fare:—

“Well, you see, mum, I wasn’t rightly hungry: it must have been them gripses coming on. So I only had a shoulder (of mutton, ien ent; when Fenwick had really a good appetite he regarded anything less than a whole leg of a sheep as an insult) that night, half-a-dozen slap jacks, and a trifle of mushrooms.” “How big were the mushrooms?” I asked. “Oh, they was rather fine ones, mum, I won’t deny: they might have been the bigness of a plate.” Now even supposing them to have been perfectly wholesome, a few dozen mushrooms of that size, eaten half raw with a whole shoulder of mutton, are quite enough to my ignorant mind to account for so severe a fit of the “choleraics.”

3 the shearer’s demand for a few minutes rest