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A Christmas Cake in Four Quarters

Chapter I. Christmas Day in New Zealand

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Chapter I. Christmas Day in New Zealand.

The last evening had arrived. Although the children were not to return to school for some weeks yet, the party would disperse on the morrow to their respective homes; for you must know that many of these children had only been borrowed for a week or so. Mrs. Owen had a mania for collecting young people around her, especially at Christmas-time, and she was quite as sorry as any of her guests could be when the week's fun and story-telling drew near its close.

On this last evening, therefore, she was more submissive than ever to her beloved little tyrants, for page 240she remembered during every moment of that last day that on the morrow they would have betaken their noisy, merry selves to gladden other houses, and she felt rather envious of the owners of those bright rosy faces. I confess that I endured the prospect of the break-up next day with perfect fortitude, for I had not been able to enjoy five minutes' quiet talk with my dear hostess ever since my arrival more than a week before. As I could not tell stories, and had led a very peaceable uneventful life, I was speedily voted "of no account," and for a brief period of time I seriously contemplated paying a visit to America before next Christmas, in order to give myself a chance of having something to relate next year.

This was the way I came to entertain so wild a project. When we were assembled in the schoolroom for this our last evening of Christmas stories, the clamour arose for a story of a Christmas in America.

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"But, my darlings," protested Mrs. Owen, "I have never been in that part of the world."

"Oh, how stupid of you!" said one boy. I won't tell his name, because it was not a pretty thing to say.

"Hush!" cried Cathy, much scandalised, "how can you say such a thing? She (Mrs. Owen, bien entmdui) had to go where she was obliged."

"Well, Cathy, dear, it is very kind of you to take my part," said Mrs. Owen; "and you are quite right. I have never, in all my life of travelling, which began before I was two years old, had time to go where I liked. All my journeyings have been merely following the lead of circumstances over which, I may truly say, I had no control. If I had ever been able to choose a place where I should have liked to spend a Christmas, it would have been in America; though, you know, that is rather a vague word, because I might spend twenty different Christmases there in twenty different ways."

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"Yes, it must be a jolly place," said Jack. "Think of the sleighing, and the skating, and the fun generally."

"Fun, indeed," laughed Mrs. Owen, amused at Jack's ecstasy; "and as, from all accounts, they are the most hospitable people in the world, suppose we all go over there in a body next year, and say, 'Please, dear, tall cousins, we have come to spend Christmas with you!' I have no doubt we should be very comfortable, and that they would be very good to us."

"Let us go! let us come!" shouted all the wild little monkeys, capering about the room. It was easier to raise this storm than to still it, and I thought peace and quiet would never be restored that evening. I was surprised to find what a good general idea of Transatlantic life the children had. I said to one of them, "Why, how do you know so much about what little girls and boys do in America? I think you must have been there."

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"From all the nice books, to be sure," answered Nora. "There are loads and loads of delightful stories about the way American children live, and they seem to have, what they call themselves, such 'good times' there, that I want to go over and see them dreadfully. I daresay," continued this young person, "they know all about us in the same way. Oh, don't I wish some of those children I have read about would come and see us; wouldn't I hug them!" And so saying, Nora pounced first upon Cathy and then upon George, squeezing each until they shrieked for mercy. I was so afraid that the hugging might become general, that I hastened to recall a suggestion of Nurse's, which had been but coldly received at the time, that the bed hour should be earlier than usual on this last evening, on account of the long journey next day. My remark produced a sudden silence and gloom, of which Mrs. Owen availed herself to say,—

"If we are going to hear anything about a New page 244Zealand Christmas, we had better begin at once, then."

"At the very beginning," stipulated the little girls.

"Of course I shall begin at the very beginning," answered Mrs. Owen. "Do you think that I have been telling stories to children all this time, and have not learnt to begin at the beginning? I only wonder you don't expect me to begin before the beginning. Do I ever begin in the middle, pray, or at the end? If I ever hear a word more about beginning at the beginning, I shall say that my story has no beginning; and what will you do then?"

"It will be all right," answered Jack, "for then you will be obliged to say 'once upon a time,' and that is the very nicest beginning any story can possibly have. Aunt Nancy always begins her stories that way."

"Well, well," said Mrs. Owen, "we will begin this story of a New Zealand Christmas Day, the page 245best way we can, and it shall be early enough, I promise you.

"If I am not very much mistaken, I have told you, in other places and at other times, that Christmas falls in Midsummer at the other side of the world, and that so far from being a festive, idle season, it is generally the busiest time of the whole year. It certainly is the busiest time on a sheep run, and that was where all my New Zealand Christmases were passed. This particular day fell in the middle of a week of what is there called 'mustering,' that is, collecting the sheep by thousands and tens of thousands, and driving them gradually all down to the vast plains near the homestead, where they are guarded night and day for the three weeks, or more, which it requires to shear them. We have not time this evening to hear all about the shearing, or even the mustering, though that is really a very wonderful sight to English eyes, and requires nearly as much forethought and arrangement as the plan of a campaign. Imagine page 246eight or ten men and half-a-dozen dogs bringing in 10,000 or 12,000 sheep, feeding over the same number of acres. Up and down steep hills, across bogs and creeks and rivers, they have to go, walking from early dawn to sunset, and accomplishing their task in three days. Of course, in many runs, the distance to be traversed, and the number of sheep to be brought in, are twice and three times as many; but I am only speaking of a small station.

"A great deal of the success of mustering depends on the clearness of the weather, as it is of no use going on the hills if a mist is hanging about. Very often, in the early summer, the hills are covered during the night by filmy clouds, which do not always disperse until the sun has risen and shrivelled them into light, upward-floating wreaths by one touch of his lancelike beams. But it is a great disadvantage in a day's mustering to make a late start; the sheep have dispersed from their high camping grounds, page 247and are feeding all up the gullies and over the hill-sides in scattered mobs; and it is of course much harder work walking under the burning sun than if his fiercest hour of mid-day heat found the men at the top of the range of hills, and with the sheep so well in hand, driving slowly before them, as to allow of the tired musterers sitting down under the shadow of a great rock (for there are no trees), and having a ten minutes' ' spell' and half a pipe.

"We were in the middle of mustering on this 25th of December, and the weather had not been quite so propitious as usual. A great deal of rain had fallen among the hills at the back of the run, and very few mornings dawned as cloudless and clear as the musterers desired. Of course Christmas Day would be a complete holiday, and we had invited shearers and musterers, and all the odd hands which flock to a station at shearing-time, to come up to our house, which stood in a valley a mile or so away from the sheep-yards, wool-shed, &c., and page 248attend first a church service and then a good dinner, the day to wind up with athletic games.

"The bad weather had been such an anxiety to F——for some days past, that he could not shake off the habit of watching the clouds at sunset, and I had laughed at him on Christmas Eve for going out late at night to see if 'Flagpole had put on his night-cap.' Flagpole was the highest hill on our run; in any other country it would have been called a mountain, being over 3,000 feet high; but as one of the last low spurs of the great Southern Alps, it did not take any rank after those mighty monarchs. When Flagpole put on his nightcap of clouds he was never in a hurry to take it off again, and the surrounding lower hills thought it only polite, I suppose, to follow his example, for it was sure to be a misty morning until 9 or 10 o'clock, if Flagpole had drawn his nightcap well over his rocky ears after sunset.

"'Never mind Flagpole,' I said; 'there will be no mustering to-morrow, so it does not signify page 249what he does.' But F——still loitered in the verandah, watching Flagpole's misty summit, until long after I was asleep and dreaming of the pies and puddings I had been so busy preparing all day for my Christmas dinner.

"Such was the force of habit, that the first faint streak of daylight stealing into our bedroom woke both F——and me wide awake, and our first thought, forgetting in our sleepiness that Christmas Day had dawned, was, 'Is it a fine clear morning?' F——tumbled out of bed, and, murmuring something about going to see, stepped sleepily out of the French window which opened on the verandah and commanded an exquisite view up the valley whose narrow entrance was guarded by Flagpole. It soon stole like a delicious whisper on my sleep-steeped senses that there was actually no occasion to rouse myself up, for that it was Christmas Day, and there would be no mustering, no getting up at 5 o'clock, no anxiety about the weather. Flagpole and his nightcap became matters of profound in-page 250difference to me as I settled myself comfortably for another nap; yet, drowsy as I was, I never can forget the excitement in F——'s face as he darted back into the little cosy bedroom. If we had been in the North Island, I should have imagined that a regiment of Maoris were encamped on the lawn; but in our peaceful Middle Island home we are not even afraid of thieves, still less of murderers. I certainly thought F——had gone suddenly stark staring mad, for he made one bound to a stand of fire-arms which hung against the bedroom wall, seized his rifle, and merely gasping out the words 'More cartridges!' dashed out as swiftly as he had entered.

"Here was a rude awakening on Christmas morning! 'It can't be a hawk,' I thought to myself; 'what can it be?' But I jumped out of bed, flung on my dressing-gown, thrust my feet into my slippers, and taking as many cartridges as my hands would hold, out of their tin box, I stepped out of the window into the verandah. No F—— page 251was to be seen; nothing but the quiet home-like scene of lawn and garden and paddock glistening with dew, and Sandy, the house cat, daintily moving about in quest of his breakfast, which invariably consisted of the early bird. Acting entirely on instinct, I peeped round the corner of the house, which commanded a view of downs rolling into a narrow gully, the flax swamp of which formed a natural boundary to one bit of the kitchen garden. A slender path made of very rough shingle and gravel wound among the sloping potato and strawberry beds, and along this path F—was creeping, almost on his hands and knees, so as to keep well under cover of the gorse hedge at the bottom of the garden. It must have been the most painful progress ever made by sporting pilgrim, and it certainly was the most ridiculous sight which can well be imagined. Bareheaded and bare-footed, crouching down on the rough path until he looked only about four feet high, F——held his way, his one white garment page 252fluttering in the wind, and his right hand grasping his rifle. The moment I perceived him creeping warily along, I dodged behind a great bush of Cape broom laden with fragrant yellow blossoms, and from this cover I too peered out, not daring to glance at F—for fear I should laugh aloud. A careful survey of the broken ground beyond the garden fence showed me a huge black boar tranquilly feeding with his back towards the gorse hedge. Fortunately the wind blew down from him to us, so his keen snout was no protection to him. If a cock should crow, or a dog bark, or even a duck quack, he would be off almost like a deer, up those hills and far away before man or dog could reach him.

"Still F——must have his cartridges; if he missed his first shot, a second might bring the great fierce brute down on his knees and give time for the revolver to be used. So I crept swiftly back into the verandah, got the loaded revolver, stuck it and F——'s hunting-knife into the muslin sash of page 253my dressing-gown, and was out again behind the bush in a moment. During my short absence, F——had made great progress, and was rapidly nearing the hedge from whence he would be able to take aim. I could not get up to him in time to be of any use without jumping into a wide wet ditch, whose high banks afforded excellent shelter. It is not a feat I should advise any of you young people to perform, excepting for strong and cogent reasons. My kid slippers stuck fast in the tenacious yellow clay and were nearly dragged off my feet, and I made myself in a fine mess in about two minutes. However, I struggled along, feeling rather ashamed of myself, and somewhat inclined to cry. By this time F——had reached the gorse hedge, and was kneeling down on a tussock (which must have seemed like a velvet cushion after the gravel path) to take a leisurely aim. He glanced round, and beckoned cautiously to me; so I floundered on as quickly as I could until I reached the friendly hedge and page 254could scramble out of the ditch. He took his cartridges from me with only a nod of thanks, for the faintest whisper would have reached the boar's sharp ears. It seemed ages to me before the loud crack of his rifle rang through the clear morning air, and the boar gave a bound into the air—only to fall flat on his great side, shot through the heart

"F——and I were over the hedge and wading through the flax swamp before we saw that our game was bagged; indeed, we did not know he was dead, and approached him with the greatest caution, for a wounded boar is about the most dangerous animal to attack. When we were able to perceive his huge black side upheaving through the flax bushes, we fell into our usual line of march when on sporting expeditions. F—first, with his finger on the trigger of his revolver, and I as far behind as was compatible with my own safety, carrying the hunting-knife in a very shaky hand.

'Our precautions were useless on this occasion. page 255for poor piggy (I am always sorry for them as soon as they are hit) was quite stone dead. He must have been a great age: his gigantic tusks were notched and broken, and his thick hide bore traces of old scars, received in former battles with his enemies; for boars are very pugnacious and will not brook 'a rival near the throne.'

"The report of the rifle had aroused the whole establishment. The dogs barked and bayed furiously, the inmates of the poultry-yard seemed to become distracted, to judge by their clamour, and from every window in the house and its outbuildings a bearded head was popped, whilst cries of 'What's up?' 'Wait till I come,' &c. &c., were heard amid the noise of the animals. High and clear, piercing through the Babel of sounds, my maids' shrieks came at intervals like minute-guns at sea. Whenever anything was the matter, from a cut finger to the chimney on fire, those two girls screamed at the pitch of their exceedingly shrill voices. So this Christmas Day was ushered page 256very noisily into existence; but you will be glad to hear that I got back into my own room very cleverly before any one could array themselves sufficiently to sally forth, so I was spared the disgrace of being seen by my small household with bare feet and muddy skirts.

"F—could not tear himself away from his victim quite so soon, and when next I peeped round the corner of the verandah, I saw him, looking more ridiculous than ever in his short white garment, the centre figure of an admiring and excited group of shepherds and shearers. Pepper, our head shepherd, recognized an old enemy in the dead boar, and declared that he and his dogs had bailed him up unsuccessfully 'many a time and off.'"