A Christmas Cake in Four Quarters
Chapter II. Christmas Day in New Zealand. (continued)
Chapter II. Christmas Day in New Zealand. (continued).
"I Was not sorry, as it happened, that the episode of the boar had aroused the whole household at so early an hour, for it enabled me to get a great deal done before breakfast towards the reception of our Christmas guests. As soon as I had dressed myself, I sallied forth with F——, following the windings of the creek until it led us far back into the hills, to a little wooded gully which nestled between two steep ascents. If only we could have seen that strip of green anywhere from the house! but, alas! it was too securely hidden to be visible, and I lighted upon the lonely spot quite by acci-page 258dent in one of my many rambles. At this part the creek was quite as noisy as a Scotch burn, and, like it, rippled and chattered noisily over a stony bed, as it wound for a few hundred yards under the shadow of the trees. Its banks were beautifully fringed with many varieties of ferns, which even in winter were kept green and fresh by the sheltering bushes above. It was upon these lovely feathery ferns my raid was directed; and if F—and I could have only come across a magical carpet, or that delightful horse in the fairy tale who was set in motion by a peg, either of which would have borne us swiftly across land and sea, we might perhaps have realized a handsome fortune in a few minutes by selling our enormous green bundles in Covent Garden that Christmas morning.
"But what a cruel change it would have been for the beautiful ferns, from their enchanted mountain nook with the wood-pigeons cooing in the trees above them and the little green parro-quets flashing past their waving, plume-like tufts. page 259to a cold, raw Christmas morning in smoky London! I beg your pardon, Jack. I forgot your preference for cold Christmases, and this was going to be a very hot Christmas Day, as we discovered to our cost during our long homeward walk.
"When the little homestead was once more reached, we deposited our huge armfuls of ferns in a shady hole in the creek, and went in to breakfast with Splendid appetites. I am afraid there were no presents exchanged that morning, for we were fifty miles away from the nearest shop, and had not been down to Christchurch for months. However, we received and returned many hearty good wishes; and in that foreign land it is something to be among friends on Christmas Day, even if there are no presents going about.
"After breakfast I filled all the vases, and decorated the hall, and covered up the stand of Indian arms with my beautiful ferns, each spray of which was a marvel of grace and loveliness, and then it was time to arrange the verandah for service, page 260which was soon done by the aid of boxes and red blankets. But it was fated that our gravity was to be sorely tried long before the short sermon which F—read us was ended.
"I think I have told you before, that the shepherds who formed the principal portion of our congregation always brought their dogs with them, and these dear sensible animals behaved in the most exemplary manner, lying down by their masters' saddles and never moving aught but their intelligent eyes until church was over, when they greeted their owners with rapture, as if to congratulate them on escaping from some dangerous ceremony. Amongst our most constant guests were the Scotch shepherds of a neighbouring 'squatter. These men, M'Nab and M'Pherson by name, were excellent specimens of their class. Sober and industrious, they were also exceedingly intelligent, and thoroughly enjoyed the privilege of an invitation to attend our Sunday services. I observed that they invariably took it in turn to come to us; page 261and when I asked M'Nab to come over on Christmas Day, I added, 'Don't you think you could manage to put the sheep in some place from which they would be safe not to stray, and both of you come to us at Christmas?'
"'It is na the sheep, mem,' replied M'Nab bashfully; 'it's the claes.'
"'But your clothes are very nice,' I said, looking at the neat little figure before me, clad in a suit of Lowland plaid, which was somewhat baggy, but clean and whole.
"'Yes, mem, but we've naight but the one suit between us So we can only come one at a time, like,' said M'Nab, turning red through his sun-brown.
"'Dear me, how can you both wear the same clothes?' I inquired. 'M'Pherson is such a giant, and you know you are not very tall, M'Nab.'
"'Well, mem, we made them our ainsells, and we cut them on a between size, you see, so they fit page 262baith, fine. The trews were hard to manage, but 'Phairson wears 'em with gaiters, and I rolls 'em up; so though they're a deal too short for him and too lang for me, we manage first class,' said M'Nab, relapsing into colonial phraseology.
"On this Christmas Day it was Long 'Phair-son's (as he was generally called) turn to wear the Lowland suit, and he had appeared in due season, accompanied not only by his colleys, but by a small white bull-terrier, with a knowing patch of yellowish-brown over one eye, a most vicious turned-up nose, and a short upper lip.
"Fortunately, 'Phairson's arrival had been early, so I contrived to collect my hens and chickens, and decoy them into the fowl-house, out of the reach of this ferocious-looking animal. At church time, therefore, I took my place in the verandah with no domestic anxieties to distract my attention from the beautiful service, which has never seemed more beautiful to me than when held in that distant hidden valley with nothing but hills page 263and mountains around us, and a New Zealand summer sky overhead. The great tidings of' To us a Child is born,' rang as sweet and clear and welcome in my ears, amid that profound unbroken silence, as they have done when pealed from organs or proclaimed to hundreds of gathered worshippers with all the pomp and ceremony of the most gorgeous cathedral.
"We had even managed to get through a hymn with tolerable correctness, and the last page of the sermon had been reached, when we were 'ware' of an extraordinary scuffling and rustling beneath our feet, accompanied by violent thumps against the wooden flooring of the verandah. It was evidently a battle; but who could the combatants be? Our own dogs were securely fastened up in their kennels, our cat had prudently retreated to a loft as soon as 'Phairson and his dog Nip appeared, and the other colleys, though bristling with excitement at the strange sounds, lay motionless as statues in obedience to their masters page 264warning glances. I am sorry to own that, as the noise increased, our repressed curiosity and wonder became too much for us, and it was fortunate for the decorum of the congregation that F——'s discourse (borrowed from one of Canon Kingsley's volumes of Cottage Sermons) came to an end, for hardly was the service over before we were perfectly deafened by the thumps. What could they mean? Nip was concerned, no doubt, for M'Pherson looked guilty and nervous; but what unhappy object was he dragging from end to end beneath the verandah? No dog but himself could get beneath the flooring,—the cat we knew was safe. 'Oh! it's Betty, poor Betty!' I shrieked in dismay, as I remembered that a favourite white Aylesbury duck was sitting on her first nest beneath the flooring of the verandah. In vain I had tried to coax her into arranging her nursery elsewhere; she insisted on taking up her abode in a hole scratched by a tame rabbit which had met with an untimely fate some months before.page 265
"And so it was Betty, who soon appeared before us, dragged to M'Pherson's feet by Nip, in answer to his summons of' Nip, ye scamp, come here, sir P Not a vestige of tail was left to her, but still Nip held firmly on to her poor stump feathers. She had flapped against the boards with her wings as he ruthlessly dragged her up and down beneath our feet; but she must have been too terrified to cry out, for no 'quack' or sound did she utter under this ignominious treatment. In addition to her bodily suffering during the process of parting from her tail, she must have gone through much mental anguish at beholding her cherished eggs scattered and broken. When Nip released her at last with great reluctance, she laid at M'Pherson's feet too utterly exhausted to stir; her snowy plumage, of which she was so daintily careful, all draggled and dusty, her wings extended, and only her bright terrified eyes giving evidence that Nip had not succeeded in killing her. Poor Betty! I took her up in my arms, page 266though she was an immense and very heavy bird, and carried her tenderly into the house, soothing her as well as I could; but still she remained gasping and unable to move. At last I remembered my medicine-bottle full of brandy, and I administered such a tremendous dose of the stimulant, that Betty choked and struggled back into life and movement. In fact, I believe she spent the remainder of Christmas Day in a box full of hay in the stable—very tipsy, but safe, and, I hope, happy. For many weeks no one could look at Betty's ridiculous tail, or rather no-tail, without laughing, but in my eyes it was a very sad sight, and I asked M'Pherson never to bring Nip to church again.
"As soon as we had restored some sort of gravity, and after Nip had been well scolded and Betty soothed, the men (for, alas! there were no women, except my servants, who were busy cooking) adjourned to the washhouse, where F—presided over a substantial dinner of beef and page 267poultry, for the great point is to have no mutton at a party in New Zealand. We happened to possess a big musical box, which was wound up and set playing, and the dinner proceeded to the sound of a succession of old-fashioned waltz tunes. It was much too hot to remain indoors; so directly the huge dishes of cherries and strawberries (presents from my neighbours' gardens on either side of the ranges) had been duly emptied, the company adjourned to the only spot of shade out of doors, the south-eastern side of the stables. We could contemplate little plantations of tiny trees about three feet high, dotted over the low downs, and carefully fenced in from investigating animals. We could contemplate them, I say, and speculate as to how many of us would be in that valley on a Christmas Day in the far future, when these trees would have struggled up against their enemy the Nor'-wester, and attained sufficient stature to afford shelter from the afternoon sun.
"Probably not one of the party then assembled page 268will ever sit under those imaginary branches; but at the date I am telling you of, Tom Thumb could not have found shade enough to shield himself from the bath of golden sunbeams anywhere on the run, unless he had joined our party, sdated on hen-coops, in the lee of the stable.
"The question then seriously presented itself to my mind, of how to amuse my twenty stalwart guests from 3 o'clock until 7. I intended them to have tea again about 5, and quantities of plum-cake if they could possibly eat it; but there were two hours of broiling heat to be got through, socially speaking, before they could be invited to eat again. After tea I knew there would be athletic games, so soon as Flagpole's mighty shadow had laid a cool patch over the valley. My guests would be affronted if I went away, and yet my presence evidently made them miserable. They all sat in rigid and uncomfortable attitudes, and blushed furiously if I spoke to them, trying hard all the time to page 269persuade themselves and me that they were enjoying themselves. Even the unfailing pipes, which I had insisted on being produced, failed to create an element of contentment, for the smokers suffered incessant anxiety lest the light shifting summer air should send a puff of tobacco-smoke towards me. We were all very polite, but wretched; and I shall never forgive F——'s unkind enjoyment of the horrible dulness of this stage of my party. 'Dear me, this is too exciting,' he would whisper; 'don't let them all talk at once;' or else he would ask me if it was not 'going off' very brilliantly, when all the time it was not going off at all.
"I began to grow desperate; my company would not talk or do anything, but sit steadily staring at each other and me. In vain I asked questions about subjects which I thought might interest them. Conversation seemed impossible, and I had firmly resolved to go away in five minutes, and see if they would be more lively without me, page 270when some bold individual started the subject of gold-digging. Everybody's tongue was unloosed as if by magic, and all had some really interesting story to tell about either their own or their 'mate's' experiences at the West Coast gold-diggings. One man described with much humour how he had been in the very first' rush,' and how amazed a lonely settler in the Bush had been at the sudden appearance of a thousand men in the silence and solitude of his hut, which was built up a gully. When the eager gold-seekers questioned him as to whether he had found the 'colour' in the creek which they were bent on tracing to its rich source, he lazily shook his head and said, coolly, pointing over his shoulder, 'Me and the boys' (his equally lazy sons) 'have never earned no wages, no, nor had any money of our own. Whenever we wanted to, go to the store'—about twenty miles off, and wretched track between—'we jest took and we washed a bit among that 'ere dirt, and we allers found as much dust as we wanted.' The bed page 271of that creek contained nearly as many particles of fine flake-gold as of sand; and that lazy old man could have made a fabulous fortune years and years before, if he had taken the trouble to seek it, as it rippled past his log hut. He never found a speck of gold in all his life afterwards, for no sooner had he finished his dawdling speech than the diggers had flung themselves into the wealth-bearing streamlet and fought and scrambled for its golden sands, which glided away during the night like a fairy vision. Great boulders were upheaved by the gold-seekers in their first eager rush, so the natural dams being thus removed, when the next morning dawned the water had rushed away into a new channel, bearing its precious freight with it.
"The spokesman took from his neck a little wash-leather bag as he finished his story, with the words, 'All gone—clean gone;' and opening it shook a few pinches of the sparkling flaky dust into my lap, saying, 'That's some o' wot I got page 272evcnin' before. It's beautiful, ain't it, mum?' I duly admired the shining tresasure, and he bade me keep it 'for my Christmas box,' and I have it safely put away to this day. But I very nearly lost it, and this was how it happened. A discussion arose as to the most successful method of washing sand for gold, and some new inventions were freely discussed. 'Well, I reckon I got them there nuggets'—the largest no bigger than a small pin's head—' by washin' with a milk dish.' 'How?' I asked. 'I'll show you, mum, if I may get a dish from the gals;' and he strode off towards the house, returning with a large milk-tin in his hands. He then proceeded to the side of the duck-pond, and, in spite of the 'agony of dress' in which he was arrayed, filled the shallow dish with mud and stones and grit of all sorts. At this stage of the proceedings he appeared intent on making a huge dirt-pie. Imagine my dismay when he pounced on the paper packet into which I had page 273just carefully collected my gold-dust, counted the tiny flakes rapidly up to fifteen, and then scattered them ruthlessly over the surface of this abominable mess. He next proceeded to stir it all up with a piece of a wooden shingle, and regardless of my face of dismay, said calmly, 'Now we'll wash 'em out.' I should have had no objection to seeing the experiment tried with anyone else's gold dust, but I must say I was very sorry to find that my newly acquired treasure was thus disposed of. 'Lightly won, lightly lost,' I thought to myself, 'for I shall never see it again.'
"Pratchard (that was the name of the quondam digger) now marched off to the creek close by, and in spite of the blazing sunshine we all followed him. He stooped down, and, scooping up some water, began shaking his great heavy tin backwards and forwards. By degrees he got rid of the surface mud, then he added more water, until in half an hour or so he had washed and shaken page 274all the materials for his dirt-pie out of the dish, and disclosed my fifteen wee nuggets shining like so many flecks of sunlight at the bottom of the tin vessel. 'Count 'em, mum, if you please,' said Pratchard, hot, but triumphant; and so I did, to find not one missing. To me it seemed like a conjuror's trick, but Pratchard and the rest of my company hastened to assure me that it was not possible to wash away gold. It sank and sank, being so much heavier than anything else, until it could be perceived at the bottom of whatever dish or even plate was used to scoop up the dirt among which it was to be found.
"We were more sociable now, but hotter than ever, and we returned gladly to the shade of the stable. As things looked more promising at this stage of my party, I suggested that everybody should, in turn, tell a story. Of course they all declared 'they didn't know nothing,' but finally I coaxed old Bob, a shepherd, to tell me about page 275one of his early Christmas Days in the colony, and this is his narrative, but not in his own phraseology. I wish I could spell it as he pronounced it."