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A Christmas Cake in Four Quarters

Chapter III. Christmas Day in New Zealand. (continued)

page 276

Chapter III. Christmas Day in New Zealand. (continued).

"'Things are very different now,' said Bob, 'all over the country, though it is not so many years ago, not more than six or seven perhaps. We did not think much of Sunday in the early days; we didn't exactly work, such is digging or such-like on that day, but we did other jobs which had been waiting for a spare moment all the week. We used not to think any harm of breaking a young colt on Sunday, or of riding over to the next run with a draughting notice; or if it was wet we lay in our bunks and smoked, or p'raps we got up and sat on a bucket turned wrong side up, and mended page 277our clothes. As for Christmas Day, we never thought of it beyond wondering what sort of 'duff' we were going to have. That's colonial for a pudding, ma'am, you know, don't you? If we had a couple of handfuls of currants and raisins, we shoved them into a lot of flour and sugar, and we put a bit of mutton fat into the middle, and tied it all up together in the sleeve of an old flannel shirt and boiled it, and it used to come out a first-rate plum duff, and we thought we had had no end of a Christmas if we Could manage such a pudding as that.

"'But we could not always get even a holiday on Christmas Day, because of the shearing. Shearers were too scarce in those days, and wages too high to miss a day's work, so it often happened that we had to work just as hard, or harder on Christmas than on any other day of the year. I was working then up at Mr. Vansittart's ("Vans-start's," Bob called his master), and we had hopes of getting finished by Christmas Eve, and having at page 278all events a good lie-in-bed on Christmas Day; but as ill-luck would have it, a mob of wethers bolted from the flat where Tom Duckworth was watching them, and got right away into the hills at the back of the run. He said it was because his dogs were new and wouldn't work properly for him, but I knew better—he done it a-purpose. Tom's sheep were always coming to grief. He couldn't cross' em over a river without losing half the mob, and never a week passed without his getting boxed. That's mixed-up, ma'am,' explained Bob politely, observing a puzzled expression in my eyes. 'We calls it boxing when your sheep go and join another mob feeding close by, and you can't tell one from another except by the brand or the ear-mark. It's a nasty business is boxing, and werry trying to the temper. Even the dogs get out of patience like, and nip the stupid sheep harder than they do at any other time.

"'Well, ma'am, as I was saying, Tom Duck-page 279worth let a fine mob of young wethers get away the day before Christmas Day, and started to look for them with his precious dogs. They were the very last mob which had to come up to be shorn,. so, as he couldn't find 'em—I never expected he could,—there was the skiilions standing empty, and the shearers lounging about idling when Christmas Day came; and a werry beautiful day it was, just like this one. The boss, that's Master Vans-start, he was at his wits' ends what to do. He knew right well that if the wethers wasn't in the yards that night, the shearers would be off across the hills to Brown and Wetherby's next morning first thing. You couldn't expect men who had their two pounds a day waiting for them to lose many days, especially as Brown and Wetherby's was an 'open shed,' where any shearers that came were taken on until there were hands enough, so they knew they might lose the job if they didn't look sharp. The boss managed to keep them quiet on Christmas Day, by pre-page 280tending he always meant to take a spell on that day. He got the cook to make a stunning duff, and he sent a boy on horseback across the river to Mulready's for some beef; he knew Mulready always killed a bullock about Christmas, and he served out some grog, so in that way he kept the shearers well fed and rested all Christmas Day. He never let them out of his sight, not even down to the creek to wash their shirts, lest any of them should slip away.

"'I didn't come in for any of these good things: so far from it, quite the contrary;' and here Bob paused and took a pull at his pipe, resting his hands on his knees and gazing straight before him with regretful eyes, as the memory of his wrongs rose freshly to his mind. 'Tom Duckworth did, though, the stupid fool! He laid in his bunk on Christmas morning and had his snooze out, and then he got up and eat the best part of a cold leg of mutton for his breakfast, and he came in for the duff, and the grog, and all the rest of it page 281afterwards. But I'll tell you how I spent my Christmas Day, ma'am, and I hope I'll never have to spend another like it.

"'As soon as ever it was light, the boss, leastways Master Vans-start, he came into the kitchen where I was sleeping, and he says "Bob, I must have that mob of wethers by to-night, and that's all about it They're quite likely to have gone up into the back ranges, but unless they're gone up into the sky I'm bound to have 'em in the skillions to-night." You see, ma'am, when Master Vans-start put it in that way, I knew that mob had got to be found before nightfall, and that he was going to tell me off to find 'em. So I lay there and listened, as was my dooty to. "Bob," says Master Vans-start, "I'll tell you what it is, I'll give you a fiver,"—that's a five-pound note, Ma'am, you'll understand, —"yes, Bob, a fiver, over and above your year's pay when I draws a cheque for your wages next week, and you can go down to town and spend it, Bob, if you bring me in the whole of that page 282mob of wethers by sundown. Take any body you like with you and the best of the dogs, only you bring them in; for if you don't, I shall be three hundred pounds short in my wool-money this year, and I've got too heavy a mortgage on this run, Bob, to be able to afford to lose that much, and all through Tom Duckworth's sleepy-headedness."

"'Well, ma'am, when the boss spoke so feelingly, and put it to me in that way, I knew it had to be done, so I said, "Right you are, sir," and then he only said, "I looks to you, Bob, for them sheep," and he went away. It was barely light enough to see your hand, and I knew the mistesses (that was the way Bob pronounced mists) would be hanging about the hills for a good time yet, so I reached out my hand and I got my pipe and a match and I smoked a bit, whilst I considered which way I should go and who I should take with me. Men, I mean I didn't want to know what dogs I should take, for if Sharp and Sally couldn't find 'em, all I could say was, they wasn't to be found. I'd a page 283good mind to name Tom Duckworth to come, but I meant to give whoever went with me a pound a-piece, and I didn't want to tip him for giving all this bother; besides, he was just as likely as not to sit down under the lea of a rock and smoke the moment he got out of my sight. No, I wouldn't take Tom, but I'd take little Joe Smelt, who was as active as a kid on the hills, and Munro, who, although he belonged to the next station, knew every yard of country round, and who had the best head on his shoulders of any man I knew. Besides, Munro had always been a chum of mine, and was such a decent well-spoken fellow, it was a pleasure to have any dealin's with him.

"'By the time I had settled all this in my own mind, I thought it was about time to get up, so up I got and I lighted the stove and put the kettle on to boil, and a whole lot of chops on to fry, and I got the pannikins out and the tin plates. I remember well I was so anxious to have a good comfortable breakfast ready before I called Joe page 284and Munro, that I even cleaned up the knives and forks for 'em. How did I do that, is it you want to know, ma'am? Oh, very easy: I just stuck 'em into the soft ground outside the back door, and worked 'em up and down a bit, and they came out fine and clean. Well, as soon as I had got everything ready, I went into the men's hut, and I got out Munro and little Joe Smelt without waking any of the others; and when they'd got on their boots and their moleskins, saving your presence, ma'am, they come into the kitchen, and I showed 'em the breakfast all ready and smelling uncommon good, and I told 'em what the boss had said, and I lays it before 'em whether they likes to come up the hills with me and earn their pound a-piece, or whether they'd pre-fer to loaf about the station all day, whiles I goes out by myself and sticks to the whole of the fiver.

"'Munro, he goes on eating his breakfast quite quiet-like—for that matter we was all pegging away pretty tidily—and then, after a bit, he says page 285in his peaceable way—I've told you he was a very well spoken man, ma'am, haven't I?—he says, "Well, Bob, I don't mind if I do come;" and then Joe Smelt says, as well as he can speak for a mouthful of damper, "The same here;" so then I knew it was settled, and I enjoyed my breakfast with the rest. We didn't dawdle too long, though, for it was getting light enough to see, though them mistesses was still too low to please me, but I thought we might be making our way up the river-gorge and smoke our pipes as we went. The sheep had gone up that way, I knew, and there was no way out. Besides, sheep don't like crossing the water oftener than they can help. Nine times we had to cross that there river on that there blessed Christmas morning. Get wet! I should just think we did: leastways I took off my Cook-hams and my worsted socks at each ford, because I knew right well that if I went up the hills and walked all day in wet things, my feet would get that blistered I'd feel like a cat in walnut-page 286shells. Joe Smelt found that out to his cost before the day was over. He started werry cocky and turned up his trowser-legs and walked right through the water, saying he couldn't be bothered to stop and take his boots off and on at each crossing. Munro, he walked through all nine fords in his boots; and then, when we had done with 'em for that day, he sat down on a big stone and took off his socks and his boots and drew out a nice dry pair of worsted socks and put 'em on; then he poured the water out of his boots and shook 'em up and down a bit and put 'em on again, and laced 'em up werry tight. But still, long before the day was done, his feet was smartin' and his boots was all out o' shape, and wringing him awful. Joe and I couldn't have managed that way if it had been ever so, for socks wasn't plenty with us in those days. We just used to get one pair at a time from the nighest store, and wear 'em till they got into one big hole all over, and then we chucked 'em away page 287and got another pair. Now Munro, he had a nice little Scotch wife up at his place, and she was always a-spinning and a-knitting for him, and kept him as comfortable as could be. But Joe and me, we hadn't neither wives, nor socks, nor anything nice about us, but we just pulled through as well as we could.

"'Well, ma'am, to come back to that Christmas Day. It was as beautiful a morning as you would wish to see, and not too hot, neither; the sun just beginning to shine, and drinking up them mistesses as if they was grog, till there wasn't one to be seen, and Munro's glass showed him every sheep on every hill within sight as plain as you see your hand now. Lots of sheep there were too, and werry cheerful it sounded their calling to each other, and werry good feed there was for 'em on those hills. But they was all too white for what we wanted. They'd all been shored, 'twas easy to see that, and the mob we wanted was still in their wool, and would have looked dirty and page 288much larger among the fresh-shored ones. We could track 'em easy enough by their footmarks up to the head of the gorge, but there we lost all trace, and though we spent a good hour hunting. We felt sure they'd all keep together, for they'd be frightened at the sight of all their fellows so white and so bare, and likely as not travel away from 'em. They wasn't anywhere on the low hills, that was certain; there was no use funking it, we had got to separate and go carefully over the back ranges, and a long hot climb we had before us that Christmas morning; and, not to be too long about it, ma'am, a long hot climb we had if ever there was one in this world. I sent the dogs many and many a time after what I thought might be a part of the mob; but though I hunted as close as ever I could, never a sheep did I see, no, nor a sign of one. Well, ma'am, it was very disheartening, you'll allow that, and I was so vexed I couldn't feel properly hungry even long after dinner-time came, and I kept thinking page 289whatever I should do if they wasn't to be found. You see, I had chosen the most likely place to search in myself, as was but nat'ral, so I never thought that if I couldn't find 'em any one else could. There's where I deceived myself; because when I had worked all round that blessed range and come upon Davis's hut—that was the out-station where we had settled to meet some time in the arternoon—what should I see but Munro and Joe Smelt a-lying on the shady side of the hut as cool and comfortable as you please, smoking their pipes, and the whole mob of sheep lying quiet and peaceable on the little flat, with Munro's dog watching em. Not that they wanted any watching just then, for sheep always take a good spell in the afternoon of a hot day, and lie down and go to sleep, maybe, until it gets cool enough to make it pleasant to wander about and feed before dark.

'"As soon as ever I see that sight I flung up my hat and danced for joy, and I felt desperate page 290hungry all of a minute. I can tell you, ray mates, I didn't lose much time getting down that hill, though I come pretty quiet for fear of scaring the sheep.

"'When I comes up to the men, before I could speak, Joe Smelt says, first thing, "Munro found 'em; I haven't been long here." And Munro smiles quiet and pleased-like, and says, "I had a mob once served me the same trick, and I thought I knew where to look for 'em, and sure enough they was there, reg'larly hiding; I had to bring 'em down uncommon easy, for it was a nasty place, and I didn't want half of 'em to be smothered in | the creek."

"'Well, of course I meant to ask and to hear all about it, but I thought it would keep until we had had a bit of dinner, for it was about two o'clock, and you must please to remember, ma'am, that we had breakfasted somewhere about five, and likewise that walking up and down them back ranges is hungry work at the page 291best of times, besides being wearing to the boots. "Where's Davis?" was my first words. "Davis must have gone away altogether for a bit," they said, "for the hut is locked and fastened up until it can't be fastened no more, and unless we reg'larly break into it, we shall never get in it."

"'Drat the fellow!" I cried, "there ain't no bushrangers about Why doesn't he just lock his door and hang the key on a nail outside where anybody can see it, as I used to do when I was a back-country shepherd, and wanted to go away for a bit" But it was no manner of use pitching into Davis, not then, because you see, ma'am, he wasn't there to hear himself abused, though we did that same and no mistake. It was aggravating—now, ma'am, wasn't it? There was we three, and the dogs, poor things! as hungry as hungry could be; and we knew there'd be flour and tea and sugar, and likely a bit of bacon (for Davis was a good hand at curing a ham of a wild pig), inside the door, if we could only open it. Not a bit of it page 292would stir, though, for all our kicks, and Joe Smelt ran at it with his shoulders until I thought he must burst it open; but no, the lock didn't give one bit. "Tell you what," said Jim, rubbing his shoulder after his last attempt, "Davis has gone and barred this 'ere door up on the inside, and then got out of the window and fastened it up outside afterwards." When we came to look, it seemed quite likely, for the shutter was driven home and kept in its place by good-sized nails; but we got a big stone, and we used our knives, and Munro worked away that patiently that at last down came the shutter, and we had the little bit of a window open in no time after that. We made little Joe get through first, and we laughed and said we felt just like real housebreakers, but we thought we'd keep our jokes until we had had something to eat. Before Joe had well unbarred the door—for it was fastened up as if it was never meant to be opened again—Munro and me had settled that he should make some flap-jacks as soon as ever we could get the page 293fire to burn; that is, supposing there wasn't any bacon or mutton lying about.

"'The minute Joe opened the door with a cheery "Here you are," we looked round us like so many hungry wolves, and the first thing we see is a fine big shoulder of mutton on the floor. Well, it was easy to see how it had got there, for there were marks of rats' teeth and feet too, all over it Davis hadn't been long gone that was easy to see—not more than a few hours likely, though he plainly intended to be away for some time by the way he'd fastened up everything; but still it was very neglectful of him not to have flung that shoulder of mutton outside before he went, because you see ma'am, in a day or two it would surely be very unpleasant. A neat man was Davis—a very neat man—and when we'd prized open his cupboard made out of old gin-cases, we found his couple of tin-plates and pannikins, and his tea and sugar, and his flour and his matches, and his salt, all as tidy as tidy could be, and there was a page 294big packet of "Vermin Destroyer" too, open and half used. We gave that a wide berth, however, as you may fancy; but we had some sticks in the fire-place and the kettle on to boil before you could say "Jack Robinson." We found half a loaf of bread also in the cupboard, which we concluded to eat, lest it should get stale by the time Davis came back, and we told Munro we'd have his flap-jacks for second course. "Here's a capital Christmas dinner after all," said Joe; and he picked up the meat carefully off the floor, and blew the dust off, and we sat down to the table with that shoulder of mutton before us; and all I can tell you, ma'am, is, that long before the kettle boiled—and it had a good fire under it too—there wasn't a scrap left on the bone. Cooked! in course it was cooked; you don't think we was going to eat raw wittles on Christmas Day. No, no, ma'am, we weren't such cannibals as that! Davis had baked it as nice as could be, but it seemed uncommon funny that he should have taken so page 295much trouble for nothing. However, there it was, or, I should say, there it wasn't, for we had eaten it up, every bite; and we told Joe Smelt to get the tea out of the cupboard, and throw a couple of handfuls into the kettle, which was beginning to boil. Joe got up, saying, "I haven't half done yet; I'm just as hungry as ever I can be;" and he went to the cupboard and began to rummage among the things in it. "Don't give us any pison by mistake, Joe," said Munro, joking. Just as he said the words, Joe turned short round, his face looking as white as death underneath all the sunburn and freckles, his very lips white, and his eyes open wider than I thought mortal eyes could open; and he said in a dreadful voice—a sort of whisper, and yet you might have heard it all over the place "That's where it is, we're pisoned!" With that Munro and I jumped up from table, and we gasped out, "Pisoned, Joe!" but we needn't to ask we couldn't speak if we wished. Joe pointed to the bare mutton bone, and held out the half-used page 296paper of the poison in the other, and never a word did he say but " Rats."

'"We guessed it all then. Davis must have been fairly bullied by the impudent hungry critturs, and he had taken the trouble to cook for 'em, as if they had been Christians, and then he'd quite likely as not rubbed an ounce or two of strychnine into that shoulder of mutton, and left it where the rats could get at it, and we'd been and eaten it all up instead o' they. Yes, ma'am, it's all very well to laugh,' said Bob, taking his hat off, and wiping his head with the handkerchief stowed away in its crown, looking into the hat afterwards as if he saw the scene he was describing pictured there—'it was the werry roughest moment of all my life. To be pisoned like a rat, and in a lonely gully, where no one would ever pass. Most likely we shouldn't even be found before Davis came back. It was lucky Davis didn't come back, though—not at that moment, I mean—for I'm certain sure that if he stood in his own doorway just then we'd 'a set on page 297him and killed him without so much as saying "with your leave or by your leave." We couldn't have been whiter than Joe, not if we'd tried; but we was white enough no doubt Munro was a good man, so he was the bravest of the lot, and he said, or he tried to say, for he couldn't speak very clear," The will of God be done, my poor Jeanie!" and with that he threw himself down on Davis's bed and hid his face.

'"'I don't rightly know what poor little Joe did, for I felt desperate mad. I caught sight of half a bar of soap stowed away at the back of the cupboard, and I seized it as if it had been a life-buouy, and I'd been a drowning man. I couldn't have gripped it harder or held it tighter if it had been a buouy,' said Bob, shaking his head meditatively. 'And I runs down to the creek with it. I don't know why I went there, unless it was to be handy to the water to gulp it down with. Well, ma'am, I had picked up my knife off the table as I passed, and I cut great junks of that bar of soap, page 298and bolted 'em, whole. I seemed to remember having heard some one say that soap was good as a hemetick: and so I found it; for by the time I had swallowed half of the bar I felt desperate sick, and joyful I was to feel it, I can tell you; but still I wasn't bad enough to please myself, so I drank some water and had three or four slices more, and that about finished me, and I lay down among the tussocks by the water side; and what with the fright, and the early rising, and the long walk, and the heat of the sun, joined to the murmur-like of the creek, I went off into the comfortablest sleep as I ever had, and it wasn't till the sun had got right behind the high hills to the westward that I woke up. I reckon it was the barking of Munro's dog that woke me, for the poor beast found he had more than he could do to manage the mob of sheep. They must have been feeding some time, and now wanted to be off up the hill to their camping ground; for you must know, ma'am, that sheep never settle for the night on low ground page 299They always travel up as high as they can conveniently get, and camp on the top of a hill.

"The poor beast seemed quite joyful to see it was me coming to help him, as he thought, but I couldn't give my mind to the sheep, not just yet. I was rather empty and a bit weak, but as well as ever I felt in my life. I remember I took off my hat, and looked up to the sky and thanked God in my own rough fashion for saving my life all along of that bar of soap, and I give you my word, ma'am, I meant it, even when I found out my mistake. I thought I'd look up Munro and the other little chap, but I was more than half frightened to go and see about 'em, for at that time, you see, I thought I was wot you may call the sole surwivor. However, the others were surwivors too, and a very good job for 'em that was. Munro had pegged away into a bag of salt until he must have reg'larly cured his inside in more senses than one, whilst Joe had hemeticked himself by shoving his fingers down his throat. Poor Joe! he must page 300have been desperate bad too. Well, they'd been to sleep as well as me, and there we stood staring at each other, awful pale and haggard-looking, but still safe and well so far.

"'Munro was the first to recover himself, and he said, "Them sheep 'll be off before we can count ten," so with that we went to help the dog, who was barking hisself off his legs. Joe Smelt hung back a bit at first, for he said he'd heard as how exercise caused pison to work, but Munro called out, "Do your duty, Joe, and never mind the pison."

"So we got the sheep together, and we brought 'em down to the homestead, and right glad the boss was to see 'em. When I told him the story of the shoulder of mutton, he went nearly as white as we did, and he said he'd send for the doctor and tell him to bring proper hemeticks along, but we felt we couldn't stand no more not just then, and Joe says, says he, "It wouldn't be no manner of use, sir, not till we'd had some supper." With that the boss laughs and tells the manager to give us page 301each a glass of hot grog; and very comfortin' it was. That's all, ma'am,' concluded Bob, getting up from his hencoop and making me a bow.

'"No, no, Bob,' I cried, 'that isn't all; I must know the end.'

"'There wasn't no more end than that, ma'am; leastways when Davis turned up, which he did by chance next day, at the home station, we werry nearly made an end of him when he lets out that there never had been no pison on the shoulder of mutton at all. He said he'd cooked it, meaning to take it in his swag for his supper that night, and was fine and mad when he found he'd forgotten it Mr. Vans-start, he said we ought to be downright thankful to Davis when we found he hadn't let us in for his pison, but we couldn't see it in that light no how, and we give Davis, one and all of us, a bit of our minds, and Joe Smelt offered to fight him the very next Sunday for five pounds a side. Poor Davis! he made us mad by the way he laughed, and he tried to comfort us by telling us page 302that if the "Vermin Destroyer" did us as little harm as it did the rats, we needn't to have cried out. "Why, they thrive on it," he said. "I lets 'em have it pretty often, and they comes about more than ever arter a dose on it."'

"Bob's story took a long time in the telling, for he told it very deliberately, and enjoyed a long word, or any pet expression, such as his life-buouy, so intensely that he repeated it over and over again, rolling the words in his mouth as if they were good to taste. By the time he had finished, the valley was in deep shadow, and the delicious crisp feeling in the air, which always follows a summer's day in our New Zealand hills, made us feel inclined for a change of occupation. The quoits were got out, and the iron pegs stuck in the ground, and some of the shearers were soon hard at work pitching the heavy circlets through the air. Another group were putting the stone or the hammer, whilst a few made themselves very hot by running races or having hopping matches. The page 303constant open-air exercise, keeps men of all grades in New Zealand in such good condition that, even in such rough primitive sports as these were, I have seen far more surprising feats of strength performed by athletes who had had no other training than their daily hill-walks and frugal, wholesome fare, than in the champ-clos of a fashionable arena in the old country.

"But to-morrow's work must begin with the dawn, so whilst there was yet light to see their way home across the rolling downs which stretched like a green sea before us, the good-nights were said. I stood in the porch and shook hands with each guest as he passed, though the performance of this ceremony entailed deep blushes on the part of my stalwart company. 'Here's wishin' you the best o' luck, mum,' was the general adieu; but when they all got to the bottom of the paddock, they consulted together and gave a ringing hearty cheer, which woke up the valley's quiet echoes, may be for the first time since it emerged page 304from the water-world. 'One more for Old Father Christmas' were the last words I heard, as I turned indoors, leaving the joyous sounds to die gradually away into the deep perfumy silence which hung over that lonely valley of the Malvern Hills."

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