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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter XI. Housekeeping, and Other Matters

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Letter XI. Housekeeping, and Other Matters.

I am writing to you at the end of a fortnight of very hard work, for I have just gone through my first experience in changing servants; those I brought up with me four months ago were nice, tidy girls and as a natural consequence of these attractive qualities they have both left me to be married. I sent them down to Christchurch in the dray, and made arrangements for two more servants to return in the same conveyance at the end of a week. In the meantime we had to do everything for ourselves, and on the whole we found this picnic life great fun. The household consists, besides F—— and me, of a cadet, as they are called—he is a clergyman’s son learning sheep-farming under our auspices—and a boy who milks the cows and does odd jobs out of doors. We were all equally ignorant of practical cookery, so the chief responsibility rested on my shoulders, and cost me some very anxious moments, I assure you, for a cookery-book is after all but a broken reed to lean on page 69 in a real emergency; it starts by assuming that its unhappy student possesses a knowledge of at least the rudiments of the art, whereas it ought not to disdain to tell you whether the water in which potatoes are to be boiled should be hot or cold. I must confess that some of my earliest efforts were both curious and nasty, but E ate my numerous failures with the greatest good-humour; the only thing at which he made a wry face was some soup into which a large lump of washing-soda had mysteriously conveyed itself; and I also had to undergo a good deal of “chaff” about my first omelette, which was of the size and consistency of a roly-poly pudding. Next to these failures I think the bread was my greatest misfortune; it went wrong from the first. One night I had prepared the tin dish full of flour, made a hole in the midst of the soft white heap, and was about to pour in a cupful of yeast to be mixed with warm water (you see I know all about it in theory), when a sudden panic seized me, and I was afraid to draw the cork of the large champagne bottle full of yeast, which appeared to be very much “up.” In this dilemma I went for F——. You must know that he possesses such extraordinary and revolutionary theories on the subject of cooking, that I am obliged to banish him from the kitchen altogether, but on this occasion I thought I should be glad of his assistance. He came with the greatest alacrity; assured me he knew all about it, seized the big bottle, shook it violently, and twitched out the cork: there was a report like a pistol-shot, and all my page 70 beautiful yeast flew up to the ceiling of the kitchen, descending in a shower on my head; and F—— turned the bottle upside down over the flour, emptying the dregs of the hops and potatoes into my unfortunate bread. However, I did not despair, but mixed it up according to the directions given, and placed it on the stove; but, as it turned out, in too warm a situation, for when I went early the next morning to look at it, I found a very dry and crusty mass. Still, nothing daunted, I persevered in the attempt, added more flour and water, and finally made it up into loaves, which I deposited in the oven. That bread never baked! I tried it with a knife in the orthodox manner, always to find that it was raw inside. The crust gradually became several inches thick, but the inside remained damp, and turned quite black at last; I baked it until midnight, and then I gave it up and retired to bed in deep disgust. I had no more yeast and could not try again, so we lived on biscuits and potatoes till the dray returned at the end of the week, bringing, however, only one servant. Owing to some confusion in the drayman’s arrangements, the cook had been left behind, and “Meary,” the new arrival, professed her willingness to supply her place; but on trial being made of her abilities, she proved to be quite as inexperienced as I was; and to each dish I proposed she should attempt, the unvarying answer was, “The missis did all that where I come from.” During the first few days after her arrival her chief employment was examining the various page 71 knick-knacks about the drawing-room; in her own department she was greatly taken with the little cottage mangle. She mangled her own apron about twenty times a day, and after each attempt I found her contemplating it with her head on one side, and saying to herself, “’Deed, thin, it’s as smooth as smooth; how iver does it do it?” A few days later the cook arrived. She is not all I could wish, being also Irish, and having the most extraordinary notions of the use, or rather the abuse, of the various kitchen implements: for instance, she will poke the fire with the toasting fork, and disregards my gentle hints about the poker; but at all events she can both roast mutton and bake bread. “Meary” has been induced to wash her face and braid up her beautiful hair, and now shines forth as a very pretty good-humoured girl. She is as clever and quick as possible, and will in time be a capital housemaid. She has taken it into her head that she would like to be a “first-rater,” as she calls it, and works desperately hard in the prosecution of her new fancy.

I have never told you of the Sunday services we established here from the first week of our arrival. There is no church nearer than those in Christchurch, nor—I may mention parenthetically—is there a doctor within the same distance. As soon as our chairs and tables were in their proper places, we invited our shepherds and those neighbours immediately around us to attend service on Sunday afternoon at three o’clock. F—— officiates as clergyman; my page 72 duties resemble those of a beadle, as I have to arrange the congregation in their places, see that they have Prayer-books, etc. Whenever we go out for a ride, we turn our horses’ heads up some beautiful valley, or deep gorge of a river, in search of the huts of our neighbours’ shepherds, that we may tell the men of these services and invite them to attend. As yet, we have met with no refusals, but it will give you an idea of the scantiness of our population when I tell you that, after all our exertions, the “outsiders” only amount to fourteen, and of these at least half are gentlemen from neighbouring stations. With this number, in addition to our own small group, we consider that we form quite a respectable gathering. The congregation all arrive on horseback, each attended by at least two big colley dogs; the horses are turned into the paddock, the saddles deposited in the back verandah, and the dogs lie quietly down by their respective masters’ equipments until they are ready to start homewards. There is something very wild and touching in these Sunday services. If the weather is quite clear and warm, they are held in the verandah; but unless it is a very sunny afternoon, it is too early in the year yet for this.

The shepherds are a very fine class of men as a rule, and I find them most intelligent; they lead solitary lives, and are fond of reading; and as I am anxious to substitute a better sort of literature in their huts than the tattered yellow volumes which generally form their scanty library, I lend them books page 73 from my own small collection. But, as I foresee that this supply will soon be exhausted, we have started a Book Club, and sent to London for twenty pounds’ worth of books as a first instalment. We shall get them second-hand from a large library, so I hope to receive a good boxful. The club consists of twenty-eight members now, and will probably amount to thirty-two, which is wonderful for this district. At the close of a year from the first distribution of the books they are to be divided into lots as near as possible in value to a pound each, the parcels to be numbered, and corresponding figures written on slips of paper, which are to be shaken up in a hat and drawn at random, each member claiming the parcel of which the number answers to that on his ticket. This is the fairest way I can think of for the distribution, and every one seems satisfied with the scheme. The most popular books are those of travel or adventure; unless a novel is really very good indeed, they do not care about it.

The last little item of home news with which I must close this month’s budget is, that F—— has been away for a few days on a skating excursion. A rather distant neighbour of ours called on his way up to the station far back among the hills, and gave such a glowing account of the condition of the ice in that part of the country, that F——, who is very fond of the amusement, was persuaded to accompany him. Our friend is the son of the Bishop, and owns a large station about twenty-six miles from this. At the back page 74 of his run the hills rise to a great height, and nestled among them lie a chain of lakes, after the largest of which (Lake Coleridge) Mr. H—— ’s station is named. On one of the smaller lakes, called by the classical name of “Ida,” the ice attains to a great thickness; for it is surrounded by such lofty hills that during the winter months the sun hardly touches it, and it is commonly reported that a heavily-laden bullock-dray could cross it in perfect safety. F—— was away nearly a week, and appears to have enjoyed himself thoroughly, though it will seem to you more of hard work than amusement; for he and Mr. H——, and some other gentlemen who were staying there, used to mount directly after breakfast, with their skates tied to their saddle-bow, and ride twelve miles to Lake Ida, skate all through the short winter’s day, lunching at the solitary hut of a gentleman-farmer close by the lake, and when it grew dusk riding home again. The gentlemen in this country are in such good training through constant exercise, that they appear able to stand any amount of fatigue without minding it.