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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter XIII. Bachelor Hospitality.—A Gale on Shore

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Letter XIII. Bachelor Hospitality.—A Gale on Shore.

We have lately made a much longer excursion than those I told you of last, month, and this time have been fortunate in meeting with fine weather above all, our expedition has been over perfectly level ground, and on a good “track,” which has greatly increased its charms in my eyes. A fortnight ago early summer set fairly in, and some bachelor neighbours took advantage of the change to ride over to see us, and arrange a plan for the following week. It all fitted in nicely, for F—— was obliged to go to Christchurch at that time, and the first idea of the expedition originated in my saying how dull I was at the station when he was away. I can get on very well all day; with my various employments—feeding the chickens, taking the big dogs out for a walk, and so on: but after the house is quiet and silent for the night, and the servants have gone to bed, a horrible lonely eerie feeling comes over me; the solitude is so dreary, and the silence so intense, only page 82 broken occasionally by the wild, melancholy cry of the weka. However, I am very rarely tried in this way, and when I am it can’t be helped, if that is any consolation.

I forget whether I told you that we left all “evening things,” and other toilette necessaries which would not be wanted up country, behind us in Christchurch, so as to avoid the trouble of sending any luggage backwards or forwards. It is necessary to mention this, to account for the very light marching order in which we travelled. It was a lovely summer morning on which we left home, meaning to be away nearly a week, from Monday till Saturday. We were well mounted, and all our luggage consisted of my little travelling-bag fastened to the pommel of my saddle, containing our brushes and combs, and what is termed a “swag” in front of F——’s saddle; that is, a long narrow bundle, in this instance enclosed in a neat waterproof case, and fastened with two straps to the “D’s,” which are steel loops let in in four places to all colonial saddles, for the purpose of carrying blankets, etc.; they derive their name apparently from their resemblance to the letter. In this parcel our most indispensable garments were tightly packed. We cantered gaily along on the way to Christchurch, the horses appearing to enjoy the delicious air and soft springy turf as much as we did. There was a river and half-a-dozen creeks to be crossed; but they are all quite low at this time of year. As we stood in one of them to let the page 83 horses drink and cool their legs, I saw a huge eel hidden under the shadow of a high overhanging bank, waiting till the evening to come out and feed upon the myriads of flies and little white moths that skim over the surface of the water.

It is considered a great advantage to our station that there is only the river Selwyn (of which the Maori name is the Wai-kiri-kiri) between us and town, not only for our own convenience, but because it is easy to take sheep across it, and it offers no difficulties to the wool drays. This river has a very good reputation, and is very rarely dangerous to cross; whereas the Rakaia and the Rangitata towards the south, and the Waimakiriri towards the north, of Christchurch, are most difficult, and always liable to sudden freshes. The general mode of crossing the larger rivers is by a boat, with the horse swimming behind; but accidents constantly occur from the foolhardiness of people attempting to ford them alone on horseback: they are lost in quicksands, or carried down by the current, before they can even realize that they are in danger. The common saying in New Zealand is, that people only die from drowning and drunkenness. I am afraid the former is generally the result of the latter.

From the first our road lay with our backs to the hills; but as we cantered along the plains, I was often obliged to turn round and admire their grand outlines. The highest ranges were still snow-white, and made a magnificent background against the summer sky. An easy twelve miles’ ride brought us to a page 84 charming little station, called by the pretty native name of Waireka; here lived our three bachelor hosts, and a nicer or more comfortable home in a distant land could not be desired. The house has been built for some years, consequently the plantations about it and the garden have grown up well, and the willows, gum-trees, and poplars shelter it perfectly, besides giving it such a snug home look. It stands on a vast plain, without even an undulation of the ground near it; but the mountains form a grand panoramic view. There is a large wide verandah round two sides of the house, with French windows opening into it; and I could not help feeling impatient to see my own creepers in such luxuriant, beauty as these roses and honeysuckles were. It was half amusing and half pathetic to notice the preparations which had been made to receive a lady guest, and the great anxiety of my hosts to ensure my being quite as comfortable as I am at home. Much had been said beforehand about the necessity of making up my mind to rough it in bachelor quarters, so I was surprised to find all sorts of luxuries in my room, especially a dainty little toilette-table, draped with white cloths (a big wooden packing-case was its foundation). Its ornaments were all sorts of nondescript treasures, placed in boxes at the last moment of leaving the English hall or rectory by careful loving hands of mothers and sisters, and lying unused for years until now. There was a little china tray, which had been slipped into some corner page 85 by a child-sister anxious to send some possession of her “very own” out to the other end of the world; there was a vase with flowers; a parti-coloured pin-cushion of very gay silks, probably the parting gift of an old nurse; and a curious old-fashioned essence bottle, with eau-de-cologne; the surrounding country had been ransacked to procure a piece of scented soap. The only thing to remind me that I was not in an English cottage was the opossum rug with which the neat little bed was covered. The sitting-room looked the picture of cosy comfort, with its well-filled book-shelves, arm-chairs, sofa with another opossum rug thrown over it, and the open fireplace filled with ferns and tufts of the white feathery Tohi grass in front of the green background. We enjoyed our luncheon, or rather early dinner, immensely after our ride; and in the afternoon went out to see the nice large garden (such a contrast to our wretched little beginnings), and finally strolled on to the inevitable wool-shed, where the gentlemen had an animated “sheep talk.” I rather enjoy these discussions, though they are prefaced by an apology for “talking shop;” but it amuses me, and I like to see the samples of wool, which are generally handed about in the heat of a great argument, the long white locks are so glistening, and soft, and crinkly.

My five-o’clock tea was duly remembered, and then, as there was nothing more to see out of doors within a short distance, I proposed that I should make a cake. The necessary ingredients were quickly page 86 collected. I had relays of volunteers to beat up the eggs, and though I suffered great anxiety until it was cut at supper, it turned out satisfactorily. The worst of my cookery is, that while I always follow the same directions most carefully, there is great uncertainty and variety about the result. In the evening we played round games. But we all went early to bed, as, we had to be up betimes, and in the saddle by seven o’clock, to catch the 9-30 train at Rolleston; twenty miles off. We had a beautiful, still morning for our ride, and reached the station—a shed standing out on the plain—in time to see our horses safely paddocked before the train started for Christchurch. The distance by rail was only fifteen miles, so we were not long about it; and we walked to the hotel from the railway-station in the town. A bath and breakfast were both very enjoyable, and then F—— went out to transact his business, and I employed myself in unpacking and ironing a ball-dress for a party, to which we were engaged that evening. There was also another ball the following night. The second was a very late one, and we had scarcely an hour’s sleep before we were obliged to get up and start by the 6 A.M. train back to Rolleston, where we remounted our horses and rode to dear little Waireka in time for breakfast. By the evening I was sufficiently rested to make another cake, which also, happily, turned out well.

We intended to return home the next day (Friday), but a terrific “nor’-wester” came on in the night, and page 87 it was impossible to stir out of the house; it was the severest gale since our arrival, and it is hardly possible to give you a correct idea of the force and fury of the wind. Not a glimpse of the mountains was to be seen; a haze of dust, as thick as any fog, shut everything out. The sheep had all taken refuge under the high banks of the creeks. It is curious that sheep always feed head to wind in a nor’-west gale, whereas they will drift for miles before a sou’-wester. The trees bent almost flat before the hot breath of this hurricane, and although the house was built of cob, and its walls were very thick and solid, the creaking and swaying of the shingled roof kept me in perpetual alarm. The verandah was a great protection; and yet the small river-pebbles, of which the garden-walk was made, were dashed against the windows like hailstones by each gust. We amused ourselves indoors by the study and composition of acrostics, and so got through an imprisonment of two days, without a moment’s cessation of the wind; but towards sunset on Saturday there were signs of a lull, and about midnight the gale dropped; and we heard the grateful, refreshing sound of soft and continuous rain, and when we came out to breakfast on Sunday morning everything looked revived again. It is a most fortunate meteorological fact that these very high winds are generally succeeded by heavy rain; everything is so parched and shrivelled up by them that I do not know what would become of the vegetation otherwise. We held page 88 a council, to determine what had better be done about returning home, and finally decided to risk a wet ride sooner than disappoint the little congregation; for should it prove a fine afternoon, those who lived near would certainly come; so we mounted after breakfast.

I was wrapped in one of the gentlemen’s macintoshes, and found the ride far from disagreeable. As we neared our own station we began to look out for signs of disaster; and about half a mile from the house saw some of the vanes from the chimneys on the track; a little nearer home, across the path lay a large zinc chimney-pot; then another; and when we came close enough to see the house distinctly, it looked very much dwarfed without its chimneys. There had been a large pile of empty boxes at the back of the stable; these were all blown away in the gale. One huge packing-case was sailing tranquilly about on the pond, and planks and fragments of zinc were strewn over the paddock. The moment we reached the house, Mr. U——, the gentleman-cadet of whom I have told you, came out, with a melancholy face, to tell me that a large wooden cage, full of the canaries which I had brought from England with me, had been blown out of the verandah, though it was on the most sheltered side of the house. It really seemed incredible at first, but the cage was lying in ruins in the middle of the paddock, and all my birds except one had disappeared. It happened in the middle of the night, page 89 and Mr. U—— described, very amusingly, that when he was awakened by the noise which the cage made against a wire fence (which it just “topped” in passing), he sprang out of his bed in the attic, and clambered out of the window, expecting to find the very heavy sort of staircase- ladder in its place; but it was “over the hills and far away,” so he had a drop of about twelve feet to the ground, which thoroughly aroused him. He went into the verandah to see if the cage was safe, and was nearly knocked down by a big tin bath, ordinarily kept there, which was just starting across country. As soon as he missed the cage he very pluckily went after it, being able to keep sight of it by the fitful gleams of moon-light, and he was just in time to rescue the poor little surviving canary. We could not help laughing at the recital of all the mischief which had been done, but still it is very tiresome, and the garden looks, if possible, more wretched than ever. There is no shelter for it yet, and my poor green-peas are blown nearly out of the ground. It rained hard all the evening, so our congregation was confined to the home party.