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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter XV. Everyday Station Life

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Letter XV. Everyday Station Life.

You tell me to describe our daily home-life and domestic surroundings. I dare say it: will appear to be a monotonous and insignificant existence enough when put on paper, but it suits me exactly; and, for the first time in my life, I have enough to do, and also the satisfaction of feeling that I am of some little use to my fellow-creatures. A lady’s influence out here appears to be very great, and capable of indefinite expansion. She represents refinement and culture (in Mr. Arnold’s sense of the words), and her footsteps on a new soil such as this should be marked by a trail of light. Of course every improvement must be the work of time, but I find my neighbours very willing to help me in my attempts.

A few lines will be sufficient to sketch a day’s routine. The first of my duties is one I especially delight in. I am out very early with a large tin dish of scraps mixed with a few handfuls of wheat, and page 106 my appearance is the signal for a great commotion among all my fowls and ducks and pigeons. Such waddling and flying and running with outstretched wings to me: in fact, I receive a morning greeting from all the live-stock about the place. I am nearly knocked down by the big sheep-dogs; the calves come rushing with awkward gambols towards me for a bit of the fowls’ bread, whilst the dogs look out for a bone; but, in the midst of the confusion, the poultry hold their own; indeed, an anxious hen eager to secure a breakfast for her chicks will fly at a big dog, and beat him away from a savoury morsel. I think I ought not to omit mentioning the devotion of a small pig; it is an exact illustration of the French proverb which speaks of the inequality of love, for I am quite passive and do not respond in the least to the little beastie’s affection, which is the most absurd thing you ever saw, especially as it proceeds from so unromantic an animal. Late in the spring (that is to say, about November last) we were all returning from a great pig-hunting expedition, when I saw one of the party coming down a steep hill near the house with a small and glossy-black wild pig under each arm; he was very proud of his captives, placed them in a box with some straw, and fed them like babies out of a bottle. We laughed at him very much; but when he went away he begged so earnestly that the pigs should be reared that we promised to keep them. In a few days they became perfectly tame, and were very handsome little creatures; and one of page 107 them attached itself to me, following me all about, even into the house (but that I really could not stand), accompanying me in all my walks, and, as far as it could, in my rides. Many a time have I seen poor little piggy carried down a creek by the current, squealing piteously, but it was evidently a case of “many waters cannot quench love,” for a little further on piggy would appear, very much baked, but holding out gallantly, till sheer exhaustion compelled him to give in, when he would lie down under a tussock, apparently dying; but, as we were coming home in the dusk, Helen, my pretty bay mare, has given many a shy at piggy starting up from his shelter with gambols and squeals of joy.

It is always a great temptation to loiter about in the lovely fresh morning air, but I have to be dressed in time for prayers and breakfast at nine; directly after breakfast I go into the kitchen; sometimes, it is only necessary to give orders or instructions, but generally I find that practice is much better than precept, and I see to the soup myself, and make the pudding—the joint can take care of itself.

You have often asked me what we have to eat, so this will be a good opportunity of introducing our daily bill of fare, prefacing it with my recorded opinion that here is no place in the world where you can live so cheaply and so well as on a New Zealand sheep station, when once you get a start. Of course, it is expensive at first, setting everything going, but that would be the case in any country. page 108 I will begin at the very beginning:—Porridge for breakfast, with new milk and cream a discrétion; to follow—mutton chops, mutton ham, or mutton curry, or broiled mutton and mushrooms, not shabby little fragments of meat broiled, but beautiful tender steaks off a leg; tea or coffee, and bread and butter, with as many new-laid eggs as we choose to consume. Then, for dinner, at half-past one, we have soup, a joint, vegetables, and a pudding; in summer, we have fresh fruit stewed, instead of a pudding, with whipped cream. I was a proud and happy woman the first day my cream remained cream, and did not turn into butter; for generally my zeal outran my discretion, and I did not know when to leave off whipping. We have supper about seven; but this is a moveable feast, consisting of tea again, mutton cooked in some form of entree, eggs, bread and butter, and a cake of my manufacture. I must, however, acknowledge, that at almost every other station you would get more dainties, such as jam and preserves of all sorts, than we can boast of yet; for, as Littimer says to David Copperfield, “We are very young, exceedingly young, sir,” our fruit-trees, have not come into full bearing, and our other resources are still quite undeveloped.

However, I have wandered away terribly from my first intention of telling you of the daily occupations to a description of our daily food. After I have finished all my little fussings about the house, I join F—— who has probably been for some time quietly settled down at his writing-table, and we work together page 109 at books and writing till dinner; after that meal, F—— like Mr. Tootes, “resumes his studies,” but I go and feed my fowls again, and if I am very idly disposed I sit on a hencoop in the shade and watch the various tempers of my chickens and ducklings. A little later F—— and I go out for some hours: if it is not too hot, he takes his rifle and we go over the hills pig-stalking, but this is really only suitable exercise for a fine winter’s day; at this time of year we either go for a walk or a ride, generally the latter—not a little shabby canter, but a long stretching gallop for miles and miles; perhaps stopping to have a cup of tea with a neighbour twelve or fifteen miles off, and then coming slowly home in the delicious gloaming, with the peculiar fresh crisp feeling which the atmosphere always has here the moment the sun sets, no matter how hot the day has been. I can hardly hope to make you understand how enjoyable our twilight hours are, with no fear of damp or malaria to spoil them; every turn of the track as we slowly wind up the valley showing us some beautiful glimpse of distant mountain peaks, and, above all, such sunset splendours, gradually fading away into the deep, pure beauty of a summer night.

In one of our rides the other day, after crossing a low range of hills, we suddenly dropped down on what would be called in England a hamlet, but here it is designated by the extraordinary name of a “nest of cockatoos.” This expression puzzled me so much when I first heard it, that I must give you as minute page 110 an explanation as I myself found necessary to the comprehension of the subject.

When a shepherd has saved a hundred pounds, or the better class of immigrant arrives with a little capital, the favourite investment is in freehold land, which they can purchase, in sections of twenty acres and upwards, at 2 pounds the acre. The next step is to build a sod but with two rooms on their property, thatching it with Tohi, or swamp grass; a door and a couple of window-frames all ready glazed are brought from Christchurch in the dray with the family and the household goods. After this rough and ready shelter is provided, the father and sons begin fencing their land and gradually it all assumes a cultivated appearance. Pig-sties and fowl-houses are added; a little garden, gay with common English flowers, is made in front of the house, whose ugly walls are gradually hidden by creepers, and the homestead looks both picturesque and prosperous. These small farmers are called Cockatoos in Australia by the squatters or sheep-farmers, who dislike them for buying up the best bits of land on their runs; and say that, like a cockatoo, the small freeholder alights on good ground, extracts all he can from it, and then flies away to “fresh fields and pastures new.” But the real fact is, that the poor farmer perhaps finds his section is too far from a market, so he is forced to abandon it and move nearer a town, where the best and most productive land has been bought up already; and he has to begin again at a disadvantage. How- page 111 ever, whether the name is just or not, it is a recognized one here; and I have heard a man say in answer to a question about his usual occupation, “I’m a Cockatoo.”

This particular “nest” appeared to me very well off, comparatively speaking; for though the men complained sadly of the low price of their wheat and oats, still there was nothing like poverty to be seen. Ready money was doubtless scarce, and an extensive system of barter appeared to prevail; but still they all looked well fed and well clothed; sickness was unknown among them, and it did one’s heart good to see the children—such sturdy limbs, bright fearless eyes, and glowing faces. They have abundance of excellent food. Each cottager has one or two cows, and the little ones take these out to pasture on the hills, so they are in the open air nearly all day: but their ignorance is appalling! Many of them had never even been christened; there was no school or church within thirty miles or more, and although the parents seemed all tidy, decent people, and deplored the state of things, they were powerless to help it. The father and elder sons work hard all day; the mother has to do everything, even to making the candles, for the family; there is no time or possibility of teaching the children. The neighbouring squatters do not like to encourage settlers to buy up their land, therefore they carefully avoid making things pleasant for a new “nest,” and the Cockatoos are “nobody’s business;” so, as far as educational advantages go, they are perfectly destitute.

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When I mentioned my discovery of this hamlet, and my dismay at the state of neglect in which so many fine intelligent-looking children were growing up, every one warned me not to interfere, assuring me the Cockatoo was a very independent bird, that he considered he had left all the Ladies Bountiful and blanket and coal charities behind him in the old country; that, in short, as it is generally put, “Jack is as good as his master” out here, and any attempt at patronage would be deeply resented. But I determined to try the effect of a little visiting among the cottages, and was most agreeably surprised at the kind and cordial welcome I received. The women liked to have some one to chat to about their domestic affairs, and were most hospitable in offers of tea, etc., and everywhere invitations to “come again” were given; so the next week I ventured to invite the men over to our Sunday services. Those who were fond of reading eagerly accepted the offer to join the book-club, and at last we started the educational subject. Many plans were discussed, and finally we arranged for one woman, who had received an excellent education and was quite fitted for the post, to commence a day-school; but this entailed so much loss of her valuable time that the terms she is obliged to ask seem disproportionately high to the people’s means. She wants 2 shillings and 6 pence a week with each child, and this is terrible heavy on the head of a family who is anxious and willing to give them some “schooling.” However, the plan is to be tried, and I have promised to page 113 start them with books, slates, copybooks, etc. It was quite touching to hear their earnest entreaties that F—— would come over on Sunday sometimes and hold a service there, but I tried to show them this could not be managed. The tears actually came into their eyes when I talked of the happiness it would be to see a little church and school in their midst; and the almost invariable remark was, “Ah, but it’ll be a far day first.” And so I fear it will—a very far day; but I have often heard it said, that if you propose one definite object to yourself as the serious purpose of your life, you will accomplish it some day. Well, the purpose of my life henceforward is to raise money somehow or somewhere to build a little wooden school-room (licensed for service, to be held whenever a missionary clergyman comes by), and to pay the salary of a schoolmaster and mistress, so that the poor Cockatoo need not be charged more than threepence a week for each child. The Board of Education will give a third of the sum required, when two-thirds have been already raised; but it is difficult to collect subscriptions, or indeed to induce the squatters to listen to any plan for improving the condition of the small farmers, and every year which slips away and leaves these swarms of children in ignorance adds to the difficulty of training them. 1:-

1 1 Since this was written, a school-house, also used as a church, has been built in this district by private subscription and Government aid. A clergyman, who lives some twenty-five miles away, rides over and holds service once a month.