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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter XVIII. A Journey “Down South.”

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Letter XVIII. A Journey “Down South.”

In one of my early letters from Heathstock I told you that the Hurunui, which is the boundary of that run, marks the extreme north of the Province of Canterbury; and now I am writing to you from the extreme south. I hope you do not forget to reverse in your own mind the ordinary ideas of heat and cold, as connected with those points of the compass. The distance from our house to this is about 160 miles, and we actually took two days and a half to get here!— besides, into these miles was compressed the fatigue of a dozen English railway journeys of the same length. But, I suppose, as usual, you will not be satisfied unless I begin at the very beginning. The first difficulty was to reach the point where we were to join the coach on the Great South Road. It was less than thirty miles, so we could easily have ridden the distance; but the difficulty was to get our clothes all that way. They could not be carried on horseback, and just then the station-dray was par- page 138 ticularly employed; besides which it would have taken three days to come and go,—rather a useless expenditure of the man’s time, as well as of the horses’ legs, where only two little portmanteaus were concerned. Fortunately for us, however, this is a country where each man is ready and willing to help his neighbour, without any inquiry as to who he is; so the moment our dilemma was known various plans were suggested for our assistance, of which this was the one selected:—

On a certain bright but cold Wednesday afternoon, F—— and I and our modest luggage started in a neighbour’s “trap” for the station I have already mentioned on the Horarata, where Mr. C. H—— and I stopped on our way to Lake Coleridge. It is on the plains at the foot of a low range of downs, and about twelve miles from us. You cannot imagine a more charming little cottage ornée than the house is, capable of holding, apparently, an indefinite number of people, and with owners whose hospitality always prompts them to try its capabilities to the utmost. A creek runs near the house, and on its banks, sloping to the sun, lies a lovely garden, as trim as any English parterre, and a mass of fruit and flowers. Nothing can be more picturesque than the mixture of both. For instance, on the wall of the house is a peach-tree laden every autumn with rosy, velvet-cheeked fruit; and jasmine and passion-flowers growing luxuriantly near it. Inside all is bright neatness and such a welcome! As for our supper, on this page 139 particular day it comprised every dainty you can imagine, and made me think of my housekeeping with shame and confusion of face. We had a very merry evening, with round games; but there was a strong prejudice in favour of going to bed early, as we all had to be up by three o’clock: and so we were, to find a delicious breakfast prepared for us, which our kind hostess was quite disappointed to see we could not eat much of. Coffee and toast was all I could manage at that hour. We started in the dark, and the first thing we had to cross was a dry river-bed, in which one of the horses lay deliberately down, and refused to move. This eccentricity delayed us very much; but we got him into a better frame of mind, and accomplished our early drive of sixteen miles in safety, reaching the accommodation-house, or inn, where the coach from Christchurch to Timaru changes horses for its first stage, by six o’clock. There we had a good breakfast, and were in great “form” by the time the coach was ready to start. These conveyances have a world-wide celebrity as “Cobb’s coaches,” both in America and Australia, where they are invariably the pioneers of all wheeled vehicles, being better adapted to travel on a bad road, or no road at all, than any other four-wheeled “trap.” They are both strong and light, with leathern springs and a powerful break; but I cannot conscientiously say they are at all handsome carriages; indeed I think them extremely ugly and not very comfortable, page 140 except on the box-seat next the driver. Fortunately, this is made to hold three, so F—— and I scrambled up, and off we started with four good strong horses, bearing less harness about them than any quadrupeds I ever saw; a small collar, slender traces, and very thin reins comprised all their accoutrements. The first half of the journey was slow, but there was no jolting. The road was level, though it had not been made at all, only the tussocks removed from it; but it was naturally good—a great exception to New Zealand roads. The driver was a steady, respectable man, very intelligent; and when F—— could make him talk of his experiences in Australia in the early coaching days, I was much interested.

We crossed the Rakaia and the Rangitata in ferry-boats, and stopped on the banks of the Ashburton, to dine about one o’clock, having changed horses twice since we started from “Gigg’s,” as our place of junction was elegantly called. Here all my troubles began. When we came out of the little inn, much comforted and refreshed by a good dinner, I found to my regret that we were to change drivers as well as horses, and that a very popular and well known individual was to be the new coachman. As our former driver very politely assisted me to clamber up on the box-seat, he recommended F—— to sit on the outside part of the seat, and to put me next the driver, “where,” he added, “the lady won’t be so likely to tumble out.” As I had shown no disposition to fall off the coach hitherto, I was page 141 much astonished by this precaution, but said nothing. So he was emboldened to whisper, after looking round furtively, “And you jest take and don’t be afraid, marm; he handles the ribbings jest as well when he’s had a drop too much as when he’s sober, which ain’t often, however.” This last caution alarmed me extremely. The horses were not yet put in, nor the driver put up, so I begged F—— to get down and see if I could not go inside. But, after a hasty survey, he, said it was quite impossible: men smoking, children crying, and, in addition, a policeman with a lunatic in his charge, made the inside worse than the outside, especially in point of atmosphere; so he repeated the substance of our ex-driver’s farewell speech; and when I saw our new charioteer emerge at last from the bar, looking only very jovial and tolerably steady as to gait, I thought perhaps my panic was premature. But, oh, what a time I had of it for nine hours afterwards! The moment the grooms let go the horses’ heads he stood up on his seat, shook the reins, flourished his long whip, and with one wild yell from him we dashed down a steep cutting into the Ashburton. The water flew in spray far over our heads, and the plunge wetted me as effectually as if I had fallen into the river. I expected the front part of the coach to part from the back, on account of the enormous strain caused by dragging it over the boulders. We lurched like a boat in a heavy sea; the “insides” screamed; “Jim” (that was the driver’s name) swore and yelled; page 142 the horses reared and plunged. All this time I was holding on like grim death to a light iron railing above my head, and one glance to my left showed me F—— thrown off the very small portion of cushion which fell to his share, and clinging desperately to a rude sort of lamp-frame. I speculated for an instant whether this would break; and, if so, what would become of him. But it took all my ideas to keep myself from being jerked off among the horses’ heels. We dashed through the river; Jim gathered up the reins, and with a different set of oaths swore he would punish the horses for jibbing in the water. And he did punish them; he put the break hard down for some way, flogged them with all his strength, dancing about the coach-box and yelling like a madman. Every now and then, in the course of his bounds from place to place, he would come plump down on my lap; but I was too much frightened to remonstrate; indeed, we were going at such a pace against the wind, I had very little breath to spare.

We got over the first stage of twenty miles at this rate very quickly, as you may imagine; but, unfortunately, there was an accommodation-house close to the stables, and Jim had a good deal more refreshment. Strange to say, this did not make him any wilder in manner—that he could not be; but after we started again he became extremely friendly with me, addressing me invariably as “my dear,” and offering to “treat me” at every inn from that to page 143 Timaru. I declined, as briefly as I could, whereupon he became extremely angry, at my doubting his pecuniary resources apparently, for, holding the reins carelessly with one hand, though we were still tearing recklessly along, he searched his pockets with the other hand, and produced from them a quantity of greasy, dirty one-pound notes, all of which he laid on my lap, saying, “There, and there, and there, if you think I’m a beggar!” I fully expected them to blow away, for I could not spare a hand to hold them; but I watched my opportunity when he was punishing the unfortunate fresh team, and pounced on them, thrusting the dirty heap back into his great-coat pocket. At the next stage a very tidy woman came out, with a rather large bundle, containing fresh linen, she said, for her son, who was ill in the hospital at Timaru. She booked this, and paid her half-crown for its carriage, entreating the drunken wretch to see that it reached her son that night. He wildly promised he should have it in half-an-hour, and we set off as if he meant to keep his word, though we were some forty miles off yet; but he soon changed his mind, and took a hatred to the parcel, saying it would “sink the ship,” and finally tried to kick it over the splash-board. I seized it at the risk of losing my balance, and hugged it tight all the way to Timaru, carrying it off to the hotel, where I induced a waiter to take it up to the hospital.

After we had changed horses for the last time, and I was comforting myself by the reflection that the page 144 journey was nearly over, we heard shouts and screams from the inside passengers. F—— persuaded Jim with much trouble to pull up, and jumped down to see what was the matter. A strong smell of burning and a good deal of smoke arose from inside the coach, caused by the lunatic having taken off both his boots and lighted a fire in them. It was getting dark and chilly; the other passengers, including the policeman, had dozed off and the madman thought that as his feet were very cold, he would “try and warm them a bit;” so he collected all the newspapers with which his fellow-travellers had been solacing the tedium of their journey, tore, them up into shreds, with the addition of the contents of a poor woman’s bundle, and made quite a cheerful blaze out of these materials. It was some time before the terrified women could be induced to get into the coach again; and it was only by Jims asseverations, couched in the strongest language, that if they were not “all aboard” in half a minute, he would drive on and leave them in the middle of the plains, that they were persuaded to clamber in to their places once more.

How thankful I was when we saw the lights of Timaru! I was stunned and bewildered, tired beyond the power of words to describe, and black and blue all over from being jolted about. The road had been an excellent one, all the way level and wide, with telegraph-poles by its side. We shaved these very closely often enough, but certainly, amid all his tipsiness, Jim bore out his predecessors remark. Whenever page 145 we came to a little dip in the road, or a sharp turn, as we were nearing Timaru, he would get the horses under control as if by magic, and take us over as safely as the soberest driver could have done; the moment the obstacle was passed, off we were again like a whirlwind!

I was not at all surprised to hear that upsets and accidents were common on the road, and that the horses lasted but a very short time.

We found our host had driven in from his station forty-five miles distant from Timaru, to meet us, and had ordered nice rooms and a good dinner; so the next morning I was quite rested, and ready to laugh over my miseries of the day before. Nothing could be a greater contrast than this day’s journeying to yesterday’s. A low, comfortable phaeton, and one of the most agreeable companions in the world to drive us, beautiful scenery and a nice luncheon half-way, at which meal F—— ate something like half a hundred cheese-cakes! The last part of the road for a dozen miles or so was rather rough; we had to cross a little river, the Waio, every few hundred yards; and a New Zealand river has so much shingle about it! The water can never quite make up its mind where it would like to go, and has half-a-dozen channels ready to choose from, and then in a heavy fresh the chances are it will select and make quite a different course after all.

This is late autumn with us, remember, so the evenings close in early and, are very cold indeed. It page 146 was quite dark when we reached the house, and the blazing fires in every room were most welcome. The house is very unlike the conventional station pattern, being built of stone, large, very well arranged, and the perfection of comfort inside. There is no hostess at present; three bachelor brothers do the honours, and, as far as my experience goes, do them most efficiently. Our visit has lasted three weeks already, and we really must bring it to a termination soon. The weather has been beautiful, and we have made many delightful excursions, all on horseback, to neighbouring stations, to a fine bush where we had a picnic, or to some point of view. I can truly say I have enjoyed every moment of the time, indoors as well as out; I was the only lady, and was petted and made much of to my heart’s content. There were several other guests, and they were all nice and amusing. One wet day we had, and only one. I must tell you an incident of it, to show you what babies grown-up men can be at the Antipodes. We worked hard all the morning at acrostics, and after my five o’clock tea I went upstairs to a charming little boudoir prepared for me, to rest and read; in a short time I heard something like music and stamping, and, though I was en peignoir, I stole softly down to see what was going on; when I opened the door of the general sitting-room a most unusual sight presented itself,—eight bearded men, none of them very young, were dancing a set of quadrilles with the utmost gravity and decorum to the tunes played by a large musical-box, which was going page 147 at the most prodigious pace, consequently the dancers were flying through the figures in silence and breathless haste. They could not stop or speak when I came in, and seemed quite surprised at my laughing at them; but you have no idea how ridiculous they looked, especially as their gravity and earnestness were profound.

This is one of the very few stations where pheasants have been introduced, but then, every arrangement has been made for their comfort, and a beautiful house and yard built for their reception on a flat, just beneath the high terrace on which the house stands. More than a hundred young birds were turned out last spring, and there will probably be three times that number at the end of this year. We actually had pheasant twice at dinner; the first, and probably the last time we shall taste game in New Zealand. There is a good deal of thick scrub in the clefts of the home-terrace, and this affords excellent shelter for the young. Their greatest enemies are the hawks, and every variety of trap and cunning device for the destruction of these latter are in use, but as yet without doing much execution among them, they are so wonderfully clever and discerning.