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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter XIX. A Christening Gathering.—The Fate of Dick

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Letter XIX. A Christening Gathering.—The Fate of Dick.

We reached home quite safely the first week of this month, and I immediately set to work to prepare for the Bishop’s visit. We met him at a friend’s house one day, just as we were starting homewards, and something led to my telling him about the destitute spiritual condition of my favourite “nest of Cockatoos.” With his usual energy, as well as goodness, he immediately volunteered to come up to our little place, hold a service, and christen all the children. We were only too thankful to accept such an offer, as we well knew what an inducement it would be to the people, who would take a great deal of trouble and come from far and near to hear our dear Bishop, who is universally beloved and respected.

For a week beforehand the house smelt all day long like a baker’s shop about noon on Sunday, for pies, tarts, cakes, etc., were perpetually being “drawn” from the oven. I borrowed every pie-dish for miles round, and, as on another occasion I have mentioned, plenty page 149 of good things which our own resources could not furnish forth came pouring in on all sides with offers to help. F—— and I scoured the country for thirty miles round to invite everybody to come over to us that Sunday; and I think I may truly say everybody came. When I rode over to my “nest” and made the announcement of the Bishop’s visit, the people were very much delighted; but a great difficulty arose from the sudden demand for white frocks for all the babies and older children. I rashly promised each child should find a clean white garment awaiting it on its arrival at my house, and took away a memorandum of all the different ages and sizes; the “order” never could have been accomplished without the aid of my sewing-machine. I had a few little frocks by me as patterns, and cut up some very smart white embroidered petticoats which were quite useless to me, to make into little skirts. In spite of all that was going on in the kitchen my maids found time to get these up most beautifully, and by the Saturday night the little bed in the spare room was a heap of snowy small garments, with a name written on paper and pinned to each. The Bishop also arrived quite safely, late that evening, having driven himself up from Christchurch in a little gig.

It is impossible for you to imagine a more beautiful winter’s morning than dawned on us that Sunday. A sharp frost over-night only made the air deliciously crisp, for the sun shone so brightly, that by nine o’clock the light film of ice over the ponds had dis- page 150 appeared, and I found the Bishop basking in the verandah when I came out to breakfast, instead of sitting over the blazing wood-fire in the dining-room. We got our meal finished as quickly as possible, and then F—— and Mr. U—— set to work to fill the verandah with forms extemporised out of empty boxes placed at each end, and planks laid across them; every red blanket in the house was pressed into service to cover these rough devices, and the effect at last was quite tidy. By eleven o’clock the drays began to arrive in almost a continual stream; as each came up, its occupants were taken into the kitchen, and given as much as they could eat of cold pies made of either pork or mutton, bread and hot potatoes, and tea. As for teapots, they were discarded, and the tea was made in huge kettles, whilst the milk stood in buckets, into which quart jugs were dipped every five minutes. I took care of all the women and children whilst F—— and Mr. U—— looked after the men, showed them where to put the horses, etc. All this time several gentlemen and two or three ladies had arrived, but there was no one to attend to them, so they all very kindly came out and helped. We insisted on the Bishop keeping quiet in the drawing-room, or he would have worked as hard as any one. I never could have got the children into their white frocks by two o’clock if it had not been for the help of the other ladies; but at last they were all dressed, and the congregation—not much under a hundred people—fed, and arranged in their places. page 151 There had been a difficulty about finding sufficient godmothers and godfathers, so F—— and I were sponsors for every child, and each parent wished me to hand the child to the Bishop; but I could not lift up many of the bigger ones, and they roared piteously when I touched their hands. I felt it quite a beautiful and thrilling scene; the sunburnt faces all around, the chubby, pretty little group of white-clad children, every one well fed and comfortably clothed, the dogs lying at their masters feet, the bright winter sunshine and dazzling sky, and our dear Bishops commanding figure and clear, penetrating voice! He gave us a most excellent sermon, short and simple, but so perfectly appropriate; and after the service was over he went about, talking to all the various groups such nice, helpful words.

The truest kindness was now to “speed the parting guest,” so each dray load, beginning with those whose homes were the most distant, was collected. They were first taken into the kitchen and given a good meal of hot tea, cake, and bread and butter, for many had four hours’ jolting before them; the red blankets were again called into requisition to act as wraps, besides every cloak and shawl I possessed, for the moment the sun sunk, which would be about four o’clock, the cold was sure to become intense. We lived that day in the most scrambling fashion ourselves; there was plenty of cold meat, etc., on the dining-room table, and piles of plates, and whenever any of the party were hungry they went and helped page 152 themselves, as my two servants were entirely occupied with looking after the comfort of the congregation; it was such a treat to them to have, even for a few hours, the society of other women. They have only one female neighbour, and she is generally too busy to see much of them; besides which, I think the real reason of the want of intimacy is that Mrs. M—— is a very superior person, and when she comes up I generally like to have a chat with her myself. It does me good to see her bonny Scotch face, and hear the sweet kindly “Scot’s tongue;” besides which she is my great instructress in the mysteries of knitting socks and stockings, spinning, making really good butter (not an easy thing, madam), and in all sorts of useful accomplishments; her husband is the head shepherd on the next station. They are both very fond of reading, and it was quite pretty to see the delight they took in the Queen’s book about the Highlands.

To return, however, to that Sunday. We were all dreadfully tired by the time the last guest had departed, but we had a delightfully quiet evening, and a long talk with the Bishop about our favourite scheme of the church and school among the Cockatoos, and we may feel certain of his hearty cooperation in any feasible plan for carrying it out. The next morning, much to our regret, the Bishop left us for Christchurch, but he had to hold a Confirmation service there, and could not give us even a few more hours. We were so very fortunate in our weather. The following Sunday was a pouring wet page 153 day, and we have had wind and rain almost ever since; it is unusually wet, so I have nothing more to tell you of our doings, which must seem very eccentric to you, by the way, but I assure you I enjoy the gipsy unconventional life immensely.

You must not be critical about a jumble of subjects if I record poor Dick’s tragical fate here; it will serve to fill up my letter, and if ever you have mourned for a pet dog you will sympathise with me. I must first explain to you that on a sheep station strange dogs are regarded with a most unfriendly eye by both master and shepherds. There are the proper colleys,—generally each shepherd has two,—but no other dogs are allowed, and I had great trouble to coax F—— to allow me to accept two. One is a beautiful water-spaniel, jet black, Brisk by name, but his character is stainless in the matter of sheep, and though very handsome he is only an amiable idiot, his one amusement being to chase a weka, which he never catches. The other dog was, alas! Dick, a small black-and-tan terrier, very well bred, and full of tricks and play. We never even suspected him of any wickedness, but as it turned out he must have been a hardened offender. A few weeks after he came to us, when the lambing season was at its height, and the low sunny hills near the house were covered with hundreds of the pretty little white creatures, F—— used sometimes to come and ask me where Dick was, and, strange to say, Dick constantly did not answer to my call. An evening page 154 or two later, just as we were starting for our walk, Dick appeared in a great hurry from the back of the stable. F—— went up immediately to him, and stooped down to examine his mouth, calling me to see. Oh, horror! it was all covered with blood and wool. I pleaded all sorts of extenuating circumstances, but F—— said, with: judicial sternness, “This cannot be allowed.” Dick was more fascinating than usual, never looking at a sheep whilst we were out walking with him, and behaving in the most exemplary manner. F—— watched him all the next day, and at last caught him in the act of killing a new-born lamb a little way from the house; the culprit was brought to me hanging his tail with the most guilty air, and F—— said, “I ought to shoot him, but if you like I will try if a beating can cure him, but it must be a tremendous one.” I was obliged to accept this alternative, and retreated where I could not hear Dick’s howls under the lash, over the body of his victim. A few hours after I went to the spot, lifted Dick up, and carried him into my room to nurse him; for he could not move, he had been beaten so severely. For two whole days he lay on the soft mat I gave him, only able to lap a little warm milk; on the third morning he tried to get up, and crawled into the verandah; I followed to watch him. Imagine my dismay at seeing him limp to the place where the body of his last victim lay, and deliberately begin tearing it to pieces. I followed him with my little horsewhip and gave him a slight beating. I could page 155 not find it in my heart to hit him very hard. I carefully concealed this incident from F——, and for some days I never let Dick out of my sight for a moment; but early one fine morning a knock came to our bed-room door, and a voice said, “Please, sir, come and see what’s the matter with the sheep? there’s a large mob of them at the back of the house being driven, like.” Oh, my prophetic soul! I felt it was Dick. Whilst F—— was huddling on some clothes I implored him to temper justice with mercy, but never a word did he say, and sternly took his gun in his hand and went out. I buried my head in the pillows, but for all my precautions I heard the report of a shot in the clear morning air, and the echo ringing back from all the hills; five minutes afterwards F—— came in with a little blue collar in his hand, and said briefly, “He has worried more than a dozen lambs this morning alone.” What could I say? F——’s only attempt at consolation was, “he died instantly; I shot him through the head.” But for many days afterwards I felt quite lonely and sad without my poor little pet—yet what could have been done? No one would have accepted him as a present, and it flashed on me afterwards that perhaps this vice of his was the reason of Dick’s former owner being so anxious to give him to me. I have had two offers of successors to Dick since, but I shall never have another dog on a sheep station, unless I know what Mr. Dickens’ little dressmaker calls “its tricks and its manners.”