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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter XXIV. My Only Fall from Horseback

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Letter XXIV. My Only Fall from Horseback.

The autumn has passed away so quickly that I can hardly believe the winter has reached us so soon—the last winter we shall spend in New Zealand. I should like to have been able to boast, on my return to England, that in three years’ constant riding, on all sorts of horses, good, bad, and indifferent, and over abominable roads, I had escaped a fall; but not only have I had a very severe one, but it was from my own favourite Helen, which is very trying to reflect upon. However, it was not in the least her fault, or mine either; so she and I are still perfectly good friends.

We had been spending two days up at Lake Coleridge, as a sort of farewell visit, and on our way down again to Rockwood, a distance of about twenty miles, we stopped to lunch, by invitation, at a station midway. There was so much to be seen at this place that we loitered much longer than was prudent in the short days, and by the time we had thoroughly page 223 inspected a beautiful new wool-shed with all the latest improvements (from which F—— could hardly tear himself away), the fish-ponds elaborately arranged for the reception of the young trout expected from Tasmania and the charming garden well sheltered by a grove of large wattle-trees, it was growing dusk, and we prepared to push on as fast as possible; for nothing is more disagreeable than being caught in the dark on a New Zealand track, with its creeks and swamps and wire fences: the last are the most dangerous obstacles, if you get off the track, or if the gate through the fence has been placed for convenience a few yards on one side of it; the horses cannot see the slender wires in the dark, and so fall over them, injuring themselves and their riders most seriously sometimes. Having still about eight miles to go, we were galloping gaily over a wide open plain, our only anxiety arising from the fast failing daylight; but the horses were still quite fresh, and, as the French idiom would have it, devoured the ground at a fine pace; when, in an instant, the ground appeared to rise up to meet me, and I found myself dragged along on the extreme point of my right shoulder, still grasping both reins and whip. I was almost under the feet of the other horse, and I saw Helen’s heels describing frantic circles in the air. F—— shouted to me to let go, which it had never occurred to me to do previously. I did so, and jumped up instantly, feeling quite unhurt, and rather relieved to find that a fall was not so dreadful after all. I then saw the cause of the accident: the page 224 handle of a little travelling- bag which had been hung over the pommel of my saddle had slipped over the slight projection, and as it was still further secured by a strap through the girth, it was dangling under poor Helen, whose frantic bounds and leaps only increased the liveliness of her tormentor. I never saw such bucks and jumps high into the air as she performed receiving a severe blow from the bag at each; it was impossible to help laughing, though I did not see how it was all to end. She would not allow F—— to approach her, and was perfectly mad with terror. At last the girths gave way, and the saddle came off, with the bag still fastened to it; the moment she found herself free, she trotted up to me in the most engaging manner, and stood rubbing her nose against my arm, though she was still trembling all over, and covered with foam.

By this time I had made the discovery that I could not raise my right arm; but still a careful investigation did not tell me it was broken, for it gave me no pain to touch anywhere, except a very little just on the point of the shoulder. F—— now went to pick up the saddle and the reins; it was difficult to find these latter in the fast gathering darkness and I held his horse for him. To my horror I found after standing for a moment or two, that I was going to faint; I could not utter a word; I knew that if my fast-relaxing fingers let go their hold of the bridle the horse would set off towards home at a gallop, Helen would assuredly follow him, and we page 225 should be left eight miles from the nearest shelter to find our way to it, with a deep creek to cross. F—— was fifty yards off, with his back to me, searching for some indispensable buckle; so there was no help to be got from him at the moment. I exerted every atom of my remaining strength to slip the bridle over my left arm, which I pressed against my waist; then I sat down as quietly as I could, not to alarm the horse, bent forward so as to keep my left arm under me lest the bridle should slip off, and fainted away in great peace and comfort. The cold was becoming so intense that it soon revived me, and F——, suspecting something was wrong, came to relieve me of the care of the horse, and contrived to get the girths repaired with the ever-ready flax, and the bag secured in a very short time. But when it came to mounting again, that was not so easy: every time I tried to spring, something jarred horribly in the socket where the arm fits into the shoulder, and the pain was so great that I had to lie down on the ground. It was now nearly seven o’clock, quite dark, and freezing hard; we were most anxious to get on, and yet what was to be done? I could not mount, apparently, and there was no stone or bank to stand on and get up by for an immense way. At last F—— put me up by sheer strength. I found myself so deadly sick and faint when I was fairly in the saddle that it was some time before I could allow Helen to move; and never shall I forget the torture of her first step, for my shoulder was now stiffening in a most unpleasant page 226 way. F—— said it would be easier to canter; so we set off at full speed, and the cold air against my face kept me from fainting as we went along, though I fully expected to fall off every moment; if Helen had shied, or stumbled, or even capered a little, I should have been on the ground again. In my torture and despair, I proposed to be left behind, and for F—— to ride on and get help; but he would not hear of this, declaring that I should die of cold before he could get back with a cart, and that it was very doubtful if he should find me again on the vast plain, with nothing to guide him, and in the midnight darkness. Whenever we came to a little creek which we were obliged to jump, Helen’s safe arrival on the opposite bank was announced by a loud yell from me, caused by agony hardly to be described. The cold appeared to get into the broken joint, and make it so much worse.

At last we reached Rockwood, and never was its friendly shelter more welcome. Everything that could be thought of was done to alleviate my sufferings; but I resembled Punch with his head on one side, for I had a well-defined and gigantic hump on my back, and my shoulder was swollen up to my ear. The habit-body was unpicked, as it was impossible to get it off any other way. Of course, the night was one of great agony; but I thought often, as I paced the room, how much better it was to have a blazing fire to cheer me up, and some delicious tea to put my lips to “when page 227 so dispoged” (like the immortal Mrs. Gamp), than to be lying on the open plain in a hard frost, wondering when F—— and his cart would arrive.

The next day we returned home, much against our host’s wish; and I walked all the way, some six miles of mountain road, for I could not bear the idea of riding. F—— led the horses, and we arrived quite safely. His first idea was to take me down to a doctor, but the motion of driving was greater agony than riding, as the road was rough; so after the first mile, I entreated to be taken back, and we turned the horses’ heads towards home again; and when we reached it, I got out all my little books on surgery, medicine, etc., and from them made out how to set my shoulder in some sort of fashion, with F——’s help. Of course it is still useless to me, but I think it is mending itself; and after a week I could do everything with my left hand, even to writing, after a fashion. The only thing I could not do was to arrange my hair, or even to brush it; and though F—— was “willing,” he was so exceedingly awkward, that at last, after going through great anguish and having it pulled out by handfuls, I got him to cut it off, and it is now cropped like a small boy’s. He cuts up my dinner, etc. for me; but it is a very trying process, and I don’t wonder at children often leaving the nasty cold mess half eaten. I shall be very glad to be able to use my own knife again.