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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter VI. Society.—Houses and Servants

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Letter VI. Society.—Houses and Servants.

I am beginning to get tired of Christchurch already: but the truth is, I am not in a fair position to judge of it as a place of residence; for, living temporarily, as we do, in a sort of boarding-house, I miss the usual duties and occupations of home, and the town itself has no place of public amusement except a little theatre, to which it is much too hot to go. The last two weeks have been the gay ones of the whole year; the races have been going on for three days, and there have been a few balls; but as a general rule, the society may be said to be extremely stagnant. No dinner-parties are ever given—I imagine, on account of the smallness of the houses and the inefficiency of the servants; but every now and then there is an assembly ball arranged, in the same way, I believe, as at watering-places in England only, of course, on a much smaller scale. I have been at two or three of these, and noticed at each a most undue preponderance of black page 37 coats. Nearly all the ladies were married, there were very few young girls; and it would be a great improvement to the Christchurch parties if some of the pretty and partnerless groups of a London ball-room, in all their freshness of toilette, could be transferred to them. What a sensation they would make, and what terrible heart-aches among the young gentlemen would be the result of such an importation! There were the same knots of men standing together as at a London party, but I must say that, except so far as their tailor is concerned, I think we have the advantage of you, for the gentlemen lead such healthy lives that they all look more or less bronzed and stalwart— in splendid condition, not like your pale dwellers in cities; and then they come to a ball to dance, arriving early so as to secure good partners, and their great ambition appears to be to dance every dance from the first to the last. This makes it hard work for the few ladies, who are not allowed to sit down for a moment, and I have often seen a young and pretty partner obliged to divide her dances between two gentlemen.

Although it tells only against myself, I must make you laugh at an account of a snub I received at one of these balls. Early in the evening I had danced with a young gentleman whose station was a long way “up country,” and who worked so hard on it that he very seldom found time for even the mild dissipations of Christchurch; he was good-looking and gentlemanly, and seemed clever and sensible, page 38 a little brusque, perhaps, but one soon gets used to that here. During our quadrille he confided to me that he hardly knew any ladies in the room, and that his prospects of getting any dancing were in consequence very blank. I did all I could to find partners for him, introducing him to every lady whom I knew, but it was in vain; they would have been delighted to dance with him, but their cards were filled. At the end of the evening, when I was feeling thoroughly done up, and could hardly stand up for fatigue, my poor friend came up and begged for another dance. I assured him I could scarcely stand, but when he said in a larmoyante voice, “I have only danced once this evening, that quadrille with you,” my heart softened, and I thought I would make a great effort and try to get through one more set of Lancers; my partner seemed so grateful, that the demon of vanity, or coquetry, or whatever it is that prompts one to say absurd things induced me to fish for a compliment, and to observe, “It was not worth while taking all the trouble of riding such a distance to dance only with me, was it?” Whereupon my poor, doleful friend answered, with a deep sigh, and an accent of profound conviction, “No, indeed it was not!” I leave you to imagine my discomfiture; but luckily he never observed it, and I felt all the time that I richly deserved what I got, for asking such a stupid question.

The music at these balls is very bad, and though the principal room in which they are given, at the page 39 Town Hall, is large and handsome, it is poorly lighted, and the decorations are desolate in the extreme. I am afraid this is not a very inviting picture of what is almost our only opportunity of meeting together, but it is tolerably correct. Visiting appears to be the business of some people’s lives, but the acquaintance does not seem to progress beyond incessant afternoon calls; we are never asked inside a house, nor, as far as I can make out, is there any private society whatever, and the public society consists, as I have said, of a ball every now and then.

My greatest interest and occupation consist in going to look at my house, which is being cut out in Christchurch, and will be drayed to our station next month, a journey of fifty miles. It is, of course, only of wood, and seems about as solid as a band-box; but I am assured by the builder that it will be a “most superior article” when it is all put together. F—— and I made the little plan of it ourselves, regulating the size of the drawing-room by the dimensions of the carpet we brought out, and I petitioned for a little bay-window, which is to be added; so on my last visit to his timber-yard, the builder said, with an air of great dignity, “Would you wish to see the horiel, mum?” The doors all come ready-made from America, and most of the wood used in building is the Kauri pine from the North Island. One advantage, at all events, in having wooden houses is the extreme rapidity with which they are run up, and there are no plastered walls to need drying. For a page 40 long time we were very uncertain where, and what, we should build on our station; but only six weeks after we made up our minds, a house is almost ready for us. The boards are sawn into the requisite lengths by machinery; and all the carpentering done down here; the frame will only require to be fitted together when it reaches its destination, and it is a very good time of year for building, as the wool drays are all going back empty, and we can get them to take the loads at reduced prices; but even with this help, it is enormously expensive to move a small house fifty miles, the last fifteen over bad roads; it is collar-work for the poor horses all the way, Christchurch being only nine feet above the sea-level, while our future home in the Malvern Hills is twelve hundred.

You know we brought all our furniture out with us, and even papers for the rooms, just because we happened to have everything; but I should not recommend any one to do so, for the expense of carriage, though moderate enough by sea (in a wool ship), is enormous as soon as it reaches Lyttleton, and goods have to be dragged up country by horses or bullocks. There are very good shops where you can buy everything, and besides these there are constant sales by auction where, I am told, furniture fetches a price sometimes under its English value. House rent about Christchurch is very high. We looked at some small houses in and about the suburbs of the town, when we were undecided about our plans, and were offered the most inconvenient little dwell- page 41 ings, with rooms which were scarcely bigger than cupboards, for 200 pounds a year; we saw nothing at a lower price than this, and any house of a better class, standing in a nicely arranged shrubbery, is at least 300 pounds per annum. Cab-hire is another thing which seems to me disproportionately dear, as horses are very cheap; there are no small fares, half-a-crown being the lowest “legal tender” to a cabman; and I soon gave up returning visits when I found that to make a call in a Hansom three or four miles out of the little town cost one pound or one pound ten shillings, even remaining only a few minutes at the house.

All food (except mutton) appears to be as nearly as possible at London prices; but yet every one looks perfectly well-fed, and actual want is unknown. Wages of all sorts are high, and employment, a certainty. The look and bearing of the immigrants appear to alter soon after they reach the colony. Some people object to the independence of their manner, but I do not; on the contrary, I like to see the upright gait, the well-fed, healthy look, the decent clothes (even if no one touches his hat to you), instead of the half-starved, depressed appearance, and too often cringing servility of the mass of our English population. Scotchmen do particularly well out here; frugal and thrifty, hard-working and sober, it is easy to predict the future of a man of this type in a new country. Naturally, the whole tone of thought and feeling is almost exclusively practical; even in a morning visit there is no small- page 42 talk. I find no difficulty in obtaining the useful information upon domestic subjects which I so much need; for it is sad to discover, after all my house-keeping experience, that I am still perfectly ignorant. Here it is necessary to know how everything should be done; it is not sufficient to give an order, you must also be in a position to explain how it is to be carried out I felt quite guilty when I saw the picture in Punch the other day, of a young and inexperienced matron requesting her cook “not to put any lumps into the melted butter,” and reflected that I did not know how lumps should be kept out; so, as I am fortunate enough to number among my new friends a lady who is as clever in these culinary details as she is bright and charming in society, I immediately went to her for a lesson in the art of making melted butter without putting lumps into it.

The great complaint, the never-ending subject of comparison and lamentation among ladies, is the utter ignorance and inefficiency of their female servants. As soon as a ship comes in it is besieged with people who want servants, but it is very rare to get one who knows how to do anything as it ought to be done. Their lack of all knowledge of the commonest domestic duties is most surprising, and makes one wonder who in England did the necessary things of daily cottage life for them, for they appear to have done nothing for themselves hitherto. As for a woman knowing how to cook, that seems the very last accomplishment they acquire; a girl page 43 will come to you as a housemaid at 25 pounds per annum, and you will find that she literally does not know how to hold her broom, and has never handled a duster. When you ask a nurse her qualifications for the care of perhaps two or three young children, you may find, on close cross-examination, that she can recollect having once or twice “held mother’s baby,” and that she is very firm in her determination that “you’ll keep baby yourself o’ nights; mem!” A perfectly inexperienced girl of this sort will ask, and get, 30 pounds or 35 pounds per annum, a cook from 35 pounds to 40 pounds; and when they go “up country,” they hint plainly they shall not stay long with you, and ask higher wages, stipulating with great exactness how they are to be conveyed free of all expense to and from their place.

Then, on the other hand, I must say they work desperately hard, and very cheerfully: I am amazed how few servants are kept even in the large and better class of houses. As a general rule, they, appear willing enough to learn, and I hear no complaints of dishonesty or immorality, though many moans are made of the rapidity with which a nice tidy young woman is snapped up as a wife; but that is a complaint no one can sympathise with. On most stations a married couple is kept; the man either to act as shepherd, or to work in the garden and look after the cows, and the woman is supposed to attend to the indoor comforts of the wretched bachelor-master: but she generally requires to be taught how to bake page 44 a loaf of bread, and boil a potato, as well as how to cook mutton in the simplest form. In her own cottage at home, who did all these things for her? These incapables are generally perfectly helpless and awkward at the wash-tub; no one seems to expect servants to know their business, and it is very fortunate if they show any capability of learning.

I must end my long letter by telling you a little story of my own personal experience in the odd ways of these girls. The housemaid at the boarding-house where we have stayed since we left Heathstock is a fat, sonsy, good-natured girl, perfectly ignorant and stupid, but she has not been long in the colony, and seems willing to learn. She came to me the other day, and, without the least circumlocution or hesitation, asked me if I would lend her my riding-habit as a pattern to give the tailor; adding that she wanted my best and newest. As soon as I could speak for amazement, I naturally asked why; she said she had been given a riding-horse, that she had loaned a saddle, and bought a hat, so now she had nothing on her mind except the habit; and further added, that she intended to leave her situation the day before the races, and that it was “her fixed intent” to appear on horseback each day, and all day long, at these said races. I inquired if she knew how to ride? No; she had never mounted any animal in her life. I suggested that she had better take some lessons before her appearance in public; but she said her mistress did not like to spare her to “practise,” page 45 and she stuck steadily to her point of wanting my habit as a pattern. I could not lend it to her, fortunately, for it had been sent up to the station with my saddle, etc.; so had she been killed, as I thought not at all unlikely, at least my conscience would not have reproached me for aiding and abetting her equestrian freak. I inquired from every one who went to the races if they saw or heard of any accident to a woman on horseback, and I most anxiously watched the newspapers to see if they contained any notice of the sort, but as there has been no mention of any catastrophe, I suppose she has escaped safely. Her horse must have been quieter and better broken than they generally are. F—— says that probably it was a very old “station screw.” I trust so, for her sake!