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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter IX. Death in Our New Home—New Zealand Children

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Letter IX. Death in Our New Home—New Zealand Children.

I do not like to allow the first Panama steamer to go without a line from me: this is the only letter I shall attempt, and it will be but a short and sad one, for we are still in the first bitterness of grief for the loss of our dear little baby. After I last wrote to you he became very ill, but we hoped that his malady was only caused by the unhealthiness of Christchurch during the autumn, and that he would soon revive and get on well in this pure, beautiful mountain air. We consequently hurried here as soon as ever we could get into the house, and whilst the carpenters were still in it. Indeed, there was only one bedroom ready for us when I arrived. The poor little man rallied at first amazingly; the weather was exquisitely bright and sunny, and yet bracing. Baby was to be kept in the open air as much as possible, so F—— and I spent our days out on the downs near the house, carrying our little treasure by turns: but all our care was fruitless: he got another and page 57 more violent attack about a fortnight ago, and after a few hours of suffering he was taken to the land where pain is unknown. During the last twelve hours of his life, as I sat before the fire with him on my lap, poor F—— kneeling in a perfect agony of grief by my side, my greatest comfort was in looking at that exquisite photograph from Kehren’s picture of the “Good Shepherd,” which hangs over my bedroom mantelpiece, and thinking that our sweet little lamb would soon be folded in those Divine, all-embracing Arms. It is not a common picture; and the expression of the Saviour’s face is most beautiful, full of such immense feminine compassion and tenderness that it makes me feel more vividly, “In all our sorrows He is afflicted.” In such a grief as this I find the conviction of the reality and depth of the Divine sympathy is my only true comfort; the tenderest human love falls short of the feeling that, without any words to express our sorrow, God knows all about it; that He would not willingly afflict or grieve us, and that therefore the anguish which wrings our hearts is absolutely necessary in some mysterious way for our highest good. I fear I have often thought lightly of others’ trouble in the loss of so young a child; but now I know what it is. Does it not seem strange and sad, that this little house in a distant, lonely spot, no sooner becomes a home than it is baptized, as it were, with tears? No doubt there are bright and happy days in store for us yet, but these first ones here have been sadly darkened by this shadow of page 58 death. Inanimate things have such a terrible power to wound one: though everything which would remind me of Baby has been carefully removed and hidden away by F——’s orders, still now and then I come across some trifle belonging to him, and, as Miss Ingelow says—

“My old sorrow wakes and cries.”

Our loss is one too common out here, I am told: infants born in Christchurch during the autumn very often die. Owing to the flatness of the site of the town, it is almost impossible to get a proper system of drainage; and the arrangements seem very bad, if you are to judge from the evil smells which are abroad in the evening. Children who are born on a station, or taken there as soon as possible, almost invariably thrive, but babies are very difficult to rear in the towns. If they get over the first year, they do well; and I cannot really call to mind a single sickly, or even delicate-looking child among the swarms which one sees everywhere.

I cannot say that I think colonial children prepossessing in either manners or appearance, in spite of their ruddy cheeks and sturdy limbs. Even quite little things are pert and independent, and give me the idea of being very much spoiled. When you reflect on the utter absence of any one who can really be called a nurse, this is not to be wondered at. The mothers are thoroughly domestic and devoted to their home duties, far more so than page 59 the generality of the same class at home. An English lady, with even an extremely moderate income, would look upon her colonial sister as very hard-worked indeed. The children cannot be entrusted entirely to the care of an ignorant girl, and the poor mother has them with her all day long; if she goes out to pay visits (the only recognized social duty here), she has to take the elder children with her, but this early introduction into society does not appear to polish the young visitors’ manners in the least. There is not much rest at night for the mater-familias with the inevitable baby, and it is of course very difficult for her to be correcting small delinquents all day long; so they grow up with what manners nature gives them. There seems to me, however, to be a greater amount of real domestic happiness out here than at home: perhaps the want of places of public amusement may have something to do with this desirable state of affairs, but the homes seem to be thoroughly happy ones. A married man is an object of envy to his less fortunate brethren, and he appears anxious to show that he appreciates his good fortune. As for scandal, in the ordinary acceptation of the word, it is unknown; gossip there is in plenty, but it generally refers to each other’s pecuniary arrangements or trifling peculiarities, and is all harmless enough. I really believe that the life most people lead here is as simple and innocent as can well be imagined. Each family is occupied in providing for its own little daily wants and cares, page 60 which supplies the mind and body with healthy and legitimate employment, and yet, as my experience tells me, they have plenty of leisure to do a kind turn for a neighbour. This is the bright side of colonial life, and there is more to be said in its praise; but the counterbalancing drawback is, that the people seem gradually to lose the sense of larger and wider interests; they have little time to keep pace with the general questions of the day, and anything like sympathy or intellectual appreciation is very rare. I meet accomplished people, but seldom well-read ones; there is also too much talk about money: “where the treasure is, there will the heart be also;” and the incessant financial discussions are wearisome, at least to me.