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Waitaruna: A Story of New Zealand Life

Chapter III. — Land at Last

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Chapter III.
Land at Last .

"Heavens! what a goodly prospect spreads around
Of hills, and dales, and woods."

Thompson .

"Land on the port bow" were the words which greeted Gilbert Langton's ears as he went on deck early one morning, after having been eighty-five days at sea. The Captain had foretold that New Zealand would be sighted early in the morning, and in the hope of being the first to descry dry land again, Gilbert had risen betimes. He was, therefore, rather disappointed when he heard that it had already been sighted, and still more so when, on looking in the direction indicated, expecting to see the land looming large in the distance, he saw nothing. Eagerly he scanned the horizon; still he saw nothing but the waste of waters rolling and leaping with playful glee before a fresh breeze, as he had seen it almost daily for nearly three months.

"Well, I suppose you are pleased to see terra firma once more?" said Mr. Spanker.

"I would be if I saw it; but you're trying to hoax me, I think," replied Gilbert.

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"Nothing of the sort, I assure you. Don't you see it yourself?" said the mate, pointing in the direction the land lay.

Looking again, Gilbert saw something on the horizon which he had at first mistaken for a cloud, and about which, even now, he had some doubt as to its being land. Mr. Spanker, however, had none, and laughingly asked him if he had ever seen a cloud like that. To which Gilbert felt inclined to answer, "Many a time," but he prudently refrained from expressing an opinion.

When Langton returned to the poop after breakfast, there was no longer any room for question as to whether it was land or no. There it was, without doubt, rising out of the sea, and every moment was bringing them nearer to it. There was great stir and excitement amongst the passengers, and many eager eyes were anxiously gazing at the nearing coast, and many extraordinary speculations and crude ideas were given vent to. As they approached, it became apparent that what they saw was the lower part of a wooded mountain, the upper part being hid in the clouds. Whilst they were conjecturing vaguely as to the probable height of the mountain, the mist fell to its base and left the summit clear. The effect was strange in the extreme; the mountain top looked like an island floating in a higher sea than that on which they sailed; but even as they watched it, the cloud rose again and soon after wholly disappeared, so that they obtained an uninterrupted view of the page 33bold coast-line, and mountain peaks wooded to the top.

"New Zealand does not seem to be a country suitable for pastoral pursuits," remarked Percy Brown, Esquire, to the assembled passengers.

"Faix," said Mike, "and where can they grow their praties?"

"I expect that is where the Maories live," said another; while a youth of sporting proclivities supposed there would be "lots of wild beasts there."

A few hours later the vessel lay hove-to off the entrance to Otago Harbour, with a signal for the pilot flying from the mizzenmast. The possessors of glasses watched the pilot-boat put off, and told the less fortunate the number of her crew, and such minor details as they were able to discover by the aid of their binoculars, with as great an air of importance as if it was something affecting the future well-being of every soul on board, and not a trivial fact which must be known to all in a few minutes. So soon as the boat came within hail, the pilot bawled out, "What ship's that?" Fifty throats replied, "The Netherby." But their united efforts only produced a babel of sound, for the pilot repeated his question when he had lessened the distance between his boat and the vessel.

Mike Donovan had silently watched the boat's approach till he was able to distinguish the appearance of the men in it, when he exclaimed, "Be jabers! thin there's white men in this counthry!"

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"I think there will be some queer ones in it before long," said the third mate; "but what did you expect?"

"Well, you know, I thought as it might be different in furrin parts," replied Mike.

The mirth evoked by this conversation was cut short by the appearance of the pilot on deck, most of the passengers being anxious to get a word with him, to know what were their chances of employment, to learn if he knew their friends, or, in fact, with or without excuse to speak to him, and hear the sound of a strange voice. As it was too late that day to cross the bar, the pilot moved the Netherby nearer to the entrance, and cast anchor.

After the excitement of the previous day, Gilbert would probably not have been astir very early, but he was aroused by an unwonted commotion overhead; so dressing for the last time (he thought to himself) in the confined limits of his cabin, and going on deck, he found the Netherby already across the bar, in tow of a small steamer which snorted and puffed loud enough for one twice her size.

The scene which met Gilbert's eyes was a striking one, and the impressiveness of its beauty was not lessened by the fact, that land of any sort was attractive in such circumstances; but it was from the innate loveliness of the surrounding face of nature, and from no such extraneous cause, that Gilbert Langton was led to exclaim, "How very beautiful!" The harbour, up which they were sail-page 35ing , was a lake-like piece of water surrounded by hills of the most picturesque outline, most of them densely wooded from the water's edge to the loftiest summit. From these shady recesses the occasional note of a bird was heard, musical and mellow, the white houses in the distant town of Port Chalmers, and the shipping lying in the adjacent bay, being all that could be seen to betoken the presence of man. The sea-fowl even came in for their share of Langton's admiration, but he knew not whether to admire most the large gull with head and breast of snow, dark back, and wings lightened by a white fringe, or the pretty little one whose plumage of lavender and white contrasted with the brilliant orange of its legs and bill. He heard some of the passengers around him grumbling at the apparent hilliness of the country, but, so far as he was concerned, the beauty of the scenery impressed him so favourably that he could think of nothing else. The season was winter, a fact which Gilbert felt especial difficulty in realising, for the month was June, and the trees on the shore wore as thick foliage as if it were indeed "the leafy month" at the antipodes as well as in England. It was one of those delicious days which form a great part of an Otago winter, clear and bright, not a cloud in the sky, the sunshine pleasantly warm, while the buoyant atmosphere was agreeably fresh and exhilarating.

Gilbert, enchanted beyond measure, remarked to page 36the pilot, "This is not like a winter day, with the trees green and the birds singing; do you ever have snow here?"

"Oh yes," was the reply, "occasionally we have a southerly buster; but the snow never lies, down here on the coast, more than a day or so; but it makes up for any deficiency in that way by raining pretty considerably now and again."

At length the anchorage was reached, and the health officer and the customs officials, followed by newspaper reporters and friends of the passengers, came alongside, and as the answers to the questions of the first-mentioned individual were satisfactory, the vessel soon swarmed with strange faces, and all was excitement and bustle; some of the passengers shaking hands as though they would never stop, with friends they had not seen for many years, others getting out their luggage so as to get away from the ship as speedily as possible. Gilbert, having learned from the Captain that a steamer would come alongside next morning for such of the passengers as chose to wait till then, remained quietly on board that night; and it was not without a feeling of regret that he thought that he would next day leave the good ship Netherby, where he had spent the last three months not unpleasantly. He had his cabin all to himself, for the co-occupant of it—Percy Brown—had gone ashore in the first boat, saying he would look out for the biggest bed page 37in all Dunedin that night, so as to assure himself he really was on shore again.

Next day, which was as fine as that preceding it, saw Gilbert Langton and many of his fellow-passengers on board the little steamer, the Goldseeker, steaming still further up the beautiful lake-like bay to Dunedin, where they arrived after an hour's sail. The wharf was thronged with people, many of whom were gold-diggers, as Gilbert afterwards learned, waiting for a steamer to return to Melbourne; but at the time he wondered greatly that so many stalwart fellows should be loafing about doing nothing. Getting clear of the crowd, for whom he and the other "new chums" seemed to be objects of especial interest, he found his way to a quiet boarding-house, where he took up his quarters.

After luncheon he set out in search of the merchant's office to which his letters were to be directed, in the expectation of finding a budget from home awaiting him. Nor was he disappointed in this, and, oh! how pleasant it was to recognise the handwriting of his mother and sisters. It was almost like meeting a friend in this strange land. He bore the precious epistles back to his lodging-house, and, in the retirement of his bedroom, read and re-read them. Amongst them was a note which lay unheeded for a long time, till at length, when he knew the others almost by heart, he, wondering who in New Zealand could be writing to him, opened it, page 38and found it to be from Mr. Ramshorn, the manager of the sheep station on which he was to be a cadet, telling him that, in the end of June, he—Mr. Ramshorn—would be in Dunedin on business, and suggesting to Gilbert that he should wait in town, so that he might have company in his journey to the station; and this Gilbert resolved to do.

Dunedin, though but a town of yesterday, surprised Gilbert much, for he found it a busy, stirring place, with plenty to amuse and interest him. The wooden houses and buildings seemed to him very strange, and accounted for the mushroom growth of the past year or two, consequent on the discovery of gold. He got, in a measure, accustomed to dwelling-houses and shops being built of wood, but he could not overcome the feeling of strangeness when he went to a church, on the first Sunday after his arrival, and found that it also was formed of that material. There was no lack of places of amusement, which appeared to be all patronised, and that, in a great measure, by the burly miners who had thronged the wharf on his landing, and by whom the town seemed to be filled. Gilbert saw a few of his fellow-passengers occasionally, but before many days were over the majority of them had drifted out of sight. He saw his old cabin mate frequently, however, for Percy Brown seemed bent on making himself conspicuous. He lived at the best hotel, and Gilbert often saw him driving or riding about, and wondered to himself if Brown was squandering the page 39capital which he had brought for the purpose of initiating the "pastoral pursuits" he had talked of following. Langton was therefore surprised one day, when chancing to meet the steward of the Netherby, whom he stopped to ask about Arthur Leslie, that he could at first extract nothing from him but abuse of Percy Brown, from whom the steward complained he had been unable to obtain any return for the beer so liberally consumed by that young gentleman on the voyage out. After he had got rid of a little of his spleen, he told Gilbert what was indeed news, but news which hardly surprised him, namely, that Arthur Leslie and one of the sailors had run away from the ship that morning. Langton hoped that he might meet Leslie, for he did not like to think of his old schoolfellow wandering about in this strange land with little or no money in his pocket, and, besides, he thought that, perhaps, he might be able to induce him to return to his friends; but he was, unfortunately, able to do neither, for Leslie was already on his way up the country.

On the morning of the day Mr. Ramshorn had said he would reach town, Gilbert was sitting, after breakfast, reading the morning's paper, when his eye caught the following paragraph:—

"A young man named Percy Brown was arrested by the police last night as he was leaving the theatre, on a charge of obtaining money on false pretences. The accused is a recent arrival in the page 40colony, and will be brought up before the police court this morning."

"My goodness!" exclaimed Gilbert, springing to his feet suddenly, and at the same time knocking over his chair, which had the effect of bringing the landlady hurriedly to the room to know what was wrong.

"Where's the police court?" asked Gilbert, in a manner which startled the old lady more than the previous noise had done; but, before she could speak, he added, "There can't be two Percy Browns lately arrived in the colony, surely; but I must go and see. I can't believe it really," and without waiting for any information as to the locality of the court, he rushed off, leaving the landlady in doubt as to whether he had taken leave of his senses or not.

Langton discovered the court in time to get a seat on one of the foremost benches, for before the business of the day began the room was filled by the "great unwashed." That the great majority of the spectators belonged to that class was strongly evidenced to Gilbert by his olfactory nerves before he had sat there long, and he wished the list of "drunks," and other minor offences which formed the first part of the day's performance, would come to an end, so that he might satisfy his curiosity and escape. At length the presiding magistrate mentioned the name of Percy Brown, and any lingering doubts as to the probable identity of the individual were set at rest, for the tall and good-looking police page 41officer ushered into the dock no other than his late cabin companion, looking rather seedy from his night's quarters in the watch-house, but showing the dandy notwithstanding.

The clerk read over the charge, and Brown answered "Not guilty" very coolly. It appeared from the evidence, that Brown had induced one of the waiters at the hotel where he had been staying to lend him £10, which the unfortunate waiter did, as Brown represented that he had plenty of money in the bank, from which it was too late to draw any that afternoon; so he promised that if he received the amount, he would give a cheque for it next morning. Next morning Mr. Brown had apparently forgotten all about the transaction, and the waiter did not like to say anything for a day or two, but, getting uneasy, he ventured to remind him of the promised cheque. Some excuse, however, was all he got; but, having his suspicions aroused, the waiter pressed the matter, and when a threat of giving information to the police only evoked blustering language from Brown, he felt sure he had been duped, and at once carried out his threat. Brown exhibited considerable ingenuity in cross-examining the witness, and attempted to shake his evidence as to the statement about the money in the bank, but without success. The magistrate committed the accused for trial; Gilbert left the court in a state of astonishment bordering on vacuity, and as he walked slowly back to his page 42lodgings, muttered to himself at intervals, "Well, I didn't think he could have been so abominably mean."

Just as he reached his destination, Gilbert was roused from his unpleasant reverie by a clattering of horses' hoofs on the roadway, and looking up he saw a cavalcade of ladies and gentlemen approaching. As they rode past, his attention was attracted to one of the group, a pretty bright-eyed girl of about seventeen. A vagrant tress of hair of the brightest gold, shaken from its place by her exercise, fell from beneath a neat riding-hat, upon her habit of dark blue. Her horse, on which she sat with grace and confidence, was a handsome bay, and Langton thought, as he looked after the party, that he had never seen such a pretty girl in his life. His thoughts were completely diverted from their previous course by this fair vision, and he wished within himself that Mr. Ramshorn might not come to town for a long time, and that he might, by some lucky accident, obtain an introduction to the unknown beauty.

Any hope of that kind he might have entertained was dispelled when he reached the boarding-house, where he learned that Mr. Ramshorn had called, and not finding him in, had left a note asking him to call at his hotel that evening, and also expressing a hope that he would be ready to make an early start next morning, adding that there was a good horse for him to ride to the Station. There was page 43also another letter awaiting him, which a glance told him was from Arthur Leslie. Tearing it open, Gilbert read as follows:—

"25th June 1863.

"My dear Gilbert,—I know you won't betray me, but I can't give you my address at present, for I don't know yet what it is to be, and I can't date this letter from any place, for the village, or 'township' as they call it in this part of the world, has such an unpronounceable Maori name that I can't venture to try to spell it, especially when I remember that old Fusby used to take a delight in reminding me that spelling was not my forte. At any rate, I may tell you that I am on my way to some sheep station or other, where I am to fill the onerous situation of men's cook, and, thanks to my experience on board that abominable old Netherby, I really do know something of my work. But writing of the Netherby reminds me that I have not told you how I left it. That old beast, Captain Seebon, told me that he intended to take me back to my friends, and that if I attempted to run away he would take proceedings against me as a stowaway. Well, as you may guess, I had not enjoyed myself so much in his society as to wish for his company back to England, and I accordingly looked out for an opportunity to part company. I found that one of the sailors—the Russian Finn—was meditating a similar move, so we laid our heads together, and page 44finally managed one night to get away in one of the ship's boats, and, pulling ashore, we took refuge in the bush. We were greatly afraid of being caught, and kept in the bush that night, and as we had no blankets, and there was a sharp frost, we found it very cold. Next day we wandered about in the bush a long time, and began to fear we were lost. We became very hungry, but at last we came upon a hut standing in a small clearing. The inhabitants were gone, but we tried the door, and finding it open we walked in and made a good meal of some cold meat and bread we found. I proposed that we should leave some money as compensation, but the Finn laughed at me, for neither of us had a sixpence, and as my hunger had overcome any scruples I had previously, there was nothing for it but to shut the door and take to the bush again. I hope the settler was not disappointed to find his supper gone. I don't think what we ate harmed him much, and it certainly did us a 'power of good,' as my mate expressed it. We found a track leading from the clearing which led us to a road; so, taking the direction which we concluded led away from Dunedin, we trudged along till dark, which soon came on. Not wishing to pass such another cold night, we turned off the track and lit a fire at the root of a large tree, and after a good warm, and supping on a few fragments of the settler's victuals we had pocketed, we prepared for the night. We gathered a lot of dead wood which we piled on the fire, and page 45lay down close by to sleep. I had slept perhaps a couple of hours when I was wakened by a loud crash. I had half risen to ascertain the cause when I was struck down again violently, and something fell on the ground with a heavy thud. It was the tree. I knew at once. Fortunately for me, it had fallen so that I lay between a fork of its huge limbs, with only a few light branches, by which I had been knocked down, over me. I got out from beneath them as speedily as possible, and saw to my horror by the light of the fire (which, though scattered in all directions by the falling tree, still flamed brightly) that the main trunk had been burned at the foot by our fire, so that it had fallen fairly along my companion. My first feeling was thankfulness at my own escape, then pity for the poor fellow so suddenly killed at my side. I saw at a glance that I was powerless to do anything, and I sat half stupefied for some time. When I came to myself again, I thought that the best thing I could do would be to get away from the place as quickly as possible, for I thought if I was found there it would lead to the Captain's finding me out, to say nothing of my perhaps being tried for manslaughter or something of the sort, even though it was not my fault. I took the poor fellow's hand that came from beneath the log, and felt that it was already cold. Thinking if there was any bother I had best be near some one who knew me, I started to walk for the town, which I reached shortly after daylight. As I wandered page 46about the streets, not knowing where to look for you, and afraid lest I should meet the Captain at every turning, I saw on a board a notice that a man cook was wanted for a station, so I hung about till the office was open, and applied for the billet. Well, I got it, and as a dray was to start that forenoon I went right away with it; and here I am so far on my way, and I don't think old Seebon or any one else will find me. I got an awful fright, as you can imagine, and I felt as if I must tell somebody, so I thought to write to you. I never wrote such a long letter in my life, I think, and I am quite tired of it. I hope to see you sometime after the Netherby has gone, and I can come to town and enjoy myself for a bit, when I hope you will do the same. Now burn this as soon as you have read it, like a good fellow, and believe me to remain, your old schoofellow,

Arthur Leslie."

Gilbert Langton read this letter with a feeling akin to awe; and as he watched it consuming in the fireplace, he muttered, "Is it not like him? so careless and selfish! Yet poor Arthur's not a bad fellow; I am thankful he escaped. When I saw the account in the papers of the poor man being found crushed beyond recognition, I little thought it was the Russian Finn, and that Arthur had had such a narrow escape. There is a tinge of coldbloodedness about his letter that I could hardly have page 47believed of him. I must write to his uncle, and let him know Arthur is safe here, for I fear he will not do it himself, and the old man, hard though he may seem, will be very anxious about him, I am sure. I'll write, at any rate."