Waitaruna: A Story of New Zealand Life
Chapter V. — "Waitaruna ."
"New scenes arise, new landscapes strike the eye,
And all the enlivened country beautify."
Waitaruna homestead was much more picturesquely situated than are the majority of Otago sheep stations. It stood on the bank of a wide and deep, yet rapidly-flowing river, about a stone's-throw from the water's edge, along which grew a few straggling trees thickening into a clump of bush just below the house. This patch of bush had, doubtless, been one of the inducements which led to the choice of the site for the homestead, as it afforded shelter from the prevailing wind. A love of the picturesque had evidently weighed not with the pioneer in the wilderness who first fixed his habitation there, for the house resolutely turned its back to the swift-flowing Matau and the sylvan beauties of the bush, and stared at the yellow tussock-covered hills in preference. The ground immediately round the house was fenced and sub-divided into two or three paddocks, one of which page 64was partially cultivated. On a terrace at a little distance stood a large building with a sprawling roof of corrugated iron, which Gilbert conjectured must be the wool-shed, as he saw it was surrounded by what were evidently sheep-yards. Nearer at hand, but further up the river, were the men's hut, stables, and stock-yard; the latter, built of large heavy logs, appeared to Gilbert's uninitiated eyes absurdly strong and massive.
Looking from the verandah of the house, the view, if uninteresting, was at least extensive. Stretching away from the river for about a quarter of a mile, the ground was comparatively level, when it rose in a series of rolling hills intersected by numerous deeply-indented gullies. The hills as they receded increased in height, till a mountain range of considerable altitude formed a background to the picture. The whole were completely destitute of trees, and the only relief to the sombre monotony of the yellow tussock grass, was where one or two spurs bad been stripped of the long grass by fire, and the young shoots, which were already springing, appeared brilliantly green in contrast with the quieter shade of the surrounding hills.
Turning one's eyes in the opposite direction, a much less extensive but more pleasing picture presented itself. The opposite bank of the river rose abruptly from the very edge and shut out page 65any view beyond; but the noble river, flowing steadily and rapidly, yet silently onwards, save where its course was obstructed by some huge snag which projected from the otherwise unruffled surface of the water, would be of itself a remarkable and pleasing feature in any landscape. On the bank behind the house, besides the few trees already mentioned, grew some plants of the New Zealand flax, whose tall striking leaves betokened a rank luxuriance. These were interspersed with, and their stiffness relieved by, a tuft or two of the graceful toi-toi grass, with its tall feathery plumes.
On the one hand the prospect was framed by the dark green of the Sahara trees, which mainly composed the clump of bush, and on the other by a huge rock, looking as if it had come there by mistake somehow, and was trying to hide among the tall scrub and stunted birch trees growing round it.
As Gilbert Langton was contemplating these scenes in the stillness of the morning, just before breakfast on the second day after his arrival, he was startled by a voice behind him exclaiming: "By the powers of Maloney, and sure it's Mr. Langton himself!"
The voice was decidedly familiar, and turning round, Gilbert found himself confronting the well-known features of Mike Donovan.page 66
"Why, Mike, who in the world would have expected to find you here of all people?"
"It's just them very same words that I was afther saying myself," replied Mike.
"Well, Mike," said Gilbert, laughing; "if you are so astonished at finding yourself here, I suppose you can't say how you got here, can you?"
"Now, Misther Langton, it's game you're makin' on me somehow, I know. But if you want to know badly what brought me here, sure thin it was a waggon so far, and after that I walked, and it's not myself I'm surprised at finding here, but you."
"Oh, that's it, is it? I am sure you need not be surprised at seeing me here, for I left England with the intention of coming to this very place. But as for you, I fully expected you would have walked a good part of the way home again overland by this time, as you used to talk about."
"Now, Mr. Langton, it's too bad of yees to be afther teasing a poor fellow loike me. How's the Netherby, and the ould skipper, and all of them getting on?"
Mike listened eagerly to all the gossip concerning the ship, which was the bond of union between him and Gilbert, and seemed greatly grieved at the miserable fate of the Russian Finn, and, with a saddened expression on his usually cheerful face, turned away to work again.page 67
Shortly afterwards the manager and Mr. Ewart came in to breakfast, and Gilbert's attention was for a time withdrawn from the everlasting hills to the apparently never-ending mutton chops and strong tea, which appeared on the table at nearly every meal.
During breakfast Langton amused the others by recounting some of Mike's shipboard experiences, which gave the hero of them quite a new interest in the eyes of Mr. Ramshorn—at least so he said, and added, "I must, however, keep an eye on him, for I expect he has a good deal of the Chinaman's 'no savey' about him; that is, he will not understand when he does not wish to do so. I have found him very smart at picking up his work as yet. He can punch the bullocks almost as well as an old hand already, even to the swearing at them."
"That is undoubtedly a very necessary auxiliary in the eyes of an old bullock-driver," said Ewart. "I only once knew a fellow who could drive bullocks without sending them all to perdition every five minutes or so. Talking of bullock-driving reminds me of an incident which occurred the other day, and which rather amused me at the time. I was riding along a narrow footpath leading to one of the shepherd's huts; two embryo shepherds were trotting along the path in front of me; the eldest one, hearing my horse behind him, stepped aside, but the other, a page 68little toddling infant, apparently was disposed to yield the path to neither man nor beast. His brother called to him, 'Get out of the road, Adam,' but he did not deign to take any notice. I was by this time close upon him, and was just about to pull my horse to the side and leave him master of the situation, when the elder boy shouted to him again, but this time he used what seemed to be more intelligible language, for he said, 'Ghee, Adam! Ghee!' and Adam at once 'gheed' and left the path clear for me."
Whilst they were enjoying a whiff or two of tobacco after breakfast, Mr. Ramshorn inducted Gilbert into the mysteries of the station diary, the duty of keeping which would devolve on him. It seemed to Gilbert to savour something of ship life to have to note down day by day the state of the weather, and how the hands were employed, and such-like details of the routine of their occupations. But it was a duty which he never thought he would ever find irksome; yet more than once, when thoroughly tired out by a day's hard work, did he fall asleep, pen in hand, over that very diary.
"Come now, Ramshorn," said Ewart, "it's time we were at the yards; you'll have plenty of time to explain how you want the diary kept by and by. You ought to have had all these sheep delivered before this."page 69
To the yards accordingly they adjourned. They found them already filled with sheep, and the shepherds, including Dougal M'Lean, awaiting their arrival.
"We hef drafted some of the sheep already," said Dougal as they came up.
"That's right, Dougal," replied Mr. Ramshorn, as he and Mr. Ewart entered the yards.
Then began a busy scene, which to Gilbert was utterly bewildering. Why some sheep were put into one pen and some into another he could not understand, for as yet he could not tell a hogget from a full-mouthed sheep, even by looking at their mouths; so at present he could do nothing but sit on a hurdle and look on. After a time one of the yards was filled, and Mr. Ramshorn called to him to come and lend a hand at counting them out. The sheep were driven through a narrow race from one yard to another, but before he had counted a dozen Gilbert was quite at sea and had lost count altogether, so fast did the sheep pass him.
He was, however, relieved to see that both Mr. Ewart and the manager were hard at work counting, so that the numbers would be ascertained without his aid.
Dougal having noticed that Gilbert had failed, sent him to keep tally while he went to bring up the rest of the mob. That duty was easy enough of accom-page 70plishment , as he had only to make a mark on a rail each time "tally" was called.
"You need to keep your eyes open for that sort of work, Langton," said Mr. Ramshorn when they had finished; "but I suppose you found it easy enough," he added sarcastically.
"Oh, it's nothing when you're used to it, I daresay," replied Gilbert; "but I have been engaged on the far more arduous task of keeping tally."
"I did not like to ask you to try that," said Ramshorn, "in case you should be exhausted by the effort."
"Come now, Ramshorn," broke in Ewart, "I am sure if the truth were told you were not successful in your first attempt at counting sheep either. So don't be too rough on a poor new chum."
"I don't think the new chum wants your pity; I think he can fight his own battles pretty well. But come on and finish the drafting, or we won't get through by dinner time," replied the manager, as he proceeded to assist Dougal to yard the rest of the sheep.
The work was finished before dinner, and though Gilbert had not been doing anything that could be called work, he was not sorry when the hour for the midday meal arrived; the clear, fresh air imparting to him a most voracious appetite, which was fortunate, as had it not been so he might not page 71have relished the again-repeated repast of mutton and tea.
"You must bring Langton up to Paketoa sometime soon," said Ewart; "there's not much doing just now, and you can easily get away."
"Well, I'll see about that," said Ramshorn." You see I have been to town, and must stop at home for a bit."
"It's just like you, to make yourself disagreeable. You can come very well if you like, and when a fellow is all alone it is a duty you ought to perform; but I expect my folks back from town soon, so if Ramshorn won't bring you, you must find the way yourself, Langton, and when my sister comes home we'll have some music. When once you have found the way I hope you will come as often as you can get away for a day or two."
"I am going over to the out-station, and will ride with you so far," said Ramshorn, as they all proceeded towards the stables.
When Ewart and Ramshorn were fairly started, and Gilbert was left to himself for the rest of the afternoon, he found enough to interest him in the various objects, which were new and strange. He found Mike, too, in the course of his rounds, at work repairing a breach in the sod-fence which enclosed one of the paddocks, but that worthy was page 72nothing loath to "knock off for a spell," and renew his chat about their fellow-passengers.
"An' isn't it quare, Mr. Langton, that you should come to the same station as mesilf—isn't it now? Be jabers, it is almost as good as having some o' my frinds from the ould sod about the place."
"I suppose you mean that as a compliment," said Gilbert, laughing; "but it won't do for me to keep you from your work, and you had better devote your attention for the present to the new sods you are cutting to mend the fence. Can you tell me, though, if there is any way of getting to where those trees are?" he added, pointing to the clump near the house, "for I saw this morning that they appeared to be cut off from the bank by a sort of small branch of the river."
"Sure, thin, and they tell me that there is something they call a canoe down there that takes you across, but you can't get over on dry land, for that there pool of stagnant water runs right round the whole bush as they call it, except on the side where the river is, and of course you can't get on there at all, at all."
Not being able to make much of Mike's lucid explanations, Gilbert thought he had better make an exploration for himself. As he was proceeding thither he met M'Lean, the Highland shepherd, who had just come in from the run.page 73
"An' it iss seeing the place you will pe after, she will suppose."
"Yes," replied Gilbert, "I am just having a look round. I suppose you know the place pretty well."
"Oh yes; she will hef been here six years, or fife years whatever. Mrs. M'Lean she will hef been here two years, but no more. She stayed in Scotland with her mother till she died, for she wass not for leafing Scotland. No, she wass not."
"Then if you have been here so long, no doubt you can tell me the use of the old coffee-mill, or something of that sort, which I saw fixed on a post at the back of the men's hut when I passed."
"The coffee-mill it iss that she will be wanting to know apout. The mill wass a flour-mill when first she wass here. Every man had to grind his own flour and make his own damper or scones, and no man would grind for his neighbours—not one. It would be fery hard work for her too, after mustering all day, to come home to grind the mill. But that iss all gone now, and things will pe much more petter now. Oh, yes."
Dougal liked well to retail reminiscences of his hardships in old times, most of which were decidedly uninteresting, and Gilbert afterwards found that there was considerable sameness about the experiences of the earlier days which some of the older colonists delighted to retail to a "new chum." As page 74those details were now all new to Langton, and he had nothing else to do, he spent some time in chatting with the Highlander, whose quaint accent and mode of expressing himself had the charm of novelty, if nothing else, to recommend them.
Gilbert being desirous of mastering the geography of the immediate vicinity of the station, got the shepherd to show him the canoe of which Mike had spoken. It was really a canoe of native manufacture, and was simply a log of Totara, which had been hollowed out by some patient Maori, assisted by fire and a stone adze, in the days before the advent of the "Pakeha" with his deadly civilisation and exterminating "Waipouru" (alcoholic liquor—literally, "stinking water").
In this crank craft M'Lean with a long-handled shovel, in lieu of a more suitable paddle, paddled Gilbert across the narrow creek, which, when the river was high, divided the small wooded island from the mainland. Dougal told how they at times crossed the river itself by the same means, and how one young fellow had been nearly drowned in the attempt by getting foul of a snag which capsized the canoe, fortunately not very far from the bank.
"I should not care to venture on that rapid river in a tub like that," said Gilbert; "indeed, I hardly liked the feeling crossing that small branch page 75where the water is comparatively still, I can tell you."
"Oh! she will pe getting more colonised py and py, and not pe caring so much," was Dougal's patronising remark, as Gilbert bade him "good night," ere he returned to the house, where he found the manager had already arrived.