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In the Shadow of the Bush

Chapter I

page 1

Chapter I.

In one of the lately-settled bush districts of the Wellington Province, where the clearings were as yet comparatively few and of no very great extent—islands only as yet in the great sea of forest that stretched back for many miles over more or less broken country to the foot of the higher ranges, themselves forest clad—this story opens. Settlement had been advancing in this direction for some years, slowly at one time and more rapidly at another, but still steadily encroaching upon the unbroken region of bush. Occasionally a settler, or a community of settlers, more enterprising than others, would make a leap, as it were, far in advance of their comrades—a bolder dash upon the timbered foe, and take up an isolated position in the very heart of the enemy, only to be passed in turn and left behind, after a year or two, by the still advancing march of settlement.

Roads, as the term is generally understood, were for a time unknown. At first, a pathway through the bush or along the felled road line, diving, perhaps, now and again, into a deep gulley, or skirting a slippery sideling, and barely passable for a horse; then a formed clay track, over which page 2a dray might be taken in summer and autumn, but which was in winter and early spring in most places a deeply pouched slough of tenacious mire or liquid mud, through which the wearied pack-horses had to splash and flounder. Then—but often not till after restless years of agitation, and accompanied probably by the imposition of heavier rates—came the metalled road, over which wheels might travel with some degree of comfort all the year round.

To the artistic eye, the bush clearings, especially in their earlier stages, may appear as a sore blemish on the face of the landscape. Thickly strewn with blackened logs and branches, and with, perhaps, some remaining giants of the forest still standing, but scorched and dead and gaunt in leafless nakedness, these clearings certainly stand out in ugly contrast with the virgin native bush, whose hundred shades of green, and wealth of feathery fronds, and rich carpet of fern growth must ever delight the eye of the lover of the beautiful in nature. But viewed only with regard to the utility of things, these bush clearings, unsightly though they be, afford ample grounds for satisfaction. The vigorous growth of grass, that springs up from the seed sown after the fire, soon covers thickly the dark brown soil, and gives evidence of great fertility, and sheep or cattle may then be counted amongst the logs in such numbers as would delight the heart of many an owner of open arable land. But even the roughest of these primitive clearings give to experienced eyes promise of smooth pastures or abundant harvests in the not very distant future. Time, and the action of fire, coupled with the continuous hard work on the part of the owners, will bring about a striking change. A granger visiting them after an absence of some years would be astonished at the improvements effected. The timber will have in great measure disappeared, fences will have been erected on every hand, the slab wharé; will have given place to the neat weatherboard cottage, garden and page 3orchard will now be visible, and the gum-tree of Australia, with the cypress and pine of the Northern Hemisphere, will be preparing to take the place of their dispossessed and less accommodating brethren of New Zealand, who, with a too ardent love for the companions of their beautiful though gloomy forest home, will not bear to part from them or live a separate existence.

Townships, too, are formed here and there as settlement proceeds;—at first a store and post office, a cottage or two, a blacksmith's shop perhaps; then a hotel, another store, and again another hotel,—even though the requirements of the place may not altogether warrant the additional places of business, for it seems to be now an established rule in the Colony that where one of these has been opened there is always someone ready to believe that there must be room for a second.

Some, indeed, of these so-called townships never reach any further stage than the initial one in which they appeared on paper, in all the glories of the sale plans, with streets of high-sounding titles, and terraces and squares; never, it is to be feared, to resound to that busy roar of traffic which the promoters, or at least the unfortunate individuals who were induced to buy sections there, may have looked forward to.

A few there are that from superiority of position, and through fulfilling the wants of advancing settlement over a large surrounding district, make rapid progress and soon outstrip their less fortunate rivals.

One of these was the township of Bloomsbury. At the time this story opens it contained three hotels, as many stores, besides representatives of the various other trades usually established in the up-country centres. It also boasted of a solicitor's office (open, however, as yet only two days in the week), a bank and a land and commission agency or two. A young medical man had also lately commenced page 4practice there. A newspaper, too, had been established some little time previously—the Bloomsbury Guardian, in which Mr. Corcoran, the editor, daily laid before his readers some general news from the outside world, and all items of local interest; drawing attention, on every occasion that offered an opportunity, to the marked advances which the township and district were making in the march of progress, and denouncing the apathy and short-sightedness of the government of the day and its departments, in not sufficiently recognising the importance of the place and ministering more efficiently to its requirements.

The township was the centre of a large district, now being rapidly improved; and already a place of considerable commercial activity, it was destined to make further noted progress during the coming years.

The main road leading through it was a good one, but the others which radiated from the township in different directions into the country were nearly all as yet in the unmetalled state, if cleared and formed at all.