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A Strange Friendship: A Story of New Zealand

Chapter II. Dolly's Story

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Chapter II. Dolly's Story.

We were so happy during those first months in New Zealand. Happy, in spite of hard work, to which we were all utterly unaccustomed, and very often hard fare to match it.

We all tried our hands at cooking, and at teaching our inexperienced Lizzie to cook, one after the other. I succeeded the best, and was duly installed as housekeeper and head of the culinary department; with a plentiful store of holland aprons, with bibs in front, and Miss page 21 Acton's cookery book in solitary grandeur on a shelf conveniently near to ray hand.

Violet kept the sitting-room in order, and undertook the mending of stockings for the whole family, while Kate superintended everything, and made herself (as advertisements express it) “generally useful”—that is to say, for the first few months; after that little Fred was born, an event which caused a great excitement in every member of the household.

But I am going on to this time too fast. I must advance more slowly at first.

We had a wooden house, roofed with shingle; not large, yet sufficiently so for comfort. We had only one sitting-room, but that was a good-sized room; the very pride of our hearts in contrast with other rooms in other houses of our neighbours, and regarded by the majority of the page 22 bachelors in the district as an earthly paradise.

Why, it had actually a piano—Violet's own piano, which had been my mother's; and it had a bay-window, with a flower-stand in it, soon filled with geraniums, fuchsias, and one lemon verbena. Then there were two recesses, holding shelves of books, mostly belonging to Dolly, who was the bookworm of the family; besides all this, did not a pretty work-table stand in one corner, whereon were deposited three dainty work-baskets, lined respectively with pink, green, and purple satin?

We papered the room ourselves, and hung up some engravings after pictures by Landseer and Sant, in plain but pretty frames. We made chintz curtains for the windows, and put down a carpet we had brought from England on the floor. page 23 Then, with a strong leather-covered sofa, and chairs to match, and an oval table in the centre adorned with a plain green cloth, we thought ourselves complete, and, meeting Harry in the hall, we dragged him in in triumph to admire our upholstery.

Lizzie was much “up-lifted” that night at the increased grandeur of the family who owned such a regal apartment. Living as she had done almost all her life “up-country”—for her parents had sailed from Glasgow when she was quite a child—she had small experience of household comforts, and had even gone so far as to mistake our iron bedsteads when she first beheld them in a disjointed condition, for ornamental iron gates, designed for the garden and paddocks.

Lizzie was a good type of her class, and as such, I may add a few more words about her page 24 here. Utterly inexperienced, ignorant of house work when she first came to us, she was yet quick, shrewd, and hard-working to a degree which would make many English maid-servants open, their eyes in amazement. The rapidity with which she learnt new branches of domestic economy was only to be equalled by her readiness of resource upon an emergency; a quality not to be estimated lightly by any one who has tried living in the country in New Zealand.

Lizzie, I may add, married of course before long; but that has nothing to do with my story.

Harry had men always working on his farm; but they lodged and boarded with a married couple, established for that purpose in a tiny wooden house about half a mile away. From this place our milk and cream were duly brought page 25 to us every day, our butter twice a week, and our meat whenever we wanted it. The creek ran between this house and ourselves, and was crossed by a rough bridge just opposite to our front windows.

Harry had been warned by several of his neighbours whilst his house was in course of erection that the site he had chosen for it was rather low. Heavy rains are apt to fall in New Zealand, and creeks will sometimes rise in a few hours in a manner startling and unexpected to those whose homes are near their banks.

However, on mature consideration, there seemed no occasion for any serious alarm in our case; our house was far above the highest watermark known for some years past. Only the Maoris (very few of whom ever came near us) could recollect a time when the water had flowed up as page 26 far as the little lawn of English grass in front of the house.

Harry talked too of building a new and very superior homestead on a considerably higher elevation, as soon as his affairs had begun really to prosper. The house we were now in, he assured us, was only a temporary residence, and, as such, to be made the best of for a time.

However, we were very well satisfied with it so far, and everything went on very smoothly indoors for a while.

From the windows of our sitting-room, and from those of my bedroom, we commanded a lovely view. The country seen from them was, it is true, dull and monotonous looking, but it stretched away to a magnificent range of mountains, clothed in the winter in raiment of dazzling snow.

The outline of these mountains, cut sharp with page 27 the crystallized clearness of outlines in the New Zealand climate against the bright blue morning sky, or the opal heavens of sunset, I soon knew by heart; they always assumed, to my imagination, the form of a dead giant maiden lying on her back, with arms folded on her icy breast, and billows of hair flowing backwards till lost in the softer outline of more distant hills.

These mountains became, at the time I write of, a part of my life. I never recall any of those days but once more they rise before me, and claim me as a friend. In all their countless aspects, lustrous and dazzling in the sunlight, lurid and menacing in cloudy gloom, they were dear to my heart, and have stamped themselves upon my memory for life.

It used to be a great pleasure to me at that time, when busy about my kitchen duties, to hear page 28 Violet's voice as she sang” in the next room. She was very fond of music, and had brought out a large portfolio of her favourite songs. I shut my eyes for a moment, and fancy I see her now seated before her piano as she used to look in those days. Oh, poor piano! destined, like your mistress, to a strange fate!

Let me pause a moment here to try to sketch this fairest of my sisters as she was in her beauty and her bloom. She had lovely yellow hair, thick and glossy as satin, eyes of bright turquoise blue, and beautiful pouting lips as innocent-looking as a baby's. She was the tallest of us all, and was to me ever my “queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls.”

Kate was not as tall as Violet, and inclined to be short; she had dark hair, and a pale face, with a sweet expression, which made every one page 29 love her at first sight. Harry was fair, rather thin, and very good-tempered.

For myself, I used to see then in the glass a quaint little colourless face; darker hair than Violet's, worn in curls arranged high on the top of the head; and a figure which Violet pronounced too plump for elegance.

With this our family portraits are complete. Violet and I rode a good deal, generally with Harry, but sometimes alone together. It was arranged that we should return the Ainsleighs' call, and leave Kate's card, as she was not feeling strong enough herself to undertake the visit.

“Don't stay too long, girls,” said Kate, coming into the room as we were dressing for our ride. “And don't get too intimate with Madame Ainsleigh. I didn't like her manners at all, and page 30 I thought she seemed disposed the other day to try to force her society on you more than, we should desire ourselves.”

Violet was hunting in her drawer for a pair of riding gloves. She said nothing in answer to this remark.

“We will be very good children, and come home early, Kate,” said I, as I hastily arranged my hat before the glass.

“Mr. Ainsleigh seems a thorough gentleman, but his sister is not a thorough lady,” went on Kate, musingly, and speaking more to herself than to us. “I wonder who the Ainsleighs are, and what part of England they come from. I never met any people of that name before.”

Violet turned round, flushed with a contest she was waging with an obstinate button on her gauntlet.

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“I warn you, Kate,” she said, “that I do not intend to take up any absurd prejudices. In this country, as Harry observed the other day, it is far better to be neighbourly; and if Miss Ainsleigh invites me to take tea to-night, I dare say I shall stop.”

Kate said nothing in answer to this; perhaps she did not care to reply after the dexterous fashion in which her husband's opinion had been quoted against her; but she looked hurt at the manner in which Violet had received her suggestion. Ah, my poor Kate! it was not the last time by many that we were to grieve you!

But Harry called to us to make haste; and we ran out to the horses, and except a hasty “goodbye,” no more was said.

I think Violet scarcely looked as well on horseback as at other times. She did not sit page 32 quite straight in her saddle, and her figure was too slim to show to advantage in a riding-habit, even with the assistance of a London tailor's padding. Delicate muslins suited her best, or anything which set off the colour of her hair and eyes. Perhaps it was the consciousness of this which made her rather cross and huffy during our ride, for Violet was always extremely sensitive to anything at all unbecoming in her toilet.

But when we reached Feringhurst, which was the name of Mr. Ainsleigh's place, she was quite herself again. Before we arrived at the house she pointed out to me, with her whip, a figure dressed in blue, pacing in the garden, which she said she was sure was Madelaine Ainsleigh.