The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 8 (November 1, 1934)
The Garrison of the Kitchen
Did I ever tell you, my friends, of how, at the early age of twelve years I came within an ace of becoming, in one night, the most famous boy in the country, a real-life Jack the Giant-Killer, a national hero in short pants?
For two minutes, only a crazy lock, a handful of rusty screws, and a few lengths of half-inch planking stood between me and Fame, huge head-lines in every paper from the North Cape to the Bluff, the gratitude of hundreds of defenceless or nervous residents of Canterbury, and possibly the thanks of the Seddon Government, which I so nearly saved a long bill of legal costs, the expense of a hempen rope and a hangman's fee.
It was in the very early years of the present century, before the days of motor cars or wireless, at a time when there were few, if any, private telephones outside the large towns. My family, which included my father, mother, a younger brother, and I, then resided at a farmstead in a lonely district some miles from Methven, a township in the Ashburton County.
The house had been empty for a long time before we moved in. Even by daylight there was something sombre about the place, with its high hedges, neglected orchard, and weed-grown drive. By night, its high rooms and narrow passages lit only by oil-lamps and flickering candles, this home of my childhood was as desolate and eerie a spot as could be found on the wide Canterbury Plains.
The great old house was encircled on every side by a ring of huge pinetrees and bluegums. In front, a straight line of plantation, seventy feet high, extended in a belt two hundred feet wide for a mile on either side of the house.
During the hours of darkness the night breeze whispered with a melancholy and sinister significance amid the dark funereal branches of the pines. There were no other houses near. We kept no servants or farm hands. The farm was cultivated by contractors. In the yard near the house was a cluster of empty sheds and stables.
Years of city life have not effaced from my memory the recollections of my boyhood days, a boyhood such as the city child never knows. Long rides on horseback in quiet lanes, between tall hedges of gorse which were glowing walls of golden, scented bloom; coursing hares with greyhounds over the great fields; or beating through immense plantations, gun in hand, for rabbits and pheasants. Such are the memories of my early years, on the glorious free open spaces of the smiling Canterbury Plains.
When I was ten years of age, a grown-up cousin had given me a fine double-barrelled shotgun. A strange gift for a child, perhaps, and one of which my father little approved. But nothing which I have owned since ever gave me one-half the pleasure I derived from that splendid Hollis. Cartridges were cheap; game of many kinds abounded then; shooting was to me a passion. By the time I was twelve years old, when the affair I am about to narrate occurred, there were few men in the Ashburton County who were my masters with a twelve gauge shotgun.
Many a day, from dawn till dark, my brother and I ranged the fields and plantations, and many a goodly bag of hare and rabbit and duck we brought home.
But little Bill never fired the gun. The heavy recoil would have been too much for him. For his ten years of age he was a very small chap, whose skinny limbs and diminutive stature at that time gave little promise of the powerful frame and sturdy strength which the years were to bring him.
One evening my mother called us to her and said; “Boys, your father and I would like very much to go to the township to-night, to Mr. M—s send-off, but we are worried at leaving you alone here so long at night, for we might not be back till about two in the morning. Not that there is much to be afraid of, for we have never had a bad character call here, and such a one is not likely to come now, the only night on which you boys may be alone. But if you think that you would be nervous your father and I will not go.”
Nervous! It was still daylight, and we scorned the idea, Bill and I. But with childish cunning we recognised page 25 an opportunity for bargaining and we made the most of it. In some matters my mother was a strict parent. We were not allowed to stay up after a certain hour, we were not permitted to read in bed, and though we could eat as much as we liked at meal-times my mother had very strong ideas about boys “eating and stuffing” after the tea-hour.
But to-night we could have what we asked for, and we asked for a good deal. We demanded to be allowed to lock ourselves up in the kitchen, to brew as much cocoa as we could drink, to have all the cake and biscuits and raisins that we could hold, to read as long as we liked, and to stay up till they came home, no matter how late. My mother was still uneasy at leaving us alone in that lonely and eerie place. I think that is why she agreed to such unheard-of conditions. Darkness had fallen when our parents, after a few words of warning regarding matches, and lamps, and fire, departed, and we heard the rattle of the buggy wheels on the gravel-drive beneath the sombre nodding pines.
A roaring fire blazed in the range, beside which was a great box of fircones and another of coal. In a corner stood my beloved Hollis, which I had brought from my bedroom.
The “eating and stuffing” over, I settled myself in a chair with a boy's book. Bill, who was not fond of reading, passed the time playing his mouthorgan, whittling sticks, and wrestling with old Watch, our collie house-dog, which we had brought inside for company.
About eleven o'clock I went over to one of the two small windows, pulled aside the blind and peered out. The night was pitch dark, moonless and overcast. No breeze stirred the great black shapes of the pines. Over all things hung a pall of silence, the deathly, sinister silence of a forest at night, when nothing moves. For the first time a vague feeling of uneasiness rose within me, and crossing the floor I picked up the Hollis, cuddling it and stroking its shining barrels. In my pockets were a dozen cartridges but the gun was empty. In accordance with a promise made to my father long before, it was never loaded while in the house.
In the touch of that splendid weapon I, who was so expert in its use, found comfort, for I knew well that with it I was more than a match for any two of the most powerful and savage ruffians who ever prowled a lonely countryside.
It must have been close to midnight when old Watch, who had been lying apparently asleep by the fireside, suddenly raised his head. Next moment the hair on his neck rose, and he uttered a low, savage growl.
“What's the matter with him?” I asked.
“He hears someone,” replied Bill.
“Perhaps Mum and Dad are back,” I said.
“No,” answered Bill. “Watch would not growl like that if it were Mum and Dad. Besides, there is no wind, and we should have heard them coming up the drive.”
For a moment we listened. Then we both heard it, a soft stealthy footstep outside one of the windows.
“Who's there?” I shouted.
There was no answer. For a long minute all was still. Then there came a sudden furious vibration as strong hands wrenched violently at the sash in an effort to open the little window. The dog, usually a quiet, well-conducted animal, sprang savagely forward, snarling like a fiend, his bristles raised, every tooth in his head showing. Yet I felt—I knew—that the grim silent Thing without was not the sort to be frightened off by a dog.
Again we heard the footsteps, moving on to the other window. Once more came the rattling of the sash, but again the stout catch held. “Is that you, Dad?” I cried, my voice now shrill with terror, for well I knew it was not. This terrifying of children was not my parents' idea of a joke. Besides, there was the dog, our quiet old Watch, now almost foaming at the mouth. But again and again I shouted. Then we heard a firm heavy tread on the duckboards leading to the door.
The fellow was sure of his ground now, aware that he had only children and a dog to deal with. We heard his hands feeling over the outside of the door, a comparatively flimsy affair of half-inch boards and cross-battens. Then the brass knob of the handle commenced to turn, left to right, right to left.
There was something devilish, something murderous on the other side of that frail barrier, something which spoke not, but which in deadly silence was concentrating on entering the room.
In an agony of fear I glanced around me. Watch crouched beside the door, tense for the spring, his eyes gleaming redly. In the middle of the floor stood little Bill, white-faced but silent, his small jaw set, a heavy poker clutched in his right hand, the gamest fellow, boy and man, that I have ever known.
At that moment the light door began to bulge inward, as the devil outside set his shoulder against it, in an endeavour to burst in the lock. With a sob in my throat, I opened the Hollis, thrust a cartridge into each chamber, closed it, cocked both hammers, and page 26 raised the gun to my shoulder, aiming at the height of a man's chest through the door, three feet away.
I hated to kill a man—but I was not big enough and not brave enough to do anything else.
At the first crack and crash which would tell me that the door was gone, I meant to pull both triggers.
But the door still held. Presently, with a groaning and creaking it straightened again, and I heard the heavy breathing of the fellow as he gathered his wind for a fresh assault. Then inward again bulged the boards, the whole thing fairly screeching under that savage pressure. Glancing along the gun-barrels, I tightened my fingers round the triggers, for I could see that the door was on the point of giving way.
All at once, in a momentary pause of creaking wood and straining screw, there fell on my ears another sound, a sound which made my heart leap for joy and hope within my breast. Faint and far away out on the Methven road, but a sound which no country-bred child could mistake, the rattle of light iron-shod wheel's and the click-clop, click-clop of a fast trotting horse. Good old Cass! A winner on almost every country racecourse in Canterbury, she could do her 2.17 when she liked, and by the sound of things she was doing it now.
I think the Thing outside heard it, too, for suddenly that sinister fearful bulge went out of the door. For a moment there was silence. Then we heard rapid footsteps going off down a track that led to the plantation.
As for my father, he snatched a lantern from a shelf, lit it, picked up my gun, saw that it was loaded, and dashed off down the plantation path. In his eyes was a look of fury such as I never saw there before or after. But he might as well have searched for a needle in a haystack as for a man in that immense plantation at night.
He sat up all the remainder of that night, but before my mother retired I, lying awake in my bed, overheard snatches of their conversation from where they sat in the dining room.
“McLean … the murderer … rumoured he was arrested yesterday at Rakania … came away to-night, thank God … soon as we heard report was untrue … him, sure enough … not going to leave you and boys alone here to inform police to-night … starving … may come back.”
These last words were in my father's voice. Just three more fragments I heard before I fell asleep. “Never again leave them . . our boys … in greatest danger.”
A day or two later, at a small place near Ashburton, twenty miles from our home, the police arrested a bloodthirsty and savage killer, a human tiger, who a few, days before, at a place about forty or fifty miles away, had brutally murdered three defenceless victims, an old lady, a young woman, and a child. Our house was roughly in a line between the scene of that red horror and the place where the murderer was arrested for the crime, a crime for which he later paid on the scaffold at Lyttelton gaol.
Many may recall the tragedy. Over thirty years have passed since then, and I am somewhat hazy as to the exact details, but I believe that those I have given above are substantially correct.
Just one word more; there has always seemed to me to be a grimly humorous side to our adventure. To the end of their days, our parents always insisted that we, my brother and I, were at that hour in the greatest danger. It was not for me to contradict my elders. But have you ever seen the hole that is made in any soft substance by a twelve gauge Eley blue, black powder, No. 2 shot cartridge, fired at three feet? Perhaps you have. Then, if you remember that round the triggers of that loaded double-cocked Hollis were twined the trembling fingers of a terror-stricken child, you will perhaps see my point when I say that, whoever was in danger at that lonely farmhouse on that terrible night thirty years ago, it was certainly not little Bill or I.
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