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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 10 (January 1, 1936)

Pictures Of New Zealand Life

page 24

Pictures Of New Zealand Life

The Country Women.

There were capable women in the old backblocks days, when life was more or less in the rough and when the wives and daughters perforce had to fend for themselves a good deal. They can do it now, for that matter, but colonial life is becoming so ironed out and standardised that there is not so much necessity for self-reliance as there was in our younger days. I have been reading a capital book of New Zealand reminiscences issued by A.H. and A. W. Reed (Dunedin and Wellington). The writer is the last of the sisters of those plucky brother-soldiers, Major W. G. Mair and Captain Gilbert Mair, whose life stories have been given in the “New Zealand Railways Magazine.” Mrs. Howard Jackson, of Dunedin née Lavinia Laura Mair, is eighty-three, the last survivor of the children of Gilbert Mair, who arrived at the Bay of Islands from Peterhead, Scotland, in 1821. Her story of North Auckland days especially is an epic of colonisation, with many passages of charm in its description of country life sixty and seventy years ago.

The Girl Gunner.

Those pioneer daughters could shoot, for one thing. Their brothers had schooled them well with shotgun and rifle. So, like many other settlers' wives and daughters, they often kept the home pot replenished with bush food. “In the good old days, when the wood pigeon was so numerous,” she writes, “a sister and I would go out shooting them. With our brothers, we would make an early start on horseback, reaching the feeding ground about sunrise. The birds sleep in the middle of the day. One day as we were having our lunch there was a movement in the trees overhead and some ripe berries fell. My sister fired into the foliage and down came a pair of fine blue wattled crows. Then, towards sunset, the pigeons began their evening meal, and we would have great sport with our four guns, muzzleloaders at that. With a heavily laden packhorse we would reach home soon after dark.”

Again, a story of survey camp life where Feilding is now:-

“On one occasion we took with us a young Englishman to shoot wild pigeon. I had a beautiful Frankfort rifle, and my bag was twenty-one birds. My fellow sportsmen were not so lucky, as they got only a half-dozen between them. There must have been something amiss with their guns!”

But the pot once supplied, the Mair girls were mèrciful to the bush birds. They kept many of them as pets at various times, and I have read no more interesting little tales of the birds and their habits than those contained in the annals of this old New Zealand family.

The Tale of a Pioneer Piano.

“Far away and long ago,” far down the coast of South Westland, in a settler's house on the bank of a swift Alpine river, I saw a piano, a strange item of furniture in those parts. I fancy it was then the only instrument of the kind south of Okarito, a hundred miles to the north. Nowadays that bush backblocks strip between Alps and the surf of the Tasman Sea is more in touch with the outside world. But when I was last there, riding through the rough country of forest and torrent to the Haast Pass and Lake Wanaka, South Westland was the most isolated region imaginable. That piano, “how come?” The owner, a bachelor cattle - farmer, couldn't play it, neither could anyone else within many miles. It stood there in the largest room in the house, and it was used as a rack for the owner's saddles. The story we heard well on towards midnight, before a big fire, in the next-door farmhouse, half-a-day's ride away.

The lone-handed settler, a few years before our look-in at his large bush clearing and his more than half-wild cattle, had imported that piano for a bride, who had yet to be imported. He yearned for a wife to brighten his solitary life, and as all the bush lasses within a hundred miles were already bespoken, there was nothing for it but to send abroad for one. A matrimonial advertisement for the Hokitika paper was composed after consultation with the neighbour, on whose advice four little words were added to it: “No Milking. Piano Kept.” By the same packhorse mail to the north went an order to Hokitika for a piano, price no object. It must be a high-class piano fit for a lady to play. Then the bachelor waited for the steamer, three months hence; piano must of course be in hand before the wife.

Lure for a Lady.

The bait for a bride arrived in due course; the little steamer brought it, and the population up and down the coast for forty miles assembled at the rugged beach for “Steamer Day,” assisted to get it ashore from the surf boat. It was sledged up to the house, unpacked with tremendous excitement, and christened with a bottle of whisky when it was set in its place of honour in the big room and decorated with a tinful of rata blossom.

Then the proud owner of the piano set about the more delicate business of procuring the bride who was to play the piano. Six months further correspondence with Hokitika at last brought an offer. The lady who was willing to share the lot of the far-south young pioneer would arrive by the next trip of the steamer.

Alas for human hopes and matrimonial intentions! It was a half-dead spinster who staggered on deck after a horrible storm-tossed passage down the coast. She gave one long look at the desolate shore, the beach and surf, the background of gloomy forest, the fog-draped mountains, the weeping skies. One look, then she staggered back to the cabin, weeping like the Westland sky, and she begged the captain to lock her in until he was off again. Never, never would she set foot in that awful place.

Back to the North she went; and back to his lone lot went the sad settler. No more of that for him, he vowed; no more matrimonial invitations.