Chapter XVIII. — The Rise and Fall of H. G. -S. and A. M. C
The Rise and Fall of H. G. -S. and A. M. C.
It was upon the 4th of September 1882 that the new owners of Tutira took delivery of their sheep-station. They were wild with anticipations of sport, of riding, of the mastery of animals, of life in the wilds. At least, by one of them, every hour of that golden day can still be vividly recalled. He remembers wakening at dawn and rushing out to forecast the day. It was a perfect Hawke's Bay spring morning, and be it said, no weather in the world can beat a fine September in Napier. The sky was cloudless, the faintest crisp suspicion of frost mingled with the salt tang of the beach. Behind the town rose the magnificent snowclad ranges Ruahine and Kaweka, in front heaved the Pacific's vast expanse.
What magic there is in possession! What a pleasure the sight of the hacks! They were not quite like any other horses in the world; they were our own, they belonged to us, an earnest of that glorious sheep-station which was to provide after a few seasons easy enlargement of our minds and fortunes, endless rivers, moors, and forests in Scotland.
We rode through the picturesque town—our horses' hoofs sounding loud on the quiet streets—where half the inhabitants were still asleep. We passed through Port Ahuriri, crossing the newly-built wooden bridge which linked the northern and southern portions of the province. We followed the beach road along the western spit, peopled then only by a few fisher-folk, some of them living in homes built of biscuit and kerosene tins in lieu of iron sheeting. We passed the Petane Hotel, then run by the refoubtable William Villers. We forded the Esk river, and, riding through the kainga of Petane, scanned with deep interest the reed-thatched whares of the owners of Tutira. page 148 O Ananias, Azarias, and Misael! that morning our happiness overflowed the world. We even loved our landlords—after all, they had been heathens until recently; they had never read Henry George; they knew no better. We rode along the shallow sandy turf of the Whiranaki Flats and over the Beach Hill to the County Boundary Peak. We were then in the county of Wairoa, one of whose divisions was the Mohaka riding, within which lay Tutira; it was another step towards our new possession. Farther on we reached the Tangoio Bluff, and turning inland at right angles passed the homestead and wool-shed of the Tangoio run. Tangoio and Tutira marched with one another.
We followed several miles inland, but parallel to the sea, the switch-back track, the old coastal pack-trail, so lost to common-sense as to think its deplorable grades good going. We struck the First Fence, and saw for the first time the Tutira station mail-box. To ordinary eyes it might have seemed, as indeed it was, a kerosene case nailed to the top of a strainer-post. To us it was much more; that box, simple and unpretentious to the outward eye, had been the receptacle of communications about Tutira wool, about Tutira stock, about Tutira interests of a dozen sorts. We viewed it with a kind of reverence.
We climbed from the river-bed to the Reserve—long afterwards rechristened “The Racecourse Flat,” and rode very quietly through the lambing ewes. We could hardly bear to tear ourselves away. If the sight of the scrags at the Waikoau ford had thrilled us with pride of possession, our hearts exulted at the sight of these lambs—lambs that apparently came from nowhere, but were even now swelling the numbers of our newly-purchased flock—as if thrown in gratis, a gift from a beneficent Heaven to H. G.-S. and A. M. C.
We rode along the shelf of the flat until suddenly, in an instant, the lake lay at our feet. The feelings of one of the new owners were those of Marmion's squire at sight of Edinburgh. Had the grass-fed pony permitted the feat, its rider, like Eustace, would have “made a demi-volte in air” at joy of the prospect. Before his eyes lay the whole length of the lake, picturesque in its wooded promontories and bays. Along its steeps grew breaks of native woodland brightened at this season with the deep yellow blossoms of the kowhai. The silky leaves of the weeping willows were in their tenderest green, the peach-groves sheets of pink. The south-westerly breeze that blew stirred the flax blades, making them glitter like glass; west of the lake the land was dark in shadow, the eastern hill-tops were bright in sun. I have looked at this lovely sheet of water a million times since then, but have rarely seen it more fair.
There are some spots on earth that seem to inspire in their owners a very special affection, as if perchance there might exist an occult sympathy betwixt the elementals of the soil and those who touch its surface with their feet. A race so eager in their appreciation of natural objects of beauty as the Maori could not but have felt thus towards Tutira; we know they did so,—I have heard its native owners a score of times rejoicing in their possession; the lines of the waiata cited on the first page express it. The diary entries of its pioneers bear witness to the pangs with which the place was relinquished; if there is anything of value in this volume, it is because of the author's affection for the spot where he has lived so long.page 150
This hut, where for nearly a year we continued to live, was afterwards cut into sections and rafted down the lake to the site of the present homestead. There for many seasons it served as our kitchen. Later, when a newer and larger kitchen was made, our original domicile was again moved, and became part of the shearers' hut. Opposite the wool-shed to this day it stands, sound as a bell, and likely to last another forty years.
Meantime, whilst Stuart, who had ridden up with us, was preparing the immediate luxury of flapjacks, mixing flour and yeast for the morrow's bread, and fishing salt pork out of the barrel for the evening collation, we rushed off to inspect our wool-shed and yards, thence proceeding to Otutepiriao—the little valley where stands the present homestead.
In that September of '82 we could barely pass along the edge of the lake, so dense was the growth of flax and fern. On the flat itself grew huge scattered bushes of the former plant; groves of tall manuka marked the site of Craig's former garden; otherwise the surface of the ground was entirely rooted by pig. With instantaneous decision we settled this spot should be the homestead of the future. I recollect, too, that we agreed how disgusting, how disgraceful, how abominable must have been the mismanagement that could have wrecked such a splendid property. That day, in fact, we were very, very happy, and very, very foolish.
The second day on Tutira was still an ecstasy. We rode out to inspect the Back Country. We viewed its illimitable wastes of fern from the top of the Image hill. My present recollections are that we viewed them about as intelligently as an infant looks from its perambulator on to the world, and with about as little foreboding of the ills it might inflict.
Now, in 1920, at a distance, alas! of forty years, I am amazed at the hardihood of the pioneers of Tutira, Puterino, and Maungaharuru. What, I wonder to myself, could have been the inducement to attempt the handling of such runs. Tutira lands were as I have described them. Putorino contained no limestone or marl land whatsoever. Maungaharuru was thirty miles from the coast, its wool-clip packed out on bullocks. The tenure of these runs was leasehold, and native leasehold at that; without exception the titles were flawed; the land was devoid of grass, the climate was wet, the access bad, the soil ungrateful and page 152 poor. There was no compensation for improvements. It seems impossible now that any reasonable soul could have believed there was either money or reputation to be made out of them.
The truth is that their owners were not reasonable, that they did not think at all. Most of them were new chums hardly out of their teens, of the sort moreover who welcomed physical toil as a delight, who preferred manual labour to any kind of thinking. To this day indeed I am not sure whether we were splendid young Britons, empire builders, and so forth, in a small way, or asses of the purest water. We bored inland for freedom, for adventure, for the chance of dealing with stock and soil, in obedience perhaps to an instinctive desire to push further back. Only for very brief intervals, and only in very careless fashion, did we think about the pound, shilling, pence aspect of our work. There were no proper books kept. Jottings in the station diary represented the Italian or double - entry system of book - keeping, as taught by Dominie Sampson to Lucy Bertram. Figures were doubly distasteful after a hard day's work—work, of course, was physical work. The idea of wasting even a wet day on accounts never seemed to have entered our heads. The sole excuse for such distasteful idleness—we called it idleness—would have been ill-health. Nobody ever was ill in those glorious days, so the accounts were left undone. The result was that the finances of the station were never properly known. It was a disability not decreased by the New Zealand habit of purchasing 30s. worth of property with 20s. worth of cash.
We enjoyed a perfectly happy open-air life in the present, convinced that everything, of course, would turn out all right. We split posts, we erected fences, we mustered sheep, we killed pig and cattle—less from any particular reason in connection with money-making or even benefit to the station than from an insatiable appetite for exercise; we lived, I may say, to gratify the calves of our legs. We enjoyed to the full a giant appetite, a slumber unperturbed, that anodyne, too, which keeps the labourer content—the delightful physical feeling of relaxation after prolonged muscular toil described by Tolstoi in certain passages of ‘Anna Karenina.’
It was the delicious reward of a real good day's work—“real good” meant daylight to dark; “work” meant manual labour—riding or packing or mustering, or pig-hunting or fencing or bush-felling. We cooked for ourselves; we lived on porridge and water, bread baked in page 153 camp ovens—there is no better bread in the world,—mutton, potatoes, and duff. It was a delightful existence; there were no cares, there were to be none.
From the time they had forgathered at Rugby—H. G.-S. on some bug-hunting business, of course out of bounds, A. M. C. with dogs—he used to rat with retrievers, I remember—equally of course forbidden by the school authorities,—these two young gentlemen had determined to live the simple life. The simple life as they envisaged it was to preclude all thought on disagreeable subjects such as in the past, say, Latin and Greek, Euclid and Algebra, and in the future anything connected with figures or business. They were of the type to whom the Hypothetics taught in our Colleges of Unreason were particularly odious and distasteful. The writer's scheme of life was to work hard in the daytime, and in the evenings—must he confess it?—to write verse, a fatal habit which his relatives deplored. If he must have a vice, they argued, let him rather drink; many drunken flock-masters had prospered, but never a one who perpetrated verse. Drunkards, too, had been known to reform, but the verse habit was ineradicable; they regarded him as a lost soul, predestined to the pit.
Enthusiasm for the poets on my part, enthusiasm for football—he was a magnificent Rugby forward—on that of my partner,1 were assets not particularly likely to assist in the development of an up-country sheep station.
1 My partner, like D'Artagnan, hated verse as he hated Latin. “An Address to my Banker,” paraphrasing Goldsmith's lines, and beginning “Sweet source of all my joy and woe, thou found'st me poor and left me so,” was, however, considered “not half bad.”
Perhaps the reader may marvel how Stuart and Kiernan could have in so brief a period brought to book at shearing-time 9000 sheep. They were thus carried: 3000 wethers ran on the “back country,” living until late autumn on the fern fronds that spring up after fires lighted purposely, and during winter feeding on tutu leaves, vast groves of which shrub, commingled with bracken, covered the whole of the central and west. In these regions there was literally no grass whatsoever, not one single acre, for the sheep camps were each season ploughed and reploughed by innumerable wild pig; a further 500 sheep would be stragglers raked in at various draftings from the neighbouring stations of Arapawanui, Tangoio, and Kaiwaka. The remaining 5500 were able to survive during the brief North Island winter, because the merino is a small sheep and can subsist on little, and because the surface of such country as was then in grass was virgin land, and grew feed with an exuberance altogether unknown after a few years, but principally because these 5500 ewes and hoggets were very badly done, because the country was very grossly overstocked. According to modern lights perhaps 3000 instead of 5500 could have been properly carried on the newly-grassed area.
The first brood of martyrs to the cause had emulated Bret Harte's hero, Briggs of Tuolumne, “who busted himself in white pine.” If any particular factor in addition to loss of stock may be said to have given the mace blow to the three Stuarts, Kiernan, and M'Kenzie, it was their expenditure on heart of totara and work in connection therewith.
H. G.-S. and A. M. C. chose a new road to ruin. They knew that 9000 sheep, such as they were, had been shorn on Tutira, and reasoned, perhaps not unnaturally, that what had been might be again. They were mistaken.
For explanation of this dictum we shall have to revert to the work done by Stuart and Kiernan, as recorded in the station diaries. They had burnt out the countryside; they had scattered broadcast large quantities of grass seed until the high water-mark of grass expansion had been reached. Conditions were then at their best: the sheep, running over a great area of open ground, obtained a larger pasturage; the surface of the ground newly burnt was clean of parasites; page 155 pitfalls, holes, under-runners, bogs, lay exposed. All this had been accomplished, but, alas! much of the improvement was of a temporary character—Stuart and Kiernana had cut off a larger chunk than they could chew. A process of contraction, of ebb—to be fully explained hereafter—had set in over eastern Tutira, where all the improvements had been lavished. The flock was insufficiently large to eat off wholly the spring rush of bracken. The consequence was that along the lower slopes, about the outlying corners, over the cold damp spurs facing south and east, upon the poorer portions everywhere, bracken began to sneak away, to unfold itself, to recover its hold, once more to overrun the ground; during the later part, in fact, of Stuart & Kiernan's occupation of Tutira a process of general contraction in the feeding area had begun; towards the end even of their brief day the sum-total of winter feed had diminished.
When H. G.-S. and A. M. C. purchased the run the flock had been squeezed on to the upper slopes, tops, and sunny faces, the balance of the whilom grassed lands having reverted to bracken. It was a process which even the Stuarts and Kiernan could not have anticipated, still less was it comprehensible to the new owners of Tutira. They were aware only that a certain number of sheep had on one occasion been shorn: they decided that numbers must be kept up by purchase of fresh drafts. They bought 3000 ewes, which, added to the 1000 lambs saved from wild pig, brought the total up to 11,500—of which number 500 culls were sold to George Merritt. H. G.-S. and A. M. C. began, therefore, their first winter with 11,000 sheep. Of these they clipped 7400 at the following shearing.
1 As reason for this sudden desire to sell, it was given out that the climate did not suit our constitutions—this to stock and station agents ! !
Even such shreds of knowledge as we had acquired—a little knowledge is a dangerous thing—hurt us. Our three months' cadetship on Captain—afterwards Sir William—Russell's Tunanui station had taught us that indiscriminate burning of fern was unwise. This teaching, sound in itself, was applied by us on Tutira without discrimination. No fern-burning was done, therefore, because the work was to be done perfectly at a later date. From this determination not to burn fern until the countryside had become rough enough to ensure a “clean fire” arose other evils which, although unavoidable in themselves, were accentuated by mismanagement. “Lungworm,” which broke out in Hawke's Bay in the early 'eighties, everywhere ran its course with all the virulence of a new importation, whether blight, weed, or beast.
In a wet locality like Tutira the disease could not but have affected young stock otherwise than seriously. On the good runs of Hawke's Bay the losses were considerable. Everywhere sheep-farmers were dosing their young sheep with turpentine and oil, or attempting the smoke-cure with sulphur. In a flock like that of Tutira, jammed by the process of contraction already explained on to foul camps, overstocked tops and clearings, three-quarters of our weaners, station-bred, and therefore by far the most valuable section of the flock, perished.
1 Young stock, two-tooths, however well done, are particularly liable to suffer from change to a wetter climate. Twenty years later than these troublous times, again an experimental lot of two-tooth rams was bought for Tutira. Notwithstanding that they were run on ground more fertile by far than that upon which they had previously depastured, more than half died. Doubtless other wet district sheep-farmers who have purchased stock from dry country have experienced similar results.
Everywhere there was wastage and leakage; the old sheep died, the young sheep refused to live. The lambings were affected by the poor condition of the rams, by the age of the ewes, to a lesser extent by pig.
Every one of these adverse factors admitted of a cure,—a cure, however, only to be discovered by experience. Lacking that empirical knowledge, A. M. C. and myself stood amazed at the ills meted out to us. Our efforts at originality, such as purchase of young rams from the South Island, had failed. As I have pointed out, we were aware that 9000 sheep had in the shearing of 1881 passed through the shed. We did not know, we could not know, of the contraction in grazing area. We did not know of the importance of fires and clean feed. If the station had carried—thus we argued—9000 sheep, it could be made to carry them again. Of course it could; it must be made to do so. Every year, therefore, sheep were purchased to replace those fallen in the fight.
It does not require demonstration that farming on these lines cannot be continued for an indefinite period. The gross income derived from the place was a poor few hundred pounds' worth of wool. A considerable proportion of our flock appeared on the shearing-board with bellies, sometimes with sides too, bare of wool,—“Pareperries”—bare bellies—joyfully the shearers hailed them in the catching-pens. Their fleeces had been worn off by wandering through fern and scrub or peeled off through fever and poverty. The wool of the wethers especially, stock that lived almost entirely on tutu and scrub, was often not more than a couple of inches in length, and black with the sand and dust that stuck in the dense merino fleeces. It was no rare sight, during a spell of hot, wet, autumn weather, to see sheep come into the draftings distinctly green on the back with sprouting grass, their wet fleeces, plus the animals' natural warmth, forcing the seeds as children grow mustard and cress on wet flannel in a nursery. I blush when I think of our flock of the 'eighties.
The return from surplus stock was likewise pitiable. The younger generation, who nowadays grumblingly receive a pound and twenty-five and thirty shillings for sheep sold, will hardly credit the prices in the 'eighties. Sometimes sixpence and sometimes ninepence per head was the price obtained by Tutira for its first, second, third, and fourth draft of old ewes and hoggets. They were purchased by George Merritt, page 158 who fed them to his pigs at Clive. My recollections, moreover, are that after the first transaction he was not keen for our old sheep. More or less we had to work on his better nature, to demonstrate that he was morally bound to buy. He had been a former owner of Tutira and yet survived—he had escaped the wrath to come. We flung our skeletons at his head; he was a coy buyer; much correspondence at any rate would pass in regard to the annual sale, the station claiming that the draft was quite unusually prime and well worth a shilling, Merritt asseverating that his pigs could hardly digest the last lot, and that he absolutely could not go beyond sixpence. The station gave delivery of the brutes at Petane. After that they were “Merritt's sheep,”—the shame of their ownership had passed for ever from Tutira. The bargain, however, was by no means concluded then; the sheep had still to be paid for. The station would generously grant three or four months' grace, and would then write a friendly letter, as from man to man, hinting that when quite convenient it would be pleased to receive payment. Our mail-box, the open case pegged to the top of a fencing-post in the heart of the Tangoio run, was half a day's ride distant, and only visited at intervals. Opportunities of delay, therefore, were not wanting. First of all, Merritt would be obliged if we could wait till the pigs were fattened; then till they were sold; then till he himself had been paid for them. At last the station, becoming ravenous for its twelve or fourteen hundred sixpences, would have a “lawyer's letter” despatched intimating that unless cheque reached Tutira by next mail Merritt would be persecuted with the utmost severity of the law—or words to that effect. Even then, on one occasion, I remember that although the cheque duly arrived, the signature had been omitted. Merritt doubtless had also a banker jumping on him, and these delays were regarded as part and parcel of the deal, a comedy to be re-enacted the following season. Merritt, indeed, was regarded by us with very high respect,—we reverenced him as needy Hebrews reverence Rothschild; he had touched pitch and had not been defiled; he bore the unique distinction of having owned Tutira and yet escaped ruin. A man who could accomplish that could squeeze blood out of pumice. Merritt had another claim to consideration: he was the only buyer who could by prayer and supplication be induced even to look at our cull sheep. When he would not take them for his pigs, we had ourselves to kill and skin the wretched beasts. Once, I remember, they were boiled page 159 down for soap,—my recollection is that sevenpence-worth of soap was extracted from each sheep. Merritt, however, was our stand-by; he never went beyond ninepence per head, but that sum was more than the station could obtain otherwise.
With a gross income of about £1300, the partnership of H. G.-S. and A. M. C. only existed as long as it did because the owners spent nothing on themselves, because there were almost no wages to pay, because the price of wool remained high.
Certainly the shortage of sheep at shearing-time, the miserable clip, the more miserable annual draft of surplus stock, gave us momentary pause, but I do not recollect that on one single occasion we talked matters out or realised the danger towards which we were drifting. Were it not for the entries of another and previous owner's diaries set down in cold blood, and still to be seen as quoted, I should have said that the idiocy of myself and partner was of a unique brand; I should have said it was impossible that one station should have carried so many fools—in shepherd's language, a fool to every 4000 acres! We realised the condition of our affairs no whit more clearly than in the past had the Stuarts and Kiernan.
The still extant station ledger is a model of original thought. I remember its inauguration a few weeks after the purchase of the place. A. M. C., who, by the bye, always breathed deeply through his nose when excited, was the book-keeper of the firm, but I stood by ready to assist, and to see that in this important matter everything was done properly and correctly. I recollect the breeze my partner blew—it was like whistling—whilst we debated whether the price of the place, £9750, should be entered on the debit or the credit column. There seemed to be sound arguments for either course. What the devil!—if we had paid for the place, how on earth could it be chalked up against us; it would have been better never to have started sheep-farming than to have landed ourselves straight away with a £9750 debit. We might just as well have gone to Oxford after all. Yes, but damn it all, we had not paid wholely for the place—we had only paid down £6000, unless, of course, we had made a regular bargain, and gained £3750 straight off the reel. Well then, why not compromise the thing, why not put down £6000 as a credit and £3750 as a debit? That didn't seem right either, so the £9750 was accordingly written down first as a debit, then as a credit, and each time a fresh page 160 start was made, a page was taken out, for we knew it looked rotten not to have tidy well-kept books. Finally it was fixed as a debit—partly, I think, because a five - pound note lent us for current expenses by Captain Russell immediately before we rode up had also to be entered somewhere or other. As we had just borrowed that fiver, there could be no doubt that it at any rate must be a debit, and as the £9750 looked so absurd by itself facing the pitiable little insignificant £5, we jammed the two entries into the same category. We never got further. They are the only entries in that station ledger—except numbers and sex of wild pig slain by H. G.-S., lists of soiled linen sent to Napier, and the dates of letters despatched by A. M. C. to his father in India.
|National Mortgage and Agency Co.||£9750||0||0|
We were great on the nothings—they were safe sort of figures, and filled up the page.
With the debit and credit question thus still unsolved, the rain, perhaps, began to clear—we never did accounts, of course, except in storms—and we rushed forth to some delightful labour which kept the brain entirely inactive, and produced the nirvana of muscles relaxed in rest, deep sleep and enormous appetites. Book-keeping had no place in our conception of the simple life, though, perhaps, to paraphrase Wolsey's lament, if we had loved our banker as we had loved our legs, he would not have thus left us to perish miserably.
Partly, then, by an unwise purchase, partly by unacquaintance and inexperience of conditions that would have puzzled wise men, and partly by ignorance of business and of business methods, the finances of the run passed from bad to worse. The end came with the same unexpectedness that has been revealed in the pages of a former diary. There occurred a crisis in the wool market—the most unstable market in the world. A sudden drop in prices precipitated our fall—a fall which could not have been in any case long postponed. A. M. C., for the sum of £600, paid into the station account, was allowed to quit Tutira. H. G.-S. took over the derelict half-share for the sum of five shillings. He survived, a melancholy illustration of the “martyrdom of man,” of the theory that each individual of the human family, if he stands a little higher in the scale of civilisation than his predecessor, does so through the sacrifice of that predecessor—that our civilisation, like a page 161 coral island, has been built by generations of workers who have used themselves up in the process and passed away. At any rate, whether this theory be tenable or not, the writer of this ower-true tale stood with head barely above water on the carcasses of those who had fallen in the fray—Newton, Toogood, Charles Stuart, Thomas Stuart, William Stuart, Kiernan, M'Kenzie, and Cuningham.1 They had spent all and gone under, each adding, however, ere financial death took him, his accretion to the coral island, his contribution to the future of the station—one timber, another ewes, another cattle, another rams, another grass-seed, another drainage of swamp land, another fencing, another—his mite to the general sum—that “team of eight bullocks bought from William Villers, waggon and all complete, for the sum of £135, terms, to pay when able.”
The derelict half-share thus forced upon him for five shillings, the writer became sole owner of Tutira—Tutira upoko-pipi—Tutira, the place where heads become soft.
1 To the best of my belief, every one of these adventurers did well in later years; New Zealand of all countries in the world certainly is the land where after a stumble a man can most easily pull himself together again. In Hawke's Bay, at any rate, I can hardly think of a prominent settler of early times who has not been at one time or another on his last legs.