Chapter XXIII. — The Partnership of H. G.-S. and T. J. S
The Partnership of H. G.-S. and T. J. S.
Reverting to the natural history of homo sapiens and the efforts of the earliest specimens of the breed to acclimatise themselves on Tutira, it will be recollected that at the end of Chapter XVIII. we had left the station in direst need; its life-blood had dried up in consequence of a fall in the price of wool. There existed no longer the wherewithal to pay interest on the station overdraft, let alone rent and working expenses. One of the partners had released himself from liability to the National Mortgage and Agency Company by forfeit of £600 into the credit of the station. The other had taken over the derelict half-share for 5s.; the martyrdom of man, in fact, had been consummated; Newton, Toogood, Charles Stuart, Thomas Stuart, William Stuart, Kiernan, Mackenzie, Cuningham, pass before me in sad procession, like the ghostly kings in “Richard the Third.” They had perished in time or cash.
The miserable outcome of eight years' labour on Tutira was the writer of this volume. He stood, so to speak, on tiptoe, insecurely balanced on the piled carcases of his predecessors, up to his lips in debt. Because he was young and foolish, and because he had not then lived as he has since done—to see wool at bed-rock three times in thirty years and three times recover—he was filled with the gloomiest forebodings for the future, not only of himself and of Tutira, but of New Zealand; in his mature opinion the Dominion was doomed. His relatives, however, were wiser; after again demonstrating the lesser evil of drunkenness compared with the fatuous perusal of Henry George and the perpetration of verse they proved, and this he readily credited, that things could not possibly be worse. The National Mortgage and Agency Company, moreover, did not feel inclined to release another owner at any price. The writer, in page 221 spite of his misfortunes, had already become attached to the place; he elected to hold on. The Company behaved decently in so far as it lieth in a loan company to do so; they had no malevolent desire to “bust” him; certainly they cannot have wanted such a station as Tutira then was on their books. They agreed to a small reduction in the rate of interest; what was more valuable, the station was afforded the chances of time and tide. Not only did the National Mortgage and Agency Company voluntarily forgo full interest, but they interfered on the writer's behalf when the local firm with whom he dealt in Napier attempted to charge 13 per cent on his current account.1
1 Years afterwards, during the great war, the writer found himself thus interrogated by a fellow-worker in a certain hospital: Did he know New Zealand? “Yes”—heartily—“the best place going!” Did he happen to know a town called Napier? “Rather”—very enthusiastically—“the prettiest spot in the world!” Then you must remember my brother, who used to manage for—? . . . It was the man who had charged me 13 per cent! ! Will the reader deem me implacable, ungenerous, unforgiving, will he blame me for lack of magnanimity when I confess that the acquaintanceship with my new-found friend cooled? Honestly, I could not effervesce over that brother.
The faithful Stuart, like the lover who has lost his mistress and cannot tear himself away from scenes of former happiness, remained on Tutira. I forget details now, but believe it was agreed that he should allow a part of his screw as shepherd to remain on credit, “to be paid when able.” At any rate he and I together worked the place. What, however, we could do positively or otherwise was but little; the fate of the station was to be decided in the great markets of the world thousands of miles distant. For a couple of seasons the place was kept going, as I have said, by the negative process of sitting tight, helped too by a small rise in wool and by dry seasons, during which the death-rate dropped and the lambing increased. This period of watching and waiting was not unprofitable to our souls. Ample time was afforded for the reviewing of previous blunders, Stuart repenting him of his excesses in timber and grass seed, I myself of my orgy in two-tooth rams. Then, again, lacking coin and credit, our annual purchasings of outside stock ceased perforce, with the immediate result of a lessened mortality. We recognised then, for the first time, the full, the incalculable, value of station-bred stock, inured to a wet climate and poor soil; we began even to think that the disabilities of the run might be amended. The blind fury of labour for labour's sake had in myself given place to some faint glimmerings of sense. Errors of the past were duly considered; during winter evenings plans of future work, of future improvements, were talked over—supposing, that is, we should ever again possess the wherewithal.
In the meantime we were stuck for capital. It was out of the question again to ask, like Oliver, for more. As to the wool market, we had no faith in it, yet the event about which we had despaired did nevertheless happen. In June of '86, whilst the National Mortgage and Agency Company were still swithering as to what was wisest for us page 223 and for themselves, wool rose 2d. That rise saved the writer; the advance on the previous wool-clip had been what is technically known as a “safe” advance, perhaps 1d. under the price to be reasonably anticipated. The particular sale day, moreover, on which our clip was auctioned in London must have been one of maximum prices in a buoyant market. We obtained, at any rate, more nearly 4d. than 2d. per lb. over the prices of the previous year; when the account sales were rendered there was a surplus of something like £500 to the credit of the station. Stuart, who had been hesitating, now decided to risk what he had saved and been able to rescue from his particular debacle, and to take over the half-share. The sum he was able to command was as fruitful as the famous one million kept by Baring for the immediate development of the lands of Egypt. With it in hand, once again we began to improve. They were improvements done in a very different manner to the reckless, haphazard system of the past. Every penny—I had a most excellent, thrifty partner—had to be considered; nor were we content with the first plan that promised success; the scheme finally adopted was the best of many fully thought out, all of which promised success.
For the following twenty years Stuart and I worked together; we had each of us been through the mill. I believe that during our long partnership no considerable blunder was perpetrated.
The abiding difficulty of the run, the simultaneous making of the country and the proper feeding of stock, has already been touched upon. It was insoluble then, and remained so for twenty years. It was likewise impossible to change light lands into good lands; what, however, we could do was done.
We utilised this disability; we even made it produce results not very different in pounds, shillings, and pence from the famous stations of southern Hawke's Bay. The value of the trough of the run lay preeminently in its suitability for the rearing of young sheep. On its dry porous soil, suckling, the best feed in the world for hoggets, flourished amazingly; it was impossible to grow a heavy wool-clip, but this we determined to remedy by a large output of surplus stock. The limestone range of eastern Tutira enabled us to carry a sufficiency of ewes. The whole of the rest of the station was given up to hoggets; ewes only and hoggets were run.
In regard to feeding, the problem has been stated before: we could page 224 not afford to treat our flock properly, ideally; as long as our ewes were sufficiently nourished to bear and rear a fair lamb, it was more important to have numbers than condition; as long as our hoggets lived to tread the shearing-floor we hardly cared how many broken fleeces were thrown on to the wool-table; the carcase of every sheep that passed through the shed was worth more to the run than its wool. For a quarter of a century the choice before us every day of the year was the better treatment of a smaller flock, resulting in a less efficient crushing of fern, and therefore detrimental to the making of the run; and, on the other hand, an over-drastic grinding of fern with its accompanying future benefit to the run, but with its accompanying present damage to stock. We learnt to balance the rival claims of land and sheep to a nicety. It was found possible in practice to combine a heavy lambing, a small mortality, and a substantial increase in numbers, with a clip light enough to excite surprise in the bosoms of our bankers.1
Compromise between an unwise parsimony in regard to feed and the wintering of the largest possible number of sheep was in fact so evenly balanced, that during a few weeks of each winter, for perhaps ten seasons, eatable mutton was unknown.
We lived on wild pig, wild beef shot on Kaiwaka, and the fat wild sheep and double-fleecers that could be raked in from river cliffs; these were shot, dressed on the spot, and packed into the homestead. There was in those spartan days as little spare fat on the station as in Berlin during the last winter of the great war.
Well, then, with a certain amount of experience, a certain amount of local knowledge, and a certain amount of caution jammed into our heads, Stuart and I made a new start. Although no formal partnership was made out until later, the fresh capital put into the run was used from this time forward for the development of Tutira.
1 I recollect an inquiry from the National Mortgage and Agency Company, about 1888 or 1889, asking if the number of wool pockets, so far shipped, was the whole clip. The average weight of fleece, including locks and pieces, had barely reached 5 lb., yet that year we had increased our flock by over 1000, and had docked nearly 95 per cent. of lambs, which were afterwards successfully reared.
The station had hitherto possessed but one set of yards, those in front of the wool-shed. Heretofore we had at docking-time driven our lambs from each of the two huge paddocks down steep slopes to lake level. Lambs, like bees, hate to run downhill; segregating to the rear, regardless of their deserted dams, they had broken back and scattered in hundreds over the paddocks, where, although the merino ewe is an excellent parent, a proportion had been mismothered and lost. As, therefore, we could not move Mahomet to the mountain, we tried the alternative and built on the hill-tops several new sets of yards. They were constructed strictly of posts and wire, not rails, for Stuart was as shy of timber as I was of yearling rams; not on unnecessary split and sawn stuff was our precious patrimony to be squandered.
Looking back now I am confident that, as a preliminary, we could have made no better move. We were able at once to increase our flock, and to carry them, if not better, at least more evenly. We were able, moreover, each year to nurse through the winter several hundred sheep that would otherwise have probably perished.
In the meanwhile time had not stood still; half of the term of the original lease had expired. No native lease, however, was on the east coast in those days ever allowed to expire completely. It was to the interest alike of native owner, squatter, and banker to see that when about half the period of a lease had expired, another should be substituted. A fair average of length tenure was thus secured in page 226 practice, its maximum twenty-one, its minimum about ten years. A fresh lease was accordingly drawn up, the rent as ever after on such occasions being doubled—an immediate gain to the native; the length of time during which the European was to remain in possession also doubled, twenty-one years instead of ten—a gain to the tenant and banker. Conditions otherwise were similar to those of the original agreement.
The natives whom we knew best signed, I do sincerely believe, largely to do us a good turn. The immense majority, at any rate, once more appended their shaky crosses, or signed their names in cramps and schoolboy scrawls. A percentage, however, resolutely refused to sign. They had no objection to our occupation of the land, they merely believed that the policy of taihoa—by-and-by, wait and see—was the proper policy in regard to all east coast native land transactions whatsoever. By this time, too, the mere mechanical obtainment of signatures had become a difficulty,—the number of our landlords had increased with the subdivision of shares; they lived in every province of the colony.
There must have been well over a couple of hundred of them. Although it is anticipating matters, an actual instance will show that even in the simple life—that Arcadian existence which was to preclude everything disagreeable—cares will arise, troubles will intrude. It was the old, old story revived; the reader will remember that terrible entry in an early diary, “30 per cent death-rate between 1st April and 31st March.” Well, deaths in the flock were still what worried us.
For example, Raiha Pohutu, one of the original thirty-six owners of the Heru-o-Turea block, dies; we regretted his demise, of course, but the greater grief was his eleven successors, three of whom inherited one-sixth each of the original share, three one-twelfth each, three one-eighteenth each, two one-twenty-fourth each. Well, we were barely out of mourning for this sad event when bang would go another landlord—Karaitiana—who had inherited one of these eighteenths of a share. Again we were sorry, of course, but the bitterest pang of all was the fourteen successors of the deceased. They lay very heavy on our hearts, for three of them got five times as much rent as the remaining eleven. In money matters one cannot be too careful; by the native land courts Ranapia Taungakore was appointed trustee on behalf of six of the share-holders, whilst Te Huki Taingakore watched the interests of the three page 227 favoured minors who had inherited the big shares; still extra mystification and trouble was caused by the habit of many of the natives appearing in legal documents by other names than those borne in private life, their spoor being lost then, even to the bloodhounds of the law. If we did not personally love our hundred or so brace of landlords, at least we hated that they should die. “There's poor old So-and-so gone,” one of us would exclaim sentimentally. “Yes, and a score more blessed grantees to deal with,” would rejoin the other, who did the native work. Stuart did the native work, though, of course, I was there as with Cuningham over the station books to see that everything was done in a sound and proper business way.
Nevertheless, such as it was, our new lease gave us time; bankers may have looked askance at the imperfect document, lawyers wagged their solemn heads over it. It was what was known in legal phraseology as “a good holding title”; that is, it offered to the holder if blackmailed—and blackmail was always a possibility—a fighting chance. With a little ill-will on the part of a single Maori, with a little backing from an unscrupulous white man, each native nonconformist might have stocked the run with sheep up to the value of his share—in itself an unsettled problem, for no share was individualised,—each one of them could have put sheep on to the station with the right to shift them at any time anywhere. The station, it is true, might have called on these men to fence off their shares; it might have called, like the prophets of Baal, on their false gods, and with equally negative results. Between procrastination of native law-courts, dilatory habits of natives, rascality of low-class whites, sheep-farming on native lands—which, after all, is not a crime against the community—could have been made impossible. As a matter of fact none of these problematic disasters did happen. I will not say that throughout the period during which such conditions prevailed, no cases occurred of attempted personation and fraud, but I can truly say they could be counted on the fingers of one hand. As in warfare so in business, the Ngai-Tatara were a fine straight lot of men.
The landlord and tenant system is antiquated, absurd, and unsound, for the man who tills the land should own the land; yet as it did actually exist on Tutira, owners and occupiers met on fairly even terms, the former, indeed, getting his lands improved without having to pay compensation, but the latter, the lease once signed, becoming in his
turn master for a time. It would be difficult, for instance, to imagine an English landlord writing to his tenant—say the Duke of Westminster, imploring an advance of rent from a tenant in Upper Tooting—in the following strain:—
“Dear Sir,—Wroting you these few lines to let you know that—told me there is a mistake about my money of the lease, the first time he drow my money the time when—get married, it was the year in 1899 that the year—— get it since that time you have look at the book you see how many money it comes to now, there is some money for me there, about three pound ten shilling if nothing all the money I get from you £15 15-4 well you think from that year 1899 and how many money comes to this year, well you take out all the year money you add this money you gave me you will see the mistake in it if I am not sick I come there myself, well I am not well Dear Sir, that why I write to you give me some money I heard that you came to pay all the maoris of the lease will you kindly give me some money for I am very sick I am not well I was trying to come to Tutira to get me some money, well I cannot get on my horse I was very weak some maori told me you wont give me some money I told them I always asked you for some money you always gave me some money Please dont for get to send me some money if you send just £3-10 that is good enough that will do me for I cant get any money to buy me some food to eat. Please dont for get to send me some money I want it very bad if you send me some money you give it to Riria Watene I have been bad all the Maoris got some money only myself Please dont for get Dear Sir be kind to the poor thing. Please dont for get to give to the one bring my letter to you I remain yours——.”
Doubtless we were “kind to the poor thing.” Here is another example of the pathetic appeal:—
“To Mr Garthrie.
“Dear Sir,—Will you kindly give my money to Joe that my letter what I gave to Watene Please don't you forget to give it to Joe Watene told me he never see you when he came back Please don't you forget to give some money if you can give two years I want £7 Please don't forget I am very hard up I get no money and I am not well Please don't forget.—I remain yours truly—.”
Then there is the business type of epistle:—
“Dear Sir,—I have the Greatest Opportunity of writting you a few lines hoping to find you in the best of health And I may also have the pleasure of asking if you can Obelige me with the money of the lease for this year, etc., etc.”
“This year” really meant next year, for always after signature a year's rent was advanced. Or—
“Dear Sir,—I have the Pleasure of writting you these few lines hoping to find you in the best of health and asking if you don't mine giving the bearer £10, etc., etc.”
Like master, like man—our landlords were perennially impecunious; rents were spent always before they fell due, the station was expected to furnish perpetual advances, to replenish their landlords' pockets with sums varying from hundreds of pounds to shillings; marriages, births, and deaths were equally excellent reasons for demanding cash. All these loans and advances were quite irregular; in the absence of J.P.'s and licensed interpreters and stamps they need never have been repaid, yet it was rarely indeed that a Maori went back on his word. If a man must needs be burdened with a brood of a hundred couple of landlords, let him pray Heaven on his bended knees, I say, for Maori landlords.
Often I have wondered if any work at all done on the station was legally done, for if I am to credit the local natives, the original lease was signed by many who had no sort of claim on the Tutira lands; no proper supervision seems to have been exercised, many of the signatures were forgeries, or if that is too strong a word, one native signed for another; then again, was it clearly defined that Newton and the succeeding tenants of Tutira were permitted to destroy the ancient vegetation of the run, to cover it with clover and grass, to drain its swamps? Rumblings of distant thunder, that might have at any time broken over our heads, reached us now and again in the shape of legal remonstrances. To this day I remember one which threw Cuningham and myself into the utmost consternation,—we had not become calloused by custom to the sword of Damocles. This particular epistle was written, I recollect, by a Minister of the Crown, at the request, doubtless, of some good old crusted Tory, forbidding, under the most horrible penalties, the destruction of bracken. Another heathen reactionist on another occasion forbade drainage, on the ground that it might affect the welfare of the eels in the lake.
To our solicitor, for comfort and sustenance, these communications were taken,—like Evangelist he guided us; he dried our tears; we clung to him like shipwrecked mariners to a plank; he stood between the station and eternity.
The rise in wool, and the new lease, were positive benefits; negative boons were the cessation of the purchase of ewe drafts and lines of page 230 young stud rams. During the reign of H. G.-S. and A. M. C. rams had been imported—heaven only knows why—from stud flocks in the South Island. They had been two-tooths, their price five or six guineas; we now bought aged rams at a fifth of the cost. The saving of money was great; the older sheep with set constitutions did their work better; they lived and throve where the others had died. These local sheep were at least as well bred, they had been used in famous Hawke's Bay flocks, and had only been culled on account of age. We believed rightly that if they had been considered good enough for southern Hawke's Bay, we could scarcely go wrong in using them on Tutira; we believed that by the time a line of rams had reached the age at which we purchased them—their fourth tupping season—they had proved themselves by the best of all proofs, good condition and sound feet, to be sterling stuff. The percentage of weak and feeble had died off as two, four, and six, and full-mouth sheep. I have always maintained that by our procedure in this matter the Tutira flock was sired by the most healthy sheep in the Province. In practice, at any rate, the change from young rams to old increased our lambing from fifty and sixty to over ninety per cent.
Our next step was to save our lambs. It will be remembered that about '82, immediately after the purchase of the station by H. G.-S. and A. M. C., “lung-worm” had broken out on the east coast; everywhere it had decimated the flocks of Hawke's Bay; on Tutira at least three-quarters of our weaners had perished during several successive seasons. Already we had learnt a little about the nature of stock. In strong reaction to “dirty” country the heroic device was attempted of weaning our lambs on newly-burnt bracken, forcing them to crop the springing shoots of fern; there could be, of course, on such ground no vestige of disease. That was all to the good, but the fronds had not sufficient nutriment for young stock. Our weaners, though perfectly healthy, had not condition enough to withstand the cold of the coming winter and the scour of young grass during the following spring. It was then that the newly-created fencing proved its worth. The smaller paddocks were “spelled,” that is, kept empty of stock for five or six weeks previous to weaning, so that we should be able to turn our lambs into feed well matured, full of white clover and suckling. We took endless trouble with the “tail” of the mob, which was specially nursed. The result was satisfactory: only two or three score out of page 231 nearly a couple of thousand failed to come in at shearing-time, and as nothing succeeds like success, especially success after preliminary failure, the result was a stimulus to further effort. We worked endlessly long hours; we had our reward in ewes that produced a big percentage of lambs, in weaners that survived the winter.
The station was still, however, selling only wool; our surplus stock was still an abomination. Once or twice we slew and skinned the brutes ourselves, once they were boiled down for soap, once again Merritt took them for his long-suffering swine. Dispose of them as we might, the surplus stock of Tutira for four or five years realised but 1s. or so per head.
A change was now, however, about to take place. During the tupping season of '88 six thousand ewes were put to Lincoln rams. From them five months later we got a lambing of over ninety-five per cent; of these we reared and sheared over five thousand. We had for sale, therefore, in '89, some two thousand five hundred half-bred wether two-tooths. Would anybody buy them? The station had so bad a name we were by no means sure. One day, however, a red-letter day for the station, amongst the monthly correspondence tipped on to the verandah out of the canvas mail-bag, arrived an offer of 4s.—four shining silver shillings—for the two-tooth wethers. My partner's countenance of solemn joy rises before me as I write. Lord! how delighted we were!
This first sale of sound and young stock marked a stage in the annals of the run,—it had definitely turned the corner: sheep were no longer bought, imported to Tutira; they were sold, exported from Tutira.
We now clipped 10,000 sheep. This increase from '82, when rather more than 7000 half-starved brutes, 3000 of whom, moreover, lived entirely on tutu, had passed through the shed, was due to natural expansion of feeding-grounds caused by dry weather and fire, to fencing, and to the ploughing of lands round the edge of the lake.
These swamps or flats—to this day they pass under the former designation—had been drained in the days of Kiernan and Stuart. Prior to the operation they had supported a stunted growth of water-sodden flax and starved spindly raupo; as the land dried and hardened, as its superfluous water disappeared, these native plants shot up in enormous luxuriance, so that the work had not proved immediately remunerative. The benefit of the draining was now, however, to make itself felt.page 232
In one particularly dry summer Stuart managed to run a fire through the largest of them—Kahikanui swamp. The great blaze consumed everything dry; only the two or three latest crops of leaf lay on the ground or drooped from the crown of the plant, brown, flaccid, and parboiled. This jungle of dead and dying leaves was later trampled into fibre by sheep attracted by the huge succulent sow-thistles which germinated after the fire. During the summer succeeding the first conflagration a second fire was run through large tracts of this shredded flax, completely cleaning the land and destroying the crowns of such plants as had again begun to sprout. In thinner areas, where fire could not obtain a hold, the dead crowns were chipped with spade and adze, heaped up in piles, and burnt. The ground was then ploughed and harrowed, and the season proving propitious, the soil responded as virgin land does at its first working. There was no turnip-fly, save sow-thistles there were no weeds; the turnip seed, hand-sown by myself with great care, germinated evenly. We used to ride over and grovel in search of the earliest cotyledons. Returning from long days of labour, we refreshed ourselves with the sight of the growing crop—the development of the third leaf, the rise of the deep green shaws, the preliminary thickening of the roots, the bloom as of nectarine or plum on the bulbs, the immense leaves, the giant globes of these purple-top Aberdeens,—each change in the crop was a fresh delight. It was a sacrilege to ruffle their green luxuriance, a liberty to pull one or two for human use, a festival to think of them. Except to readers who care for the brown earth and all matters that appertain thereto, I despair of picturing our satisfaction at the success of this our first agricultural work. Our crop was the healthiest and heaviest I have ever known anywhere at any time. A second fine crop was grown the following season, a third was mediocre, a fourth no crop at all; weeds, chiefly docks, had taken possession of the soil.
Up to this date all improvements had been put on to the eastern corner of the station. Over it all fencing had been run, over it all grass-seed sown. On the other hand, nothing had been done to the great residue of the property—the fifteen or sixteen thousand acres then known as the “back” country. It remained still as it had been a hundred years before.
Our new step in development was the utilisation of this desert, page 233 which we handled bit by bit. The bare dry story of the breaking-in of a typical block of fern-land has been given, but nothing has been told of the personal equation, the human element, the hopes and fears, the ups and downs, the disillusionments and triumphs of the process.
During the whole of one winter we were thus occupied—one day preparing the forty or fifty loads, strapping them into evenly-balanced lots; the next, running in the teams at daybreak, saddling up, and, after the hastiest of meals, trotting our string into the heart of the run, loading up, and driving them with jangle of strap-rings on hooks, and groaning and creaking and straining of leather. Each day saw something accomplished, something done, until at page 234 length, flat on the ground for miles, lay the material of the future fence. How delightful then to note its erection, strain after strain, mile after mile, over gorge and slope, straight as a Roman road to its appointed end; to test the deep-sunk, hard-rammed strainers; to feel the adamantine fixity of the footed and rise-posts; to observe the neat pattern of the stapling, the trim-cut knots, the final result, six wires evenly parallel and taut as fiddle-strings. A fence-line can be erected to the glory of the Lord as truly as a cathedral pile.
The block first handled consisted of about 1600 acres of fairly good conglomerate land. The preliminary step was to get it burnt—not always an easy job, for it has always been impossible to be sure of a prolonged spell of drought on Tutira. There has been anxiety always lest wet weather should supervene, lest the bracken should not dry sufficiently to ensure a clean burn. With what trepidation, as autumn approached, have we not watched the skies! for not only had the bracken to be dry, but for a perfect burning day an atmosphere of scorching aridity was also required—a cloudless sky. On the particular March morning when we thus burnt out Stuart's paddock for the first time, all went well. A fierce sun blazed uninterruptedly from a sky of deepest blue; thin wisps of cloud, signs of the coming gale, lay high over the Maungaharuru Range. By eleven o'clock—be sure we were on the spot promptly—we were waiting, one eye on our watches the other on the sky, feeling for preliminary puffs of air, handling lovingly the lucifers that would give us black ground, a sward of English grass, increase of healthy stock, and supply a long train of benefits to the beloved station. There we waited in the fern barely restraining ourselves, “calming ourselves to the long-wished-for end,” reflecting that every hour, every half hour, every minute of patience, was drying more and more thoroughly the layers of brake piled one on top of another.
What anxieties have I not known during the last hour or so of such a vigil! Supposing the wished-for breeze should fail? Supposing white fleecy clouds should diffuse a deplorable damp?—forebodings dark as those conjured up in a banker's parlour arise in the mind. Supposing—I have known it happen—the sky should become overcast, yet not actually forbid a fire? Suppose there should be the tragic choice of page 235 delay—perhaps for a week, perhaps for a month, perhaps for the season? or, on the other hand, a “burn” disfigured by patches of green, marred by strips and tongues of unburnt stuff, areas of thin fern unconsumed, breaks in the black at every trivial creek and sheep-track, a crestfallen return clouded with misgivings as to the wisdom of having attempted a fire, at not having waited for a better chance?
Upon that March day, however, though, like Elijah, we scanned the sky, no cloud even like a man's hand appeared. Although all went well, and although it might be sufficient to leave it at that, some readers may care to hear the details of such a day—at any rate the writer wishes to remind himself of pleasures past and gone. Towards noon, then, the fateful match is struck, the smoke curls upwards blue and thin, the clear flame, steady at first but soon lengthening and stretching itself, arises like a snake from its cold coils. Then, as often seems to happen, the draught of the fire summons at once the waiting wind; out of the hot calm bursts forth the new-born storm; the circle of flame lengthens into a streak which, widening at every edge, is pounced upon, flattened to the ground, and furiously fanned this way and that, as if in attempted extinction. A few minutes later a line of commingled flame and smoke, moving ahead with steady roar, sweeps the hillsides.
Few sights are more engrossing, more enthralling, than the play of wind and flame. Wind in the hills, like water in its course, never for an instant remains even in its force, but ceaselessly swells and fails, waxes and wanes. In the very height of a gale the rushing charge of fire will in an instant check, the flames previously pinned down will erect their forked tongues like a crop, or lift as if drawn upwards from the earth in the very consummation of their burning embrace; the smoke, a moment previously flattened into the suffocated fern, will rise thin like steam through the winged fronds. Upon slopes exposed to greater weight of wind the pace of the conflagration quickens, forked sheets of flame that singe and scorch the shrivelling upper growth reach far ahead; forward the conflagration rolls—sometimes grey, sometimes glowing, sometimes incandescent, according to the changeful gusts. As a lover wraps his mistress in his arms, so the flames wrap the stately cabbage-trees, stripping them naked of their matted mantles of brown, devouring their tall stems with kisses of fire, crackling like musketry amongst the spluttering flax, page 236 hissing and spitting in the tutu groves, pouring in black smoke from thickets of scrub. On the tops pressed forward by the full force of the gale the roaring conflagration passes upwards and over in low-blown whirlwinds of smoke darkened with dust of flying charcoal and lit with showers of fiery sparks and airy handfuls of incandescent and blazing brake. To leeward fire is no less wonderful to watch as it slowly recedes downhill, devouring in leisurely fashion first the driest material, then sapping the stems of the later, greener, still upright fronds, so that they too bow like Dagon and fall to earth, perpetually replenishing the flames. A fire thus fed, burning against the wind or downhill, presents at night-time a peculiar twinkling, winking appearance from the perpetually recurring fall of the green fronds into the blaze, and the consequent alternations of darkness and light.
In windless hollows yet another mood may be noted: there the flames, burning slowly, stretch and dip and curtsey and sway to the draw of the gale above; in the mazes of a magic dance they take their time and measure from the wind, veering now to one point of the compass now to another, sliding and gliding in accompaniment to the unheard harps of the air. So, on that afternoon of March, like the waters of Lodore, the fire passed over Stuart's paddock, roaring and pouring, and howling and growling, and flashing and dashing and crashing, and fuming and consuming not only the block so named, but hundreds of acres besides of the Rocky Range—then included in the Moeangiangi run,—the whole of the Black Stag, and nearly the whole of the Tutu Faces.
At nightfall, over every acre unswept by the wind lay a delicate grey veil—a light ash of shrivelled fronds still retaining their shape. A tang of salt, as from the ocean, scented the air, whilst here and there on the driest flats rose thin lines of blue from smouldering totara logs. Everywhere the contours of the countryside lay dim; the sard sun, low in the dun horizon, glowed a burning, blood-red ball; like the fog of a great city, a pall of smoke hung over the land. Oh! the ride home, salt with dry sweat and black with dust, not a hair left unsinged on hands and arms, but rejoicing triumphant. Oh! the dive into the cool lake, the slow swim in limpid water past the snag Karuwaitahi, over the shoal Tarata; alas! that the run cannot once more be broken in; alas! indeed, that the past years cannot be relived; a fire on a dry day in a dry season was worth a ride of a thousand miles.page 237
Our paddock thus fenced and burnt, the next operation was the crushing of fern and sowing of grass seed. Like the man in the public - school Latin primer, “Rich in flocks, yet who lacked coin,” we could only afford a cheap mixture. The stores of Port Ahuriri were raked for fog (Holcus lanatus), for cock's-foot double - heads (Dactylis glomerata), for seconds of ryegrass (Lolium perenne), for goose-grass (Bromus mollis), for rat's-tail fescue (Festuca myuros). Of hulled fog at 1d. a lb. we bought, I remember, one hundred pounds' worth. Amongst tailings and sweepings acquired were included seeds of Poa pratensis, a certain amount of white clover (Trifolium repens), and a handful or so of crested dog's-tail (Cynosurus cristatus), which then first made its appearance on Tutira, together with foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) and vetch (Vicia sativa). Many hundred bags of goose-grass we got at little more than the cost of the sacks; an immense quantity of suckling, at about one farthing per pound, was also secured.
Goose-grass, rat's-tail fescue, and fog are, I am aware, damned in every respectable volume on British grasses. In the 'eighties they were, for all that, useful to the station; any plant that sheep would eat was an improvement on bracken. As for suckling clover, it is no exaggeration to say that more than once it has saved the situation. To this day, indeed, I believe that if one fodder-plant had to be eliminated, Tutira could least well afford to lose this so-called insignificant weed. Yorkshire fog, goose-grass, and rat-tailed fescue have long since ceased to give any appreciable benefit. In the 'eighties, however, their rapid germination and growth, their ability to thrive on light land, and their heavy seeding qualities, made them relatively valuable. Luxuriance and exuberance are not the words to describe growth of any sort on conglomerate and sandstone country such as that of central Tutira; yet each of the plants mentioned contributed its quotum to the service of the run. All of them had in the first place reached the run by chance. I had noticed them thriving, and adopted the hint dropped by nature.
These grasses, together with tailings and sweepings, the winnowed dust of a dozen stores, were, with a leaven of sound seed, poured in deep heaps along the wool-shed floor. There good and bad were mixed, bagged, and stacked, a dust, like the smoke of Tophet, arising from the work. The bags were next packed out and spaced about the paddock; there they stood in pairs leaning against one another, the seeds within page 238 meditating, we may imagine, on their coming opportunity of service, on their duty of germinating where no grass seed had germinated before. Sowers were engaged, camp sites chosen, and presently ten or a dozen natives were surface-sowing ground which a week before had supported a jungle of fern and scrub.
An immense interest was attached to the first appearance of the green needles of such fast-growing species as rye and goose-grass. Scarcely behind them came the flat cotyledons of white clover and suckling. Germination was earliest visible about the lines of packtrails where seed had been spilt from accidental rents in the sacks, on damp localities, and on fertile outcrops of marl.
The reader knows that English grass did ultimately fail on the central run. At this date, however, the owners of the station were still in ignorance of that tragic future. Happily, yet undisillusioned, they saw in their mind's eye a spreading sward of velvet green. There was excuse for such a belief; in those days there was a whiff of virtue in the soil; seed germinated during first sowings as it never did again.
To return, however, to our paddock: each ride revealed a change—first, hillsides bristling with numberless needles of green and flat clover cotyledons, then plants in their second leaf, then plants tall enough to offer a bite to stock, then hillsides faintly green in favourable lights, until lastly, a green hue overspread the entire paddock. To persons careless to the reclamation of land, the delight afforded by the bringing in of the wilderness will perhaps appear a species of lunacy. It did not then seem so to us; our paddock was a long-drawn variety entertainment, more enthralling in the development of its plot than any novel. To paraphrase Hamlet, the land's the thing. I was twenty-five then; I am more than twice that now; some interests pass with passing years; one never palls—the development of land.
It is needless to follow the history of this paddock beyond its first autumn and spring, for the contractions and expansions of a typical block have been elsewhere related. Suffice it to say that, within the year, 1500 sheep were carried where not a hoof had trod before. I acknowledge we had not done the work well or properly, but may I again beg the reader to recollect our tenure and our lack of capital. We had cut our coat according to our cloth. We had used cheap wire, we had used cheap seed; nevertheless, after thirty years' page 239 consideration of the matter, I am confident we worked not only Stuart's paddock, but the balance of the trough of the run, on the right lines.
The Rocky Staircase was the second block crushed and sown; then came in order The Image, Tutu Faces, The Educational, Pompey's, and the Sand Hills. For many seasons we managed to increase our flock at the rate of about twelve or fourteen hundred sheep a year. Prices of surplus stock, too, rose from four and six to eight or ten shillings.
In the early 'nineties we felled, block by block, most of the light bush of eastern Tutira, obtaining on the ashes of the fallen timber great crops of rape and turnip, and afterwards fine swards of rye, cock's-foot, and clover. Year by year the flock increased, until in the middle 'nineties the station passed from the 'teens to the 'ties, eventually reaching the high - water mark of 21,300 old sheep shorn, and over 9000 lambs. Tutira clipped that season a total of a little over 30,000 sheep and lambs.
After that date commenced the ebb. We began to find it difficult to keep up the numbers; the soil was everywhere losing its first exuberance of fertility, white clover was largely disappearing, rye and cock's-foot flourishing with less than their pristine vigour. The felling of the light bush of the eastern run postponed, however, for some time, any very noticeable diminution in numbers. Besides, if the flock did diminish in size, we consoled ourselves that the sheep were better grown, better fed, and better woolled than formerly.
During this increase of flock and increase of area under grass, time had not stood still; though we had enormously improved the value of the station to its Maori landlords, our own interest in it, apart from increase of stock, had been annually lessening.
We now for the second time entered into negotiations with the natives in regard to a renewal. From a business point of view this third lease was an even more unsatisfactory document than its predecessors. For reasons elsewhere perhaps excellent, but of which the wisdom was, I think, doubtful when applied to areas which could not pass out of the hands of the state, we were debarred from the obtainment of a lease of more than half the run. The rent was again doubled, with the proviso, however, that, should the western moiety be taken at the termination of the old lease, still having nine years to run, the rent of the later lease should be halved. On the part of the station there page 240 was a certain degree of security in this, for the western portion of the run was by itself not worth the rent paid for it. Its occupant would have held it under an even more precarious title than ourselves. Anyway, the new tenure was not such as encouraged improvements except those that would give an immediate return.
Again, as before, a considerable minority of native owners did not choose to sign. Looking back, I am surprised that any native owner signed at all; all of them knew that we would have consented to almost any terms sooner than be dispossessed. For the right to remain in possession they might have blackmailed us to almost any extent. They did not do so; advances of rent were asked for, perhaps, rather more often; certainly they were not requested in the abject, hang-dog, heart-broken strain I am accustomed to toady my banker; perhaps, approaching his point, the aged petitioner would allow himself to speculate as to when the station would be asking for yet another lease: “I tink some a day you rike te new rease, Te Mite. I sign all righte.” Well, well, if one impecunious gentleman won't help another impecunious gentleman, what is the world coming to? Then, too, having passed all its own life in debt, the station had a fellow-feeling for its landlords, the more so as normal payments of rent to them were snapped up by creditors—frittered away in paying debts; half the storekeepers in the district knew when the Tutira rents were due—where the carcase was there were the eagles gathered together.
Advances of rent were made, however, only to the older men, and then only for serious objects.
For several years there was a rage for tombstones: one pious native had erected a monument to his progenitor; the custom caught on, others followed suit, until I was hail-fellow-well-met with every undertaker in town, and an adept in appraising the degrees of grief represented by broken columns, mourning doves, crosses, and obelisks. Then after a few seasons tombstones were “off,” the station was required to advance for houses built on the European model—houses very often not used, the older folk especially, when pride of possession had palled, reverting to the warm smokiness of the raupo whare. A third fashion was in wedding raiment; the daughters of the tribe had to be attired for the altar. In those days Stuart and I dreaded to see a model clad in bridal attire in a Napier draper's window, lest it should attract the eyes of one of our people. We hated the advent of a wandering parson, God page 241 forgive us, lest he should rope in the morganatically unmarried couples and splice them, and the station be forced to advance for unlimited material of virginal white.
Barring the trouble given in these ways, and it was great because of the numbers of landlords, they could hardly have behaved better to us than they did behave. The Maoris are a fine race; I have lived with them for forty years, and can find almost nothing but good to say of them. The system, however, was wrong—one party in the transaction doing the work, the other holding power to evict without compensation for improvements. Even from the owners' point of view, the imperfect title and lease of only twenty-one years—too short considering the conditions—was an error. Improvements that should have been poured into the place were either withheld or dribbled out in niggardly fashion.
Little more remains to be said of this period. In the late 'nineties, the station being free of debt, the adjoining run of Putorino—twelve thousand sheep—was bought from Mr George Bee; later the Heru-o-Turea block was added.
In the summer of 1903, the station being for the second time free of debt, the writer purchased his partner's share in the three properties, together with thirty-two thousand sheep.