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The Counterfeit Seal: A Tale of Otago's First Settlers.

Chapter XII. — Strange Experiences

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Chapter XII.
Strange Experiences.

New land, new life, new skies o'erhead,
Strange thoughts inspire, strange joys suggest,
Strange work to which our hands are wed;
Strangest of all, our place of rest!

The building of the last whare155 had become an accomplished fact; and from about a score of huts and tents might have been seen lively-looking columns of blue-white smoke, curling away like so many miniature clouds tossing themselves merrily as they rose from the newly-formed fireplaces, and went winding through the branches of the trees that were interspersed between the dwelling places of the mushroom village.

Inside those one-roomed places of abode there was much activity. The attempts at cooking were not great, but even in some instances the mere act of getting a kettle to boil was a new experience, and was not managed without strongly expressed wishes that “the guid wife156” could have been there, if only for the sake of boiling the water. A few simple scalds and some dry burns bore testimony next morning to the distress occasioned by this new life in its first trials.

In relation to this part of their duties, however, much was learned in the course of a few days. How to start the fire became simple when the best burning sticks were known; and how to avoid scalds and burns was a necessary page 147 study, to which the mind was diligently applied, and soon mastered the simple problem. There were many of these minor things, of great importance to personal convenience and serenity of temper, which, though never thought of by the immigrants in making their equipments for the new life, were found to be of much greater moment than providing for safety against the savages.

Preparing comfortable beds was accomplished with varying success by men whose wives and mothers had attended to that business for them all their lives. It is doubtful, nevertheless, if even those mothers and wives could have done much better with the rude material available for such a purpose that night.

Among those who made their beds for the first time in their new residences there were some who possessed a natural sense of things that lead to comfort; others who seemed to be almost destitute of it, as well as of the faculty for making the best of circumstances.

The wiser had, while the sun shone early in the day, been watching for anything that might turn up suitable for any of their wants. These had cut and laid aside, that they might be well dried, bundles of tussock grass or dried ferns (bracken), and at night as soon as the sun had set behind the western hills they had put it inside, and when the time came they were able to spread out excellent mattresses between themselves and the damp earth. Others who had just done things as they reached the stage for doing them had not the same comforts or security against the risks of damp. While there were some so careless of what they were about that, throwing a sack or two on the freshly-cut earth they lay down to sleep, but also to waken page 148 less well rested and charged with incipient colds that in some cases caused mischief to their unfortunate possessors.

On the walk from Port Chalmers, the “band” had resolved to celebrate their arrval by a grand display of fireworks, such as could be procured, let off in some prominent position.

Their leading spirit having been called away to attend to their wounded companion to some extent affected the efficiency of their staff; yet Peter McKechnie, who was always Eric's right-hand man, and next to him in popularity among the “chums,” gathered his friends quietly, and they strolled away from the others after “tea” was over and dusk was closing into darkness. They had kept their intention a secret, and they believed none else knew for what purpose they had gone off in company towards the beach. They had not gone unobserved, however, for the rivalry between them and “Crawford's lot,” was to grow even stronger than it had been on board the ship. Andrew Crawford had made friends with Ben Brooks, and learned from him before he returned to Port Chalmers what Eric's band were going to do, and he had made energetic preparations to have an opposition demonstration in another direction. And so the two “bands,” set out to “alarm the natives” by their operations.

In about half an hour a flame of fire was seen to rise on the crown of “Bell Hill,” which being energetically fed with all sorts of combustible brushwood by twelve sturdy young men; it grew into a fire of flaring character, from which the tongues of flame leaped higher and higher until their reflection was cast back from the calm waters of the sea beneath, and had attracted the notice of all the page 149 “residents,” who had come out of their “houses” to witness the great conflagration, not without some anxiety as to its origin and ultimate effects.

This had lasted but a few minutes, when on the hill somewhere in the region of High Street and Hope Street corner, was observed a second flame arising in the darkness, as if replying to the notice of the first. Crawford's “fire brigade” had selected their position well and were working with zeal to send up a flame that would not only rival but eclipse their opponents. When their leaping flames shot up into the sky, “Eric's band” was somewhat surprised, and afterwards confessed to feeling some annoyance; but this was quickly overcome, and under Peter's directions they sent up a shout of triumph and welcome that drove any spirit of ungraciousness to the four winds; it was immediately replied to as vigorously as it had been sent, and then for an hour the brigades kept piling on the fuel, and causing the heavens to resound with their shouts of pleasure and of rivalry.

“We must have a thorough mountain of fire for a last effect,” said Peter.

“Why, Peter, we have cleared away everything for yards round; we have to drag it a long way now,” said Bill, who was now tired after his long day's work.

“Yes, yes! Bill, but just one good effort, a right good roaring blaze, and then it is over. Come, boys, let us make a sight worth remembering in the years to come!”

Then with renewed vigour their twelve hatchets were busy cutting, and their arms pulling out the brushwood, until they got quite a heap ready for the flames. It was thrown on and piled up high above their heads. It smoked, page 150 crackled, and blazed, and flamed until it had become a veritable bonfire, and when it was at its highest they formed a ring, and in the strongest tones their voices could produce they uttered a last grand “Hip, hip, hurrah!” which was responded to from the opposite height, and the brilliant sign of their jubilation was permitted to fade away and die; while nature resumed its silence, and all the aspects of rest and darkness settled down upon the embryo city of Dunedin.

By six o'clock the next morning, the beach became vocal with the voices of young men who, no longer constrained by the conventionalities of society, had made their way to the water's edge, and there, in nature's simple attire, they were rushing into the sea to enjoy its delicious and invigorating influence. As usual, they had divided into two companies, and were now rivalling each other in their noise and frolic. Talk of savages! Had any company of absolute savages seen the conduct of our young Scotchmen now let loose and displaying their limbs, as well as exhibiting the power of their voices, they would have stared in amazement.

They revelled in the enjoyment of their freedom in the spirit of re-action from the long months of enforced confinement on board the ship. They whooped and yelled, they laughed and roared, splashed the water into clouds of spray until all around was a sheet of foam. Very few of them knew the art of swimming, but the water was shallow and the bottom was sandy, or a yielding mixture of sand and mud, so that they could wade in for a long distance and throw themselves about in perfect safety as far as depth of water ensured safety.

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But there were dwellers in those parts with whom they had yet to make acquaintance. It was James Carmichael, who, having strayed some distance from the others, was the first to discover the presence of a strange creature, which seemed, from the sight he got of it, to be all legs, and many of them.

Keeping out of its way as best he could, he called on the others to come to him, which they did, forming a semi-circle on the sea side of the curiosity; and by noises and splashes they pursued it until it was driven on the beach, where its progress was almost nil. It crawled to the very margin of the water, but there was at bay. One of the youths, more bold than wary, took the harmless looking creature by one of its slimy but knotty-looking legs for the purpose of swinging it up on the dry ground, but as he grasped it he felt a sudden and powerful contraction of the two knot-like lumps on his hand, while immediately the tapering end of the “leg,” or arm, was turned round his wrist; but when he would gladly have set the octopus free, he discovered to his dismay that its grip of him was more powerful and effective than his hold of it.

Seeing what had taken place, the group of bathers became alarmed, and were more inclined to preserve their naked bodies from contact with so subtle an adversary by remaining at a respectful distance; but their friend was every moment becoming entoiled more and more in the arms of his antagonist, that was now making strong efforts to throw its suckers on his feet, which he, with great difficulty, prevented.

It was a sight possessing both a serious and a humorous side, to see a strong man completely disabled by page 152 a creature without a bone in its body, and standing or springing about in terrified dismay as it threw its limp and slimy arms about in the hope of fastening upon him in some other place.

At last, Peter McKechnie, having ran to where he had left his clothes, returned with his strong long-bladed pocket-knife, and by cutting off the arm of the octopus freed his companion, who never again laid rash hold on the arm of one of those ugly monsters. With this their bathing for that day was ended.

The work of erecting accommodation for the families was now to be carried on. The site had been chosen and cleared, and some of the timber was already on the ground. There were carpenters amongst them who took charge of the building operations, with numerous assistants who were more willing than proficient. A first necessity, however, was bushmen who could use both the axe and the long saw. This was a work for which none had any special training, but it was an employment that promised good remuneration to those who undertook it. There were other houses to build for which timber would be required, and those who could produce it from the native bush would be among the first to command a good price for their labour.

Already two men had begun the work of sawing timber with a pit saw157, but more were wanted to commence operations at once.

As Eric and Mr. Melville returned in one of the ship's boats, which was bringing Captain Cargill and some others to Dunedin, the subject of sawing naturally arose as they were sailing up by the side of a forest in which the giant pines were standing conspicuously among less lofty page 153 tress of other species. Eric's ears were open to catch the remarks made, and he was anxious to undertake some venture by which he might soon be able to have money at his command, and make preparations for his subsequent career.

His chum Peter was a carpenter. James Carmichael was an intelligent, strong-framed youth, and had been in one of the building yards on the Clyde for two years, where he was employed mostly in the handling of large logs. If they would join him this was the very thing by which to get a good start.

Having possessed himself of all the information he could get from those in the boat with him, he, immediately on landing in Dunedin, went straight to Peter and James and explained what he had heard, and the three of them lost no time in having an interview with the venerable Captain, who gave them every encouragement to undertake the work.

That afternoon they were again on the water making their way to Sawyer's Bay158 with all the necessary tools to commence operations. They selected a spot where there was good depth of water right up to the shore, and abundance of fine, straight, tall red pine trees within a hundred yards of where the boat was moored. Before dark, they had constructed a rude whare, which was capable of affording them good shelter for the night, which threatened to set in wet and windy; but where they were the wind would cause them very little annoyance, for they were sheltered on every side.

Their first fire was kindled outside between two stones, with a tree at the back; and James, who was cook, had his page 154 eyes nearly blinded with the smoke which kept curling round him; no matter where he stood, it was simply impossible to escape it, so that it was either to be endured or cooking for the night was to be abandoned. He was not the lad to give in before a difficulty if there was a possibility of overcoming it. So with eyes almost as red as the cinders in his fire, he persevered and provided the food according to desire.

By the light of a tallow candle later in the night they were seriously discussing their plans and prospects, very much after the fashion of young gold-diggers who have just pitched their' tent on a newly-rushed flat, when Peter remarked that he saw something pass the door of their hut. The others were incredulous, and taunted him with fear.

“No, indeed!” he contended. “I saw some living thing pass the door, and a thought of fear has not entered my head this night.”

“What could there be here at this hour of the night?” asked Eric.

“For the life of me I could not say what it was, but I am certain I saw some dark object pass,” he replied.

“Would it be a wild pig?” inquired James.

“It was dark-brown, not like the colour of a pig, nor did it seem to be so large,” said Peter, firmly.

“Then it's not likely to have been a man!” interjected Eric, handling his tomahawk carelessly as he spoke.

“A man!” came from Peter, with a hearty laugh. “It was only a small thing, not bigger than a man's foot, but I only got a glance of it as it darted or flew past.”

“Perhaps it might be a rat!” suggested James, anxious to propose some object that it might resemble.

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“I don't think it was a rat, but really I am unable to tell what it was; perhaps it may come back again if we remain quiet for a little while.”

“Yes do,” said Eric, grasping his hatchet firmly, in readiness to throw it at whatever should appear.

There was neither a sound nor a motion in the whare for a period of about five minutes, and each one of them became anxious to speak, but kept up the restraint, all watching the door as if they were expecting the appearance of some wild occupant of the forest, or perhaps worse, some irate savage native, who was skulking about waiting an opportunity to massacre them in their sleep.

The moments were dragging by slowly, and the other two were becoming suspicious that Peter had been playing a trick to try their nerves. Still, they were silent as the stars in the blue of heaven, and the moving of a leaf outside would have been observed by them. The longer that lasted the more sensitive they grew. Then, without warning of the least kind, a shrill screech pierced their strained cars, when simultaneously the three men sprang to their feet, looking each other in the face with a strange confusion of resolution and fear depicted on every feature. The screech mellowed into a coarse laugh, merging into tones of ironical derision, dying away in sounds of merry exultation, and then the perfect stillness of night resumed its reign.

“Oh, what a voice!” exclaimed James.

“I told you something passed the door,” said Peter, in vindication of his character.

“But you said it was not a man!” retorted James.

“Do you call that a man?” he rejoined, tauntingly.

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“If not a man, what do you say it is?” said James, with more than usual caustic in his tones.

“It may be a demon; no man ever uttered sounds like those,” said Peter.

“Hold still again lads,” broke in Eric, who had not so far spoken. “Perhaps we may hear it again, if we are silent as we were before. I have my own opinion of the mystery.”

Again they sat down on their benches and listened eagerly, this time prepared for the shock, and ready for any emergency. Presently a sound broke the silence, as whurrr! whurrrr! something sped past their open door.

“That must be the whiz of an arrow,” said James in a low voice. “Should we not put the light out, or stand more out of it?”

With that he drew himself nearer the wall, as if afraid the next arrow might be shot in through the door and find a quiver in his body. Just as he did so,

Mou-poup! mou-poup! fell in not unmusical sounds upon their surprised ears.

Then from a different direction came the response: Mou-poup! mou-poup! and again whurrrr, whurrrr! as two objects passed the door.

“It must be owls,” said Eric, in a voice which assured the others of his confidence in the truth of his statement.

“These last are very likely owls, but what of that terrible scream and hideous laugh?” interrogated James, who was not by any means satisfied they were not surrounded by a band of savages, who meant to fall on them with murderous vengeance before morning.

Eric resumed his seat and quietly laid down his hatchet.

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“Before leaving Edinburgh,” he said, “I read of a laughing bird that was common in the forests of New Zealand, but had forgotten all about it until the call of the owl reminded me of birds that prowl about in the night. I have no doubt now that we have heard the laughing-jackass, and we shall not forget it for many a day.” Just as he said these words they were startled once more by the scream and laugh of the “whekau159,” whose chief mission seemed to be to make night distressing.

As the sound evidently came from above them, among the branches of the trees, they now felt satisfied that their nocturnal visitor was morally harmless, if musically grotesque, and they were able to lie down and sleep soundly until daylight.

They stood that morning, three young men, alone on the margin of the virgin forest, with no experience of bush life, and only a few words of advice as to what they should do remaining in their memories, and even those seemed scarcely intelligible in face of what seemed gigantic difficulties. They, however, possessed unconquerable resolution and a fair stock of common sense; these added to their partial knowledge of tools, such as the saw, the axe, the crowbar, and the maui160, enabled them to consider and apply plans somewhat skilfully.

One piece of information Eric had picked up in conversation with Ben Brooks was the first practically applied new lesson of their operations. One of two things was necessary for them to do—erect a platform to cut up their logs on, or excavate, or find, a pit upon which a frame or platform could be constructed level with the surface of the ground, so that the logs might be rolled on to the cutting bench with comparatively little trouble.

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Ben had told him that the pit was a great saving of labour, and consequently of time, and they determined to find a natural hollow, if possible. In this, after a diligent search, they were successful, and that in a spot almost in the centre of the cluster of pine trees they had selected.

Now began their work in earnest. Their first real operation was to clear a space round their “work-shop,” as Peter at once named it. The mishap of young Melville warned them to be watchful to avoid accidents. In reference to this, Peter took occasion to give some practical advice on the use of the adz161 and the axe to his comrades, which they listened to wisely, as coming from one able to instruct in that particular line.

The small trees fell before the vigorous blows of their axes, and in a short time the sky was open to them, and a good space of very uneven ground had been freed from its encumbering vegetation. The hollow was ready for shaping. Pick and spade and crobar were now brought into use, and to their own surprsie they beheld the place taking shape and form under the guiding hand of Peter, who now was director of affairs; while he found his two companions both willing and apt pupils.

Before night came on them they had cleared out their pit and built round it a substantial platform, well dressed and pinned together with strong wooden pegs, in readiness for its first log. When the master mind of the trio declared it fit for use, they stood gazing on the result of their perseverance with every evidence of satisfaction.

They felt tired, and would then have stopped for the day, had not James said:

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“How nice it would be to see the first log on the pit before we leave.”

“It will not take very long to manage that,” said Peter, pointing to the first tree he had decided should yield to the influence of their long saw. “That tree can be cut so as to fall just along by the side here, if we are careful.”

“Can we make trees fall where we want them to?” asked James innocently.

“Not quite, yet by the manner of shaping the cuts of saw and axe we may give a certain amount of direction to the fall. I helped to fell a few trees in the Earl of Marr162's plantation two years ago, and learned that from the forester.”

“Let us try then to lay this one where we want it, and if we succeed we may try to satisfy Jim by getting our first log on the beams,” said Eric.

“Then you two take the cross-cut saw and work from that farther side, while I will use the axe on this side and make our first experiment,” returned Peter.

In about twenty minutes the axe-man said:

“Remove your saw and stand back, she is coming!” and watching the first movements of the swaying top, he gave another blow or two and sprang away to a safe distance.

The saw-cut began to gape, the uncut portion cracked, the head of the giant was moving right in the direction they desired. The sight was a pleasing one. There is always something fascinating in the appearance of an object tall and strong falling from its grand position into prostrate humilation. Man has ever found delight in conquering the mighty and in humbling the proud; and a similar feeling is page 160 present with the woodman when he sees, as the result of his labour and skill, a strong and lofty tree part from its stump and come crashing to the earth in the spot he designed for it.

The three youths stood side by side as their first pine tree bore testimony to their power and skill; and, although there was no one to hear their exultation, they shouted a hearty “Hip, hip, hurrah!” as its ponderous stem and spreading branches crashed through the trees of smaller growth, and brought a large number with it in a terribly mangled condition and great confusion thundering to the ground.

This new excitement drove off all thought of their tiredness, and, seeing the massive trunk lie so neatly by the side of their saw-pit, they commenced to cut off the first length, and in a while had reached the height of their ambition for the day, by seeing the first great log lying in position for their saw to begin on next morning.

155 The Māori term for a building, residence, dwelling, shed, or hut.

156 A type of early stove range.

157 A long saw with handles at each end, used for cutting timber over a saw pit.

158 A small Otago settlement, located seven-miles from Dunedin, and less than one-mile from Port Chalmers.

159 The whēkau is a now extinct native New Zealand bird, also known as the “laughing owl.” Its call was thought to herald bad fortune.

160 A probable error, though it is unclear whether the author meant another type of tool, or was attempting to create a new Māori word.

161 A tool similar to an axe, used for cutting or slicing away at the surface of wood.

162 Correctly Earl of Mar, John Francis Miller Erskin (1795 – 1866) was the 26th individual to hold the title. Having died without children, the earldom was passed on to his nephew.