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My First Eighty Years

Chapter 4 — Cause and Effect

page 76

Chapter 4
Cause and Effect

Timaru, at that period, had many ugly sensations besides the Hall case. In fact, the town was then famous for fraudulent bankruptcies which resulted in disappearances, imprisonments, and suicides. One prominent citizen, always supposed to be very sound financially, was found to have lived on his clients' money for years. He had kept a loaded revolver in his office drawer for over five years, and given strict instructions to his office boy that every visitor's name should be announced before he was admitted. When finally the police, who had come to arrest him, were announced, he found the courage to use the weapon and the police arrived too late. Another took poison and, as an extra precaution, threw himself into deep water. Several did what was then called ‘The Pacific Slope’, ‘blessing the fruitful islands where never warrants come’. (The extradition laws have been tightened since then.) Some, innocent of anything but trusting folly, served terms of imprisonment and came out broken men. The discrepancies in their accounts were often small, in these days of big money almost incredibly so; but the losses usually fell on widows and orphans who ‘pray for ten per cent.’—that is to say, on those who, because their funds are meagre, are deluded into taking risky securities for the sake of high interest.

There was one of these defaulters for whom there was universal sympathy. We were all sure that his trouble was that he had too large a heart. He was generous, not with the officious vanity that must be always giving, but with a genuine and unostentatious desire to help everyone needing help. He would dance with the wall-flowers, though he danced superlatively; he would take neglected chaperones page 77 into supper, and make them feel that he had never enjoyed anything so much. There was quite a gloom spread over the town when we heard he had received a two-year sentence, and equal rejoicing when we heard he had broken prison and escaped. When we girls had what we called a ‘walking picnic’ we used to bank up our fire and leave the choicest of our food in tins beside it for Jonathan Roberts. We liked to think he was watching us from the bushes in some clever and romantic hide-hole. He was never retaken. No doubt someone of importance helped him out of the country. I hope he had luck wherever he went.

The fundamental cause of all this trouble and misery must be looked for in these ‘boiling-downs’ I have spoken of on the sheep-stations. Timaru was entirely dependent upon its back country. The harbour, to-day a source of pride and revenue, was then a grievous expense which many people thought would ultimately prove useless. There was an unusual number of agents, brokers' salesmen of one sort and another, who, no doubt, had flourished like the green bay tree in the prosperous times, when land was booming. There is no game so easy and so profitable as ‘milking’ the farmer — so long as he is ‘in milk.’ Now the farming and grazing industries had run dry, or were providing a trickle not enough to support a village.

But this, you will say, hardly accounts for fraud and theft. I believe it sometimes does. Suppose an agent who is not doing quite as well as he had been, but still has nothing to worry about and is sure the fall is temporary, draws, as he has done a hundred times before, fifty pounds from general funds for his legitimate expenses.

He hasn't even asked himself if it is safe, for does not Smith owe him £100, and Brown £200, and neither of them has ever been a day late in payment. But when Smith defaults because Jones has not paid him, and Brown is not able, to pay because Robinson's mortgage on one of the richest stations has turned out so much waste paper, that page 78 fifty pounds begins to take another aspect. How should he know that his income was dependent on the land, and that the finest products of that land were going to the ‘boiling-downs’?

Our agent may have assets — valuable properties purchased in good times and looked upon as the nucleus of a fortune. It would be a pity to realise on these just now when the market seems to be slack, so he continues to pay current expenses out of any money available. Soon something happens — perhaps the bankruptcy of some business, thought to be sound — and he grows alarmed. He must, however unprofitably, part with some investment, and set himself straight. But by now the market is not merely flat, it is non-existent. Everyone is trying desperately to realise on his property and investments. Then those ordinary drawings on current accounts are apt to look remarkably like embezzlement, and a perfectly honest man likely to find himself in the dock and even in gaol.

Besides those unfortunates who were guilty of nothing but bad judgment, there were in Timaru a large class of people who deliberately and consistently over-spent. They seemed bent on emulating the wealthy people of Christ-church, for wealth can prosper alike by slumps and by booms. Social climbing was a game played feverishly and in deadly earnest. If I had not lived in Timaru at that time I could never have understood how much social position could count or to what lengths otherwise sensible people would go to obtain it.

We have read accounts of county snobbery in England and of Fifth Avenue excesses in New York and are apt to think them heightened and exaggerated for the purposes of art. Not at all! These are not sufficiently highly coloured for Timaru social life, except that here the thing was never put into words. Like the name of the Pharaoh, it was too high and holy to pass human lips. Certainly, unsuccessful climbers gave tongue and uttered many vulgar things about page 79 the snobbery of Society, but, for the real people, it was not supposed to exist. The moves of the game were never discussed. Those who held positions held them by divine right, only improving them surreptitiously as occasion offered.

Nor was this absorption with social life and the overspending incidental upon it confined to the women. It was the men, and often the single men, who refused to retrench and who put up the most gallant fight for this Dead Sea apple.

The Gentlemen's Club (a masculine affair) was expensive and exclusive. Remembering the struggle and the wire-pulling involved in getting elected as a member, surely one ought not to resign at the first breath of bad times. These would surely not last. Then how one would regret it! There was the hunt, too. Could anyone bear to be out of it, though it did demand a good horse as well as other expenses? At that time, most of the families who counted lived out of town on five and ten acre sections. It would be asking too much, especially of their women, to deprive them of any way of getting about. Timaru was noted for smart turn-outs and continued to be so long after the money to keep them up had vanished.

We say to-day that a car keeps a man poor. I believe that horses were responsible for more financial embarrassment. True, an old nag to draw a trap about cost next to nothing; but ‘Horseback Hall’, demanding well-bred mounts, groomed and stabled and constantly renewed, was another matter. Besides, when in normal times a man buys a car, it is a possession and he knows for certain that he can never see his full money again once he has run it on the road. A horse, on the other hand, was something to deal with. In buying a horse for £50 you might reasonably hope, if you fed it, groomed and rode it well, to sell it for £60. Every man considered himself a perfect judge of horseflesh and so entitled to speculate in it. When depressions come page 80 speculators are the first to be left high and dry. Yes! It was the men, especially those who dared not look hard-up, who forced the pace in Canterbury.

The women held tight to what they had, erected barbed-wire entanglements between the classes and saw to it that no outsider squeezed through. Sometimes les autres were invited to sing or perform at a charity concert and were received most affably, even made much of, but the acquaintances so made seldom ripened.

The qualifications required for inside seats were — and still are — to me a mystery. Neither virtue nor birth was among them. Wealth had little to do with it; those who had lost everything else were not allowed to lose caste. Once an insider, always an insider. Nor had culture; there was more of that commodity outside than in. Long residence was an important factor. Old identities who had no wish to be there remained inside the pale. The barrier was sometimes lifted for amusing people, good sports, especially single men, and of course there are successful social climbers all the world over. The fool's progress proceeded according to precedent — social ambition, over-spending, bankruptcy and sometimes a much uglier finale.

The men were mostly good fellows and it seems wrong to suggest that Tom Hall belonged to the same category. Yet surely he was infected by the disease of the town — the worst case. A daring plunger, he landed himself deeper than anyone else in financial embarrassments and forged to extricate himself. He must have led a life of fear and terror lest one or other of his crimes should suddenly come to light. Every knock must have made his cold heart stand still. No wonder asthma and indigestion dogged him, though he lost both in prison. His plight was desperate, and desperate the remedy he attempted.

Fiction, especially French fiction, is fond of depicting fiends in human form, men devoid of the least spark of decency, devoted ardently to evil. If I had not known the page 81 grisly details of the Hall case I should be inclined to dismiss these fiends as figments of the imagination.

In later years I have wondered if even a pitiless monster like Tom Hall might not sometimes have felt genuine pity for the wife he was torturing; whether the sympathy and devotion he showed were entirely play-acting. Possibly; but he was no longer a free man. Behind him, driving him fast along his course, was Nemesis in horrible form — ruin, imprisonment, disgrace. Even if, for one mad — and most unlikely — moment, he had dreamt of sacrificing himself instead of his devoted wife, what good could he do? As a single woman and buttressed by a fortune Kitty had been singularly unfitted to stand alone. How, as the wife — or widow — of a convicted felon, who had robbed trusting friends and clients of their all, impoverished and with a child to support, could she have coped with the world? No! She was better dead. Oh God in Heaven! or, Oh Devil in Hell! there was no turning back.

Not that there is the least tittle of evidence that he ever harboured such thoughts. During the time Timaru was seething with the excitement of the arrest and of the two trials, every word that Tom Hall had been heard to utter was bandied from mouth to mouth, traced to its source, and repeated again and again. Nothing he had said or done was too trifling. Yet no report was heard in his favour except the one sentence, addressed to Miss Houston and vouched for by the police, ‘I can hardly hope to get out of this now but it has nothing to do with you.’ This, after the police had given the customary warning that words spoken could be used in evidence against him, seems to have been his one good mark. He might have said words designed to saddle her with the crime.

* * * *

The entry in my diary about the ‘dreadful thing I did on the night of the Bamfield's party’ I can now explain though it was in itself so ridiculously childish that, except that it page 82 reveals some glimpses of the times, I would hesitate to mention it.

I was staying at Woodlands, so, in view of the party, I went home after school for my evening regalia, which was (you will hardly believe it) a coloured apron. For school, we wore dark dresses with pinafores, usually white, embroidered or trimmed with a colour. For a party, the fashion of the moment for flappers was a bright-coloured square, pinned on to those same school frocks. The summit, if you could achieve it, was a large coloured silk handkerchief. You pinned one corner with a brooch on the chest, tied two behind with ribbons, the fourth hung down in front. Most of us had to be content with cotton squares, but, if one could compass a hair ribbon to match the apron, that atoned for all deficiencies.

Woodlands, though considered in the country, was not far from the residential area where the Bamfields lived, so my mother was justified in supposing that the hostess would see that someone took me home.

That party was particularly enjoyable and too soon the nurses or fathers began to arrive to collect their charges. I had neither, and no one seemed to be going my way. Now, I have always been perfectly ridiculous about allowing friends to render me small services. Even now, when old age and blindness make these necessary and becoming, I instinctively resent help if I can manage without it. On this occasion I assured them that it was less than five minutes' walk and I needed nobody. They did not acquiesce and there were several offers to take me, but I protested, and cut short the argument by running up the street as fast as I could.

Now, Woodlands had two entrances — one a long drive through thick trees, always avoided at night, and the other, an iron gate near the house. To guard the cherries — which could literally be gathered in clothes-baskets — the Cains kept a dog, reputed to be extraordinarily savage. In the day-time page 83 it was kept chained near the stables, but the gardener loosed it at night. I had been warned not to go near it and had so far obeyed, though I have an affinity for dogs and often on the station had got into trouble for unchaining the shepherds' dogs. There were strict rules against touching or even feeding them, but their pleading eyes were stronger than rules. I had seen this particular liver-and-white hound so seldom that I had forgotten its existence till the thing suddenly sprang at me with a vicious snarl. I had just time to slam the half-opened gate between us. I ran back down the road at a pace I had never attained before, not at all sure that the brute, having pushed through the hedge, was not a few yards behind me. On the main road I felt safe, and paused to get breath. I should feel ignominious enough having to ask the Bamfields to see me home without arriving there panting for breath. In a state of comparative calm I entered their gate to find the house in darkness and not a sound issuing from it. How well I know, now, the feelings of the tired hostess who turns out the light, hits the pillow, and leaves everything for the morning.

Loitering, undecided, I realised that all the families in the little residential group were known to me. Most of them had had someone at the party. Surely they had not all been so hasty in retiring. The Hassells' house was dark and as silent as the grave. I raised the knocker and shivered with horror at the noise one tap made in the vast stillness. I simply did not dare to rouse that household. I passed by and looked in at every house in the block. Not a light. The Sims, good friends, I should have courage to wake them. But I hadn't. I sat on their verandah to pull myself together, and think. Of course! Why had I not thought of it? I would go home. We lived at the other side of the town, but that was nothing. The streets were familiar and I was tireless. I started off gaily, half running.

The site on which Timaru is built was originally cleft by a gully through which ran a small creek. An embankment page 84 had lately been built carrying a road across the gully, below which the creek trickled through a grassy no-man's-land. Here an old woman, commonly known as Sophia, had built herself a rude shelter of battered sheet-iron, bits of board, boxes and sacks. From the safety of the built-up road the school children would often tease the half-crazed derelict. Urged by some entirely unfounded notion that she was a Catholic, they would yell,

‘Protestant, Protestant, ring the bell,
Catholic, Catholic, go to Hell’,

and then run for their lives. The old girl knew as well as we that she had no chance of catching us, but she would make a feint of chasing and then stop, lift her one garment high over her head, and display herself stark naked to our frightened gaze. I can absolve myself of having ever taken part in this form of amusement, but I had seen the exhibition and been duly horrified.

To-night, approaching the embankment, I saw that Sophia, too, was having a party. A fire was burning in the open, and before it dark figures of men moved and flickered. They seemed to be sailors, and there was some sort of a brawl going on. From the safety of the highly-embanked road, I could look down on this circus, so was not afraid. The brawl grew noisier — oaths, shouts, curses, and the sound of blows, mingled with Sophia's shrill yells. As the donnybrook grew fiercer one man angrily detached himself from the mělée and made for the road. I ran a few steps, but soon realised that he would gain the narrow road before I could get off it. He had blocked my way to home and I turned and ran wildly back to the Bamfields. I did not go into their house. I went to the Sims’, partly because Mrs Sims was the embodiment of motherly kindness. Still I could not bring myself to awaken the household. I sat on the verandah, wondering how long it would be before daylight came. I had entirely lost my nerve, and was trembling with some undefined fear. I was also anxious that it should not page 85 be known that I had spent the night in such undignified straits.

The waning moon rose. It was hardly more than a thread, and, though it made the world lighter, it streaked everything with long black and white lines, strange and ghostly. I kept on waiting for daylight, and for courage to get myself home. At last I heard a step coming up North Street. I tiptoed to the gate and, standing hidden in the shadow of the gatepost, saw what seemed a respectably dressed elderly man. Without stopping to think, I stepped out and stammered, ‘Would you mind taking me home? I live in that house up the road, the one with the drive of trees, and I'm frightened to go through them.’

I had no time to tell him of the other way and the dog. He muttered thickly in broad Scots, with a chuckle, ‘I was thinkin' I h'd me work cut oot to see mesel' hame.’ He lurched and just saved himself with his stick from falling, and then I knew, to my horror, that he was not sober.

He asked no question; said, ‘Come awa' lass.’

Hardly knowing what I did, I walked beside him up the road and down the drive, thanked him hurriedly, and shot, how thankfully, through an ever-open french window into safety.

Nobody saw! Thank goodness, not a soul knew of my night out. But what hung so heavily on my conscience that I had to mention it in the diary was that I had spoken to, and even been seen home by, a drunken man.

It might seem incredible that a girl should so definitely refuse to tell her mother such a story. The fact was that I knew, however vaguely, that there were other ‘dreadful things’ a girl might do and I resented — being already in the mood for resentment — the suspicion I read in my mother's eyes.

* * * *

That year, 1886, my brother went Home to be educated. How that came about is a remarkable story.

page 86

One Sunday afternoon some two years earlier my mother laid down a copy of the Cornhill magazine she had been reading, saying, ‘Christ's Hospital! That's the school I should like Sonny to go to.’ (Yes, we were absurd enough to call my unfortunate brother ‘Sonny’ till he was eight years old.)

She went on to tell us of the large number of highly successful men who had been educated there, not to speak of the few really great ones who had written of this ‘Blue-coat School’.

‘It is improved now,’ she said, ‘and this article explains that the majority of its pupils are boys of good family, whose people are in poor circumstances. That's why they are so successful. They realise the need for work.’ She read out a long list of naval and army men, captains of industry, explorers, and engineers. She tore from the magazine a picture of a most seraphic little boy dressed in the Blue-coat uniform, and pinned it on a reredos contraption over her bed. It stayed there till it grew brown and curled with the sun.

* * * *

The Campbells still lived in manorial magnificence at Otekaike. Mrs Campbell often asked my mother to stay, and, when by chance she was in funds and had suitable clothes, she would accept the standing invitation.

It happened in 1885 that a certain Dr Inglis, who was visiting New Zealand with the object of collecting geological specimens for the British Museum, was staying at Otekaike. In her youth my mother had taken an interest in geology, and had a fine collection of Ballarat quartz and other Australian specimens given to her by an elder brother. To Timaru harbour, then in embryo, came ships in ballast; and on a certain part of the beach, to which we often took our lunch on Saturday, this ballast was washed up. There were lumps of rock studded with garnets, attractive pieces of carnelian, pebbles that, when wet, were brighter than page 87 cairngorms, as well as rocks of geological interest. When these had been pointed out to us, we all started collections. I, in the pride of a little scientific education, doubted that the names my mother gave these stones were correct, but on his last trip to London in 1934 my brother saw these specimens labelled still in her printing, just as they had been in Timaru, so she must have been reasonably correct.

At any rate, she knew enough of geology to interest this Dr Inglis, and she found in talking to him that he was Chairman of the Board of Governors of Christ's Hospital. She invited him to come to Timaru and gave him her collection of New Zealand and Australian specimens. No doubt Mrs Campbell had hinted to him what she wanted in return. A few months after he went home a presentation to the Blue-coat School came for Henry Hubert Ostler. Poor child; he was not quite nine. It seems to me unnatural that any woman could part with her only son at that age, never to see him for eight years. But she did.

Funds must have been at a very low ebb just then, for I did not come up from Dunedin to see him off, and we never dreamed of such a thing as a cable on his safe arrival. The Government published their cable, ‘Ionic berthed four p.m. London Dock. Cargo of frozen meat in good order’. My mother said that meant her boy.