My First Eighty Years
Chapter 9 — Levin and H. H. Ostler
Levin and H. H. Ostler
Five years we spent in pioneering conditions at Ohau (not — as you will have gathered — without a sprinkling of fun). Then we were able to buy a farm in Levin, near Lake Horowhenua, a good farm with house and grounds as desirable as any in the district. Even to-day it remains an attractive home.
Here were born a son and a second daughter. ‘Nursery days and baby ways’ are undoubtedly the best things in a woman's life, though it must strain some of the mothers of to-day to recognise it. I did not realise how sheltered and cared for I was. We were far from opulent. No ship had come in, nor had anyone left us a legacy. We had acquired a home somewhat beyond our means, and therefore had to be the more economical. The house had been built by a friend, Mr Bob Hewitt, a bachelor, whose fancy did not range beyond the front of the house, which was delightful Kitchens he considered redundant — merely the places that made all the work and whence dinners issued. This one was dark, without a sink or a tap or a cupboard, and had a huge, iniquitous range bought from a steamer. You could stoke up all day and merely warm its two great ovens. But what did I care who had cooked in places so much worse. On the contrary. I can remember coming at dusk into that kitchen, seeing the fire from between the bars of the range flicker on the newly-scrubbed board floor, and being seized with a sudden ecstatic pride of possession — this real kitchen, this real built-in range were mine! mine! mine!
You are not to hear much of the seven years we spent at the farm known as The Lake. ‘Happy is the country which has no history’ runs the saying. It applies also to homes of page 145 which there is nothing to tell. My life seemed much like that of any other woman except that my husband's many interests appeared to me to be more exciting than those of other people.
Levin was still a rough little bush settlement with a butcher, a baker (of sorts) and two stores, one of which acted as a post office. Interesting people were beginning to come and progress was in the air.
Such is the force of old association that many of those early settlers or their descendants remain my friends to this day.
One of the earliest and most acceptable additions to Levin society was the Bartholomew family. Though the sawmill had been working before the Block was sold, it was not until, in his eyes, it had attained some degree of civilisation that Mr Bartholomew built a house and brought his wife and children down to live there. A few months later he took a trip to Australia and brought back a young, half-grown kangaroo. It was the delight of all of us to see the queer animal hopping gracefully and noiselessly among the piles of sawdust round the mill. It made nothing of fences, was perfectly tame and even the mill-hands who had gardens tolerated it amiably.
On still summer evenings, at the edge of the bush one could often see schools of bats circling just above the tree-tops. I had never heard of anyone who had caught one or had even seen one at close quarters till Mr Bartholomew picked up a dead one and took it into his wife, saying, ‘Look! Kangy's had a young one, only it is dead.’
The tiny scrap of grey silk velvet entirely hoaxed the wife whose only lament was that it had not lived. But the very next day, before she had been undeceived, the kangaroo, to the surprise of everyone concerned, did produce a live baby. Now it became more interesting than ever to watch for the mother and see the little head sticking out of her pouch and, later, to see the little fellow hopping beside page 146 her. She was shyer now and harder to get a glimpse of, and it was one of my griefs that she never showed herself to me.
It seemed no time before the youngster had grown larger than his mother and the pair could be seen ranging freely wherever they fancied, much at home in anybody's paddock. Soon, disregarding the laws of consanguinity, these two produced a third and, in course of time — I cannot remember how long — there was a herd of five, one male and four females.
One day, driving towards the township, we saw the whole group sitting calmly at the cross-roads, staring round with a lordly air as if they had come out to see how their property was progressing. The horses disliked the sight strangely. They whirled round and bolted in the opposite direction and if I had been driving instead of my husband we should probably have had an accident.
One Sunday afternoon my brother, husband and I were walking across a neighbour's log-strewn paddock. I suppose we had some purpose in view for farmers seldom walk for walking's sake. In fact, it is my opinion that no one less than royalty can afford to indulge in so unproductive a form of exercise. Whatever we may have sought, what we did find was Old Man Kangaroo with his harem. The old lady — the grandmother — had no objection to humans and stood her ground; the old man, perhaps disdaining to be put to flight before his wives, stood and stared defiantly at us.
My husband's Australian blood was roused by the familiar sight. He had a Red Indian's ability to approach a wild thing without startling it and walked steadily to within three or four yards of it. Then, seeing by the stiffening of the leg muscles that the beast was about to spring, he threw his hat, a battered panama, at its head. The hat soared far above its target but the animal rose at the exact second that the hat was above it, and seemed deliberately to thrust its head into the soft hat which closed well down over its head.page 147
The wives bounded off wildly, but the blinded old man could only hop in circles. He must have been able to see a glimpse under the hat, for he always seemed to land either on a smooth patch of grass or on a flat log, but his bounding grew tenser and one could see he was getting more and more furious. Once he looked as if he were coming for us, guided perhaps by loud guffaws, for my brother was quite incapacitated with laughter. But he sheered off and, leaping against a splintered tree, a sliver of which was hanging out horizontally, he knocked off the objectionable hat and, giving us a nasty look, sped after his wives, leaving us all prostrate with laughter.
But the fun was to take a grimmer turn. About twenty hops took the kangaroo to where McHardy's herd of dairy cows was grazing. These, evidently quite accustomed to the Australian visitors, took no notice, but a thirst for vengeance was welling up in Kang's heart. He sprang on to the back of the bull which, with a wild roar, disappeared from our sight. We just caught a glimpse of what looked like the Devil in Cruikshank's illustrations of the Ingoldsby Legends.
The bull, as we heard later, was seriously hurt. Its owners at first were at a loss to guess what had happened. Its flanks were slashed as with a butcher's knife and it had lost much blood. But the worst of the incident was that Old Kang, from that day, developed a taste for rodeo and became a nuisance to all dairymen's herds and even tried horse riding, though he used his spurs less viciously than on his trial ride.
Mr Bartholomew was the last man to allow anything of his to become a nuisance and immediately set about building a large enclosure. It was of boards and wire, and took in some bush as well as grass-land. It must have been an expensive affair, even for a sawmiller. Then the kangaroos had to be driven into it. All the youth and all the dogs of the community volunteered eagerly for the job. It was reported to have been a great hunt and immense fun. But in the morning following it all five kangaroos were lying dead.
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Levin was short of water — very short. The official map had shown a water reserve and had asserted that it was 110ft. above the level of the town; but the assertion proved a mistake. One hundred and ten feet was the height above sea-level, and it was a poor supply at that.
We, living near the lake, were not in such straits, but it hurt us to see the animals congregating round the gates of their paddocks and when, about four in the afternoon, these were opened, they would stampede, almost gallop, to the lake.
I remembered the water-race scheme in South Canterbury and my husband was interested and felt it might be a solution, but he knew nothing of engineering. One day in Wellington, quite by chance, he met Mr Meason, a Timaru man who had put through the South Canterbury scheme. After talking, he invited Mr Meason to come to Levin to stay with us and reconnoitre.
His report was that though the Government reserve was useless an inexpensive scheme to produce unlimited water could be installed merely by cutting a channel through the lower foothills. The next task was to persuade the ratepayers that such a scheme was possible. They could not believe that races cut through the paddocks would hold the water. What was to prevent its soaking into the soil? Told that such an irrigation scheme had been quite successful in Canterbury, they were still unconvinced. ‘It can't happen here’ was the general attitude. My husband talked, persuaded, harangued. His friends said he would stand with a glass of whisky in one hand, pointing to the landscape with the other, and forget to drink the whisky while talking water. He even took a bicycle trip through the Wairarapa because he read that that district was inaugurating a similar scheme.
At length he persuaded a sufficient number of the ratepayers to vote for a loan, to try the thing out. This could only be achieved by allowing to be cut out of the rate paying area certain well-to-do farmers who had already installed page 149 windmills and troughs and were therefore untroubled by droughts. It was hardly fair, for when the water-races turned out a success, these men soon contrived to have them cut into their paddocks also.
It is strange, from this distance, to look back on the penury of those days. What an ignorant, primitive, inexperienced little band of pioneers we were, and, considering our proximity to Wellington, how isolated! The explanation, I think, was that nobody had any money to spend. If they had they would not have been there.
The loan that it was so difficult to persuade the district to shoulder was £4,069/3/6, but the settlers were grateful and in 1903, when the scheme was finished, gave my husband a banquet and a watch suitably inscribed.
A few years later, when they found that special rates do not spell ruin if the loans are well spent, the same district cheerfully voted £24,000 for high-pressure water for the homes. These water-races were the first of many benefits that were due, or largely due, to my husband's energy and persistence, but it seemed his luck always to have to fight for what he wanted. Either somebody's jealousy was excited, or somebody's access to pickings was interfered with, or somebody's ‘craft was in danger’ from his activities. I am proud to record that he was never accused of serving the public for his own benefit or of feathering his own nest.
My husband had a remarkable aptitude for games. Whatever came his way he would play with relish and zest. Tennis, cricket, golf, polo, bridge, ping-pong — all grist to his mill. He was never a champion at any of them though often a runner-up and always good enough to give anyone a game. He did not concentrate on any one game — he was a sportsman who played for the joy of it and never forgot that it was a game and not the main business of life.
There was one sport he could have excelled in if it had been competitive; he was an excellent shot. There was a good deal of game about Levin and from time to time he page 150 would invite shooting parties from Wellington — Dr Kendall, my brother, and Mr Skerrett (as he was then) were the most usual. They would come up with shining, new fowling pieces and expensive dogs; my husband would go out with an old blunderbuss he had picked up second-hand and yet it seemed that he always brought home the largest bag.
About this time football became a fashion. My brother, who was then, though without much zest, managing my mother's land, persuaded my husband that he was not too old to help to form a team and to play. Then, stimulated by certain team rivalries, he grew particularly keen. Even I became a football fan and cared tremendously for the glories of a win. A friend recently looked up a biographical dictionary and told me that C. K. Wilson had played representative football at forty-five years of age. I knew it, of course, and have photographs of the team that had won the match against Wellington, but had hardly realised what a unique feat it was. I saw it as one of the least of his achievements.
Later trout fishing became the rage of the moment. The rivers that had been stocked by the Acclimatization Society were now considered ready to fish and men and women were buying licences and gear for the opening of the season. It was a new sport to most of us.
We now began to realise how near we were to Wellington and to make a few city friends. Sir Robert and Lady Stout were among the earliest. They were my mother's friends and, staying at Cashmere, soon became friends of the family. I knew the name of Stout only as the very belligerent leader of the Liberal Party. Intolerance in politics seems to obtain in inverse ratio to one's knowledge of politics. Mine was but a reflection of my husband's creed. Therefore I was so intolerant that I hardly looked forward to meeting my mother's guests. What a surprise it was to meet a kindly, unassuming, generous and learned Father Christmas. How could we reconcile this delightful old page 151 gentleman with the monster who hurled invective at our political friends?
My own anti-Liberal opinions may have been formed even earlier. As a child in Dunedin I was sometimes taken to a strawberry garden where once I saw Sir Julius Vogel, an immensely fat man in a bath-chair. I heard the proprietor tell my mother that Sir Julius had a standing order of six pounds of strawberries a day. I branded him as greedy — one of the cardinal sins to a five-year-old. Again, in 1883, when Sir George Grey was stumping the country in order to prove to the working-man that the squatters and big landowners had robbed the worker of his birthright, my mother had a great desire to hear him. She could find no woman ready to go to his meeting, so she took me. I hated him. The attack on the squatters enraged me as if it were an attack on me personally though what good the squatting game had done to me or mine would have puzzled me to tell. Now I met the third of the great Liberal trio and surely the most genial and approachable.
He had just retired from politics and had been appointed Chief Justice. He was interested in farming, having a part share in a farm in Southland, and enjoyed making comparisons. His life was centred in his work, domestic matters and other things he was content to leave in the hands of his very capable wife. She declared that he was quite hopeless with money. If he started out in the morning with his pockets full he invariably found some impostor or undeserving charlatan who wheedled it all from him. He could never withstand a tale of woe. Apart from this he had no extravagances. He did not drink, smoke or gamble nor did he even play games. When from the platform he advocated prohibition and total abstinence and an interjector shouted, ‘You'll dock our tea next!’ he answered, smiling, ‘Well, and why not? Myself I take neither tea, coffee nor cocoa and find myself in perfect health.’ His type suggested the old Scottish disciplinarian but after knowing page 152 him I wondered how he even brought himself to sentence the most hardened criminal to anything more severe than a reprimand. Once, in the Stouts' home, noises indicated that the boys were staging a donnybrook in the bathroom and their father was persuaded to go up and stop them. He went readily enough but returned defeated. Wiping his face and beard, he whimpered, ‘Anna, they threw a sponge at me.’
We saw more of his charming wife than of him. She stayed often at Cashmere. She was vital, impressive, graceful and decorative and full to overflowing with the milk of human kindness. Her hair was a nimbus of spun gold round her head. The ‘perming’ of to-day may aim at producing the effect artificially but the real thing is rare indeed. She was cruelly deaf but she handled her ear-trumpet with such appealing grace that she made it almost an ornament.
She was frank to a degree and that she did not often give mortal offence was due not so much to her sweet disposition as to the ingenuous sincerity with which she said things other people would have left unsaid.
I remember a day at our house when we women sat long over the luncheon table. The conversation had turned on one's conception of the life after death. One of my guests was Miss Mary McLean, an important woman and one of the earliest to achieve a position and a salary that a man might envy. She was belligerently religious and so were several of my other guests. I was anxious to create a diversion before Lady Stout expressed her opinions which were sure to be heterodox. But I need not have worried. She said so simply that she saw no reason to believe that there was any life hereafter. She seemed never to think that such an opinion might offend. No one got hot, no one argued, no one offered — after the manner of the day — to pray for her conversion. It would seem that sincerity coupled with goodwill is often more acceptable than tact.
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The Boer War brought football to an abrupt close. Most page 153 of the best players immediately joined the contingents. My brother, H. H. (later Sir Hubert) Ostler, chafed. He was not enjoying the work of managing for his mother. Then he quite suddenly determined to go. True, the Boer War was practically over, but he had, as long as I can remember, been fascinated by Africa. He went to town to buy his outfit, returned on a luggage train and came straight to us at about three in the morning. Sitting on the bed, he told how Lady Stout had persuaded him to take the law course offered by the new Victoria College. We were not as encouraging as we should have been, being inclined to share his mother's opinion that he would never stick to anything, but we wished to keep him near us and when he finally turned in it was decided.
Perhaps the keynote of Hubert Ostler's character was the intensity of his desires. He wanted what he wanted with every fibre of his being, but he was wise enough to know that no man — especially if he starts at scratch — can hope to achieve all things all the time and was willing, not only to make superhuman efforts to compass his desires, but also to do without everything else, even the necessities of life; or should I say the necessities of civilised life. Men of that temperament are apt to take short cuts to success or to neglect their obligations to family and friends. He never did. His generous impulses were not suppressed and there never was a man who responded more quickly to a tale of true courage, generosity or selflessness. His emotions, though well under control, lived very near the surface, and I have sometimes dared to believe that I was the only soul in the world who knew how strong they were.
He had worked during the first part of the university vacation in 1903, accumulated a little cash and was now frothing for a spot of fun. He said to my sister and me: ‘If you girls could do the thing cheaply enough we might take a bicycle trip to the Hot Springs.’ What a suggestion! page 154 And how like him to think of something beyond our wildest dreams. We were transported with delight.
Of course we assured H.H. that we could do the trip as cheaply as he could. Why not? It seemed he had £5, which was all he could spare, probably all he had. He asked anxiously if each of us could take the like sum and manage on it. We, with the valour of ignorance, were sure of it; but my husband shook his head and insisted on my taking a surreptitious cheque hidden away for an emergency. I afterwards found that my sister had stitched two sovereigns inside her coat lining.
We made ourselves short, heavy serge skirts exactly alike and a navy-and-white blouse to be worn with a red tie and belt. We bought mushroom hats with red frills. The skirts were shockingly short; they came only just to the ankles, so of course it would be impossible to appear in civilised places, or even to stay with friends, without a change. We each took a black skirt (mine had a train) and a white silk blouse. These and a change of underclothing comprised the whole swag, which we strapped on to the handlebars.
We had friends with whom we were to stay the first two nights. The test came on the third night, when we arrived about nightfall at a small township and were confronted with the choice of a good hotel and a very bad boarding-house. We agreed at once that we must take the cheaper. But when we saw the boarding-house our hearts quailed. I believe that it would be impossible to find its fellow in New Zealand to-day for dirt and revolting smells. We looked at each other, no one wishing to be the first to renounce our boasted economy and declare the place too noisome. I don't remember who was the brave one but we finally stayed at the well-kept hotel.
The next was Waiouru, a coach-stop only. A large dining-shed with a wooden floor and some bedrooms that were merely a huddle of packing-cases was our resting-place. You could poke a hat-pin from one room to the other. Except page 155 for the stables you could look for miles over arid plain and hill and mountain without seeing a trace of man or beast.
My brother made enquiries (we well-behaved women did not dream of speaking to strange men and there were no women). He was told that we must start early if we were to reach Tokaanu. It was forty miles without a sign of life. H.H. was anxious, for he had been led to believe that no one had yet crossed the Waiouru Plains on cycles and to take two women was a risk.
We did not reach Tokaanu before dark. There was a sand-drift across the road over which we had to carry our machines and there were two streams to cross that issued straight from glaciers we could see overhead.
H.H. said, ‘You girls needn't take off your shoes and stockings. I'll carry you over to save time.’
It meant five crossings for him to carry us and our cycles; after each he jumped about swearing that it was devilish cold. Coming to another stream we thought it quicker each to go alone. Then we knew why he had hopped about; the cold actually burnt.
‘I'm glad you two had a taste of it,’ laughed H.H. ‘You showed me very little sisterly sympathy.’
It was toilsome going until we came in sight of the great blue expanse of Lake Taupo, boiled our billy and feasted our eyes, refreshing ourselves. The remaining twenty-two miles were downhill except for small rises up which our impetus wafted us. It was a glorious sensation. Free-wheels were not invented yet, but we lifted our feet from the pedals and were sure that we were experiencing the sensation of flying as nearly as human beings could ever hope to.
But when we reached the flats where Tokaanu should be there was no sign of habitation and night was falling.
What to do? Push on over a very rough road?
‘Let's camp,’ said H.H. ‘It's an ideal place.’
We had no blanket but each had a warm coat. My evening skirt was of heavy moire, lined with sateen. My page 156 brother cut a strong manuka stick, drove it into the ground, and tied the waist of the skirt tighly to it, stretching the wide flare tent-wise, holding it out with sticks. We gathered some fern and, putting on coats, crept under the cover which at least protected head and chest from a fleeting shower that came over in the night.
We slept well although we wakened cold just as dawn was breaking. We packed up and rode on to get warm till in response to the demands of the man of the party, who was never tired but always hungry, we boiled up the billy and ate the last of our ship's biscuits. Tokaanu, had we known it, was just round the corner and very soon we were enjoying our first hot mineral bath.
We found that, because it was New Year's Day, the boat, the only means of crossing to Taupo, was to call at various points round the lake before returning, but if we cared to take the trip with it we were welcome. Nothing could have suited us better. When it came in we were surprised to see it crowded with passengers and more surprised to see empty baskets, preserving-pans, tins, boxes and washing tubs lying thick on the deck but we were too busy enjoying the scene to speculate about this. We came to a cove that was enveloped in red mist. One of the passengers told us they were cherries and that the residents of Taupo arranged a picnic every New Year's Day to gather them.
H.H. had picked up a young fellow-student who had stayed that night at the Tokaanu hotel and was also crossing to Taupo. We four, when we had landed, sat alone on the white sand that looked like brewer's crystals, eating cherries. The local people spread a large cloth and unpacked a feast — cold turkeys, geese, fowls, salads and what looked like dishes filled with trifle. The young student had nothing to eat and we, thinking to be in Taupo for lunch, had one ship's biscuit and a scrape of marmalade. I wanted to go and tell the revellers that we had not understood the arrangements and had brought no lunch but the others would by no means page 157 allow it. My sister was the most insistent. It was not shyness but a kind of fear of losing dignity which was very strong in her character held her back. So we four babes in the wood sat on the sand and solemnly divided one biscuit and swore we were not in the least hungry.
We stayed in a luxurious hotel that night and enjoyed every minute of it for we knew it would be our last for some time. We had learnt something. We had discovered that not only could we sleep under the stars but could revel in it. Henceforth the going was perfect bliss. We did not try to reach any destination at a set time. We bought biscuits and butter and paste and marmalade as opportunity offered. It seldom offered all three at one time — and we had a meal whenever we found ourselves near one at the right time. We loitered where things pleased us. We spent two days at Waimungu which had been discovered only a week previously. There was no accommodation, but dozens of people came out from Rotorua by the day and an enterprising woman made a shelter from which to sell cups of tea. The ‘greatest geyser’ didn't oblige us with a shot, though two schoolboys, leaving as we arrived, had seen it go up a thousand feet.
At Rotorua we felt opulent enough to stay at ‘Lake House’, then the best hotel there. We grew bored with thermal wonders and rode on to Tauranga which we all agreed to be the most delightful place we had seen.
On the way home we met two cyclists stuck in the sand-drift on the Waiouru Plains. They were loaded with everything campers could desire — a tent, bedding, saucepans, tinned meat, rice, dried apples, fancy biscuits — and were now quarrelling furiously as to which items they should jettison, for they could get no further with their load. They were worn out. One was a Wesleyan parson but he was in a very unchristian temper. To my brother, a few feet away, he denounced his travelling-companion as a fool, a shirker without pluck and now showing himself a greedy swine. It page 158 was plain they had to discard something and, would you believe it, he wouldn't hear of leaving anything of his. It seemed that the tent and blankets belonged to him and, although they were in this mess, he wouldn't abandon them.
The other fellow poured his troubles into our ears. It was this silly parson who had suggested taking so much encumbrance. ‘Would you believe it, he even took a toothbrush.’
They were aghast when we showed them what we carried — tea and sugar, a few square biscuits and if possible something to spread on them, all packed inside the billy. A sheath-knife and a a hatchet, a few nails and some string, were my brother's special addition. We didn't show them our change nor confess that we had taken toothbrushes.
H.H. helped them a little and received from them a piece of copper wire, for one of the links of the chain of my bicycle had broken. It had not mattered much so far for the road had been uphill but it was soon going to be a great inconvenience. He mended it with twisted strands of copper wire which pressed themselves into a solid link and lasted long after I reached home.
Once out of the wilds I began to feel homesick. Perhaps we all felt the same for we whirled along the metalled roads in great style, quickening the pace as we grew nearer Levin and the crowning moment was when from our own front gate I saw my dear husband playing with golf sticks on the lawn with the three children round him. We had been away three weeks; we had seen the unique thermal regions; we had each a few shillings left in our pockets and were well pleased with ourselves.
Nevertheless, we did not tell our mother everything we had done. What we revealed shocked her quite enough. She said that she was prepared for asceticism but not for barbarism; and even my husband didn't seem pleased with some of the details but he was bound to own that he had never seen me — nor indeed any of us — looking so fit.page 159
The winter following that trip we enjoyed an orgy of playgoing. I am afraid that you will gather that our lives consisted in the pursuit of pleasure. Indeed it was not so. My brother and husband were both noted for their energy and industry. I was a worker too, but women in those times were freer and not expected to be tied to their homes except when the children were quite young.
Good companies visited New Zealand then. Gilbert and Sullivan were new to me but my husband told of a time in Sydney when he was earning ten shillings a week, and spent six of them for eight weeks running, to see Nellie Stewart in Patience. So, when a good company was expected we must certainly see it. He knew some of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas almost by heart, but enjoyed them only the more for that. He could not spare more than two nights but my brother and I wanted more, so I stayed on in town and we went every night in the pit. H.H. got round the caretaker (those were easy times) to let us in early, as early as six o'clock, and he would study till the curtain went up. He chose subjects that would interest me — Anglo-Saxon, Chaucer, Malory — and flattered me by saying I was a help to him. How proud I was when, occasionally, I could unravel a passage just before he did. Then a good opera company came — Lempria Pringle and Mme Slapofski — and we saw the old classics in the same plebeian way.
My husband was always a theatre fan, but I had never been inside a theatre until after we were married except for one occasion in Timaru, when Captain Cain gave me two tickets for a visiting company. I took it for granted that they were intended for myself and mother but she insisted on taking my sister to share my seat or sit on my knee. This spoiled all the pride and glory, so much so that (nasty little beast that I was) I hardly looked at the stage.
I enjoyed now everything that came, even the most sentimental melodramas. When Nellie Stewart came my husband could not resist her, even in her old age. What is page 160 it that makes a few lucky women appeal so strongly to both men and women? She moved me. I really loved her, and I believe it was neither her beauty nor her acting. It was something that emanated from her. Ellen Terry was a very old woman when she came to New Zealand but she exercised so much charm that the audience waited round the door hoping to see her come out. I am not emotional, but her coming out and speaking to us is one of the high moments of my life. Though why, I never could tell.
By 1909 motor-cars had come to stay, but they were by no means common. The music hall turn about ‘Bits of Ma and bits of Pa’ that filled the air after an explosion because they had dared to ride ‘upon a motor-car’ was still popular. The local doctor had bought a queer contraption. I, with a Wellington friend who was staying with me, spent the evening at his house, but when he offered to drive us home she shrieked, ‘No! No!’ and ran out of the house, determined to walk. When the car overtook her she was running towards home for dear life, crying, as the car slowed down, ‘I'm a married woman. I'm a married woman with three children. Go away,’ and I was obliged to walk with her. She was by no means as freakish as might seem from this distance.
So when we heard that my brother, who had been practising less than three years, had bought, had actually bought, a car, we were duly excited and very sure that law paid better than farming. I have said H.H. was a man of strong desires. I recalled that when a mite of six he had set his heart on a tricycle. He did nothing so crude as to beg or pester for it, he simply lived day and night in the thought of it, never letting his mind stray. A slope in the road was to him a grand place for a tricycle; a colour was either good or bad for a tricycle; a sum of money was simply part of what a tricycle would cost. He wore his mother down.
I had no doubt that he had worn himself down in the same manner over the car. He had bought a second-hand page 161 one that had been in an accident that had scared its owner into selling it. Even so, such a plutocratic toy was a novelty in our family.
He wrote that he was driving to Wanganui, that he would stay with us the first night, would bring the younger daughter home from school and would drive on the following day. He suggested that if any of us cared to go to Palmerston he would like to drive us there and leave us to return by train.
Can a duck swim? The proposition suited me exactly and my son, aged fourteen, wished to come too.
The arrival was slightly dampened by the fact that the schoolgirl daughter, so far from enjoying her new experience, was a limp piece of misery, having been car-sick all the way. When we had attended to her we all gathered round the wonder.
H.H. explained that though she had been badly smashed a firm of young mechanics — very clever fellows — had practically remade her and he believed she was a better thing than she had been the day she left England. We had no doubt about it. We stood admiring while he talked technicalities that the males seemed to understand, and dilated on the way these machines could devour the miles and fly up hills. He had read everything written about cars. That was his way.
He impressed on us that we must make an early start in the morning, at seven sharp, because he simply must reach Palmerston by mid-day. Sixty miles — we thought it was cutting it fine.
At crack of dawn there was a noise like the rending of earth and sky. It was H.H. starting up the car to make sure she was ready for the road. He re-dusted and re-polished every inch and would hardly look at breakfast nor allow anyone else to eat much. Soon, amid ecstatic barking of dogs, much dust and more noise, we reached the road, making a great pace. It must have been quite twenty miles an hour. page 162 (There were no speedometers then.) In the awakening houses along Queen Street blinds were raised as we roared and clattered by.
The roads of that day were narrow and heavily cambered. Turning a corner, we came on a draught horse straining awkwardly to drink from water below the road. At the sight and sound of us it dragged itself back with difficulty before galloping away in alarm. The car had to pull up to avoid running into the horse as it straightened itself.
‘Tch! Tch!’ murmured the driver. ‘That's the sort of thing that spoils your record.’
Record! If we were breaking records this must be a better car than we had imagined. We sped on till we came to an eight-foot-wide road, or track, of gritty red sandstone. It was a vile road — red dust with large lumps of stone interspersed.
‘There's sure not to be much of it,’ said my optimistic brother.
We had enquired of the Levin doctor and he had advised us to take this route. Later we had cause to wonder whether it was his idea of a scurvy joke. We bumped and lurched and rolled back and forth at a foot pace, till there was a long, shrill, whistling sound.
‘Puncture!’ cried H.H., almost pleased to announce it as it gave him the chance of showing the efficiency of the stepney wheel.
He lifted the seat, displaying a plethora of neatly-packed tools, and aided by Lloyd, who seemed to know a certain amount by instinct, he took off the damaged wheel, screwed on the stepney (it was easier than changing a modern tyre) and without much delay we resumed our slow progress.
‘Just look over the side, Nell, and see whether there is another tyre gone. She's devilish hard to steer.’
I looked and reported that the tyre was quite flat.
‘It's not so easy this time,’ he admitted. ‘It has to be mended in the same way as a bicycle. But I have a spare tube.’ page 163 He lifted the seat again and made the horrible discovery that after the last repair, two miles back, the jack had been left on the running-board.
Never say die. I volunteered to walk back for the jack while the man and boy tugged and strained at the car to shift the weight from the damaged wheel.
I soon found that all the tools had been left on the running-board, for I found them one by one lying along the wayside, the jack last of all, just where it had been used.
It was, if I remember rightly, 21 December and an unusually hot day. Tired and thirsty, we spoke with relish of the prospect of a meal in Foxton. But H.H. assured us that he really couldn't possibly wait and finally owned awkwardly that there was a girl waiting for him on the railway platform at Palmerston. Her train came in at twelve. He simply must be there. To his joy we issued on to a metalled road and soon whirled through Foxton, Lloyd and I looking hungrily at the pie-shops but the driver kept his anxious eyes glued on the road.
A few million dogs rushed out to express their enmity towards horseless vehicles. We feared we had run over one, and H.H. said, ‘That might cost me a fiver but it's better than losing time. We'll do it yet.’
Then, all of a sudden, a newly metalled road stretched before us with raw, freshly knapped grey stone, clean and new and sharp as broken glass, without so much as a shovel of earth to bind it. It seemed to stretch to the horizon. One groan, long and loud, issued from three throats. After one venomous and blasphemous curse on the Doctor H.H. decided that calmness would be helpful.
The tyres of that day were poor affairs. In fact, the whole future of the internal combustion engine as a means of road transport rested on the making of stronger tyres.
We investigated the sides of the road and found there was nothing to do but push slowly on and trust to luck. Almost immediately a tyre punctured. My brother's spirits page 164 rose. He had read what you did in such emergencies — you filled the case with grass. We took it quite seriously and fell to gathering handfuls from the roadside. But no sooner had we driven a few chains further than the second back tyre collapsed. We stuffed with equal zest. But when the two front tyres immediately followed, the driver, reluctant to stop, consigned them to the place where the atmosphere was warmer and we chugged on, leaving two trickles of green juice on the clean metal. Then the radiator boiled up like a geyser, throwing rusty water over us. Lloyd and I walked to lighten the load and my brother drove on, looking like a speckled brown Leghorn rooster. He could hardly bear to stop but at last he had to.
‘If we could only come to water to cool the radiator,’ he said.
There was a whare on a hill some distance back from the road. I offered to take the car's can and bring water while the others emptied the rusty water and looked into the engine to see if the heat had damaged anything. I found a woman just making tea. At first, on account of time, I refused her invitation to join her, but ultimately succumbed and swallowed a quick one — two quick ones — before speeding down with the water. They drank some greedily and poured in the rest and we sped on in dread. Mercifully, the next time the radiator boiled there was a swamp near the road where the can could be filled.
At last we came in sight of Sanson railway station. It was just a shed and a platform with one man in charge.
During the worst of our tribulations H.H. had said, ‘As soon as we reach Sanson I'll put the car on the train and we'll all get there by rail in the end.’
The stationmaster laughed. It would take perhaps three days for a suitable truck to be delivered. There was but one train per day, due shortly.
H.H. was desperate and asked for the telephone and rang a garage in Palmerston. page 165 ‘Send me four new tyres, size so-and-so, to Sanson Junction The man will bring them in a car. Yes, that's right. I shall want the man to put them on for me and to drive me to Palmerston as fast as possible.’
This was lordly in the extreme — four new tyres and a man to put them on!
‘Holy cats,’ exclaimed his young nephew, ‘Uncle must be a millionaire.’
We began then to think of creature comforts, but there were no shops, nor refreshment-places. We found a delightful little stream and sitting on its bank washed the dust off our shoes and dangled our tired feet in the water. H.H. had leisure to be his usual kindly self. He praised our strength and pluck and was half apologetic for all the trouble
‘You couldn't help it,’ I said. ‘The stars in their courses fought against us.’
Suddenly his pent-up feelings found vent in the words of Deborah's bloodthirsty song:
‘The stars in their courses fought against Sisera
The river of Kishon swept them away …
Curse ye Meroz … curse ye bitterly …
[I think he meant the Doctor]
Blessed above women shall Jael … be
He asked water, and she gave him milk,
She brought forth butter in a lordly dish.
She put her hand to the nail….’
After that we sat with our feet in the stream, taking turns at reciting our favourites. Suddenly my brother sprang up.
‘That confounded garage man ought to be here by now.’
We all ran out to the road to look for the cloud of dust that should herald his coming. No sign, and, after a while, Lloyd and I returned to the cool mint bank but he stayed on the road gazing and fuming.
At last he went again to borrow the telephone and came to us with the final blow of the day. The garage had not the page 166 size of tyre he had ordered and as he had given no number for them to ring they were not able to let him know. There was a long, deadly silence and then he went to the station-master and arranged for him to keep the car in his yard until a truck could be procured. Then, the train in sight, we made ourselves as tidy as we could. A last deep curse was wrung from the once-proud owner of the ill-fated car as, looking back from the moving train, we saw a swarm of children, just out of school, clambering gleefully over it.
At the Palmerston station our train was standing, ready for five o'clock to strike.
‘I think,’ pressed H.H., ‘that you'll just have time to say a word to Miss D—.’ But we had time only to note a dejected female wilting on the baking platform.
‘All seats, please’, and Lloyd and I had to dash frantically down the platform and hurl ourselves into the first carriage.
‘Anyway, we had a better time than the girl on the platform,’ panted the tired boy, and I agreed.