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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter XIV. A Christmas Picnic, and Other Doings

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Letter XIV. A Christmas Picnic, and Other Doings.

It is too late to wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year in this letter. In order to allow them to reach you in time I should have sent my good wishes in October’s letter; I must remember to do so next year. I am writing on the last days of the month, so I shall be able to tell you of our own Christmas doings; though, first, I must describe the festivities attending a “coming of age in the Bush,” to which we were invited about the middle of this month. How strange Christmas picnics and balls will appear in your eyes, before which still dangle probably the dear old traditional holly and ivy! I am obliged to preface all my descriptions with an account of a ride, if I am to begin, according to your repeated injunctions, at the very beginning; for a ride is quite certain to be both the beginning and end of each excursion, simply because we have no other means of going about, except on our feet. The ride upon this occasion was to Rockwood, where the birth- page 91 day party was to assemble, but the road had not now so many terrors for me. In consequence of the fine dry weather, most of the bad places were safer and firmer, and the numerous creeks were only shallow sparkling streamlets over which a child could jump, instead of the muddy noisy wide brooks of three months ago. The day on which we started, this time, was a great contrast to the former one. When we reached the saddle I have before told you of, instead of being met and nearly driven back by a violent “sutherly buster,” we stopped before beginning the steep descent to admire the exquisite view before us.

Close on our right hand rose the Government bush out of which we get our firewood, standing grand and gloomy amid huge cliffs and crags; even the summer sunshine could not enliven it, nor the twitter and chirrup of countless birds. In front, the chain of hills we were crossing rolled down in gradually decreasing hillocks, till they merged in the vast plains before us, stretching away as far as the eye could reach towards the south, all quivering in the haze and glare of the bright sunlight. The background, extending along the horizon, was formed of lofty mountains still glistening white against the dazzling blue sky. Just at our feet the Rockwood paddocks looked like carpets of emerald velvet, spread out among the yellowish tussocks; the fences which enclose them were either golden with broom and gorse, or gay with wild roses and honeysuckle. Beyond these we saw the bright patches of flowers in the garden, and page 92 nothing could be more effective than the white gable of the house standing out against the vast black birch forest which clothed the steep hill-sides for miles—the contrast was so picturesque between the little bit of civilization and culture and the great extent of wild, savage scenery around it. After the utter treelessness of our own immediate neighbourhood, the sight of such a mass of foliage is a joy to my eyes.

The day following our arrival was the birthday, and we prepared to enjoy every hour of it. The party assembled was a very large one, consisting, however, chiefly of gentlemen, for the utmost exertions in the district could not produce more than five ladies altogether, and two of those had come an immense way. Directly after breakfast we all sallied forth, the ladies equipped in light cotton dresses (muslin is too thin for the bush) and little sailor hats,—we did not want shady ones, for never a gleam of sun can penetrate into a real New Zealand Bush, unless in a spot which has been very much cleared. Strong boots with nails in the soles, to help us to keep on our feet up the steep clay hill-sides, and a stout stick, completed our equipment; perhaps we were not very smart, but we looked like going at all events. I can answer for myself that I enjoyed every moment of that long Midsummer holiday most intensely, though I fear I must have wearied our dear, charming host, by my incessant questions about the names of the trees and shrubs, and of the habits and ways of the thousands of birds. It was page 93 all so new and so delightful to me,—the green gloom, the hoarse croak of the ka-ka, as it alighted almost at our feet and prepared, quite careless of our vicinity, to tear up the loose soil at the root of a tall tree, in search of grubs. It is a species of parrot, but with very dingy reddish-brown plumage, only slightly enlivened by a few, scarlet feathers in the wing. The air was gay with bright green parroquets flitting about, very mischievous they are, I am told, taking large tithe of the fruit, especially of the cherries. Every now and then we stood, by common consent, silent and almost breathless to listen to the Bell-bird, a dingy little fellow, nearly as large as a thrush with the plumage of a chaffinch, but with such a note!—how can I make you hear its wild, sweet, plaintive tone, as a little girl of the party said, “just as if it had a bell in its throat;” but indeed it would require a whole peal of silver bells to ring such an exquisite chime. Then we crept softly up to a low branch, to have a good look at the Tui, or Parson-bird, most respectable and clerical-looking in its glossy black suit, with a singularly trim and dapper air, and white wattles of very slender feathers—indeed they are as fine as hair-curled coquettishly at each side of his throat, exactly like bands. All the birds were quite tame, and, instead of avoiding us, seemed inclined to examine us minutely. Many of them have English names, which I found very tantalising, especially when, the New Zealand Robin was announced, and I could only see a fat little ball of a bird, with a page 94 yellowish-white breast. Animals there are none. No quadruped is indigenous to New Zealand, except a rat; but then, on the other hand, we are as free from snakes and all vermin as if St. Patrick himself had lived here. Our host has turned several pheasants into this forest, but they increase very slowly on account of the wekas. However, the happiness of this morning was made complete by our putting up two splendid rocketers.

We could only make our way by the paths which have been cut through the Bush; a yard off the track it is impossible to stir for the dense undergrowth. In the ravines and steep gullies formed by the creeks grow masses of ferns of all sorts, spreading like large shrubs, and contrasting by their light bright green with the black stems of the birch-trees around them. There are a few pines in this bush, but not many. I can give you no idea of the variety among the shrubs: the koromika, like an Alpine rose, a compact ball of foliage; the lance-wood, a tall, slender stem, straight as a line, with a few long leaves at the top, turned downwards like the barb of a spear, and looking exactly like a lance stuck into the ground; the varieties of matapo, a beautiful shrub, each leaf a study, with its delicate tracery of black veins on a yellow-green ground; the mappo, the gohi, and many others, any of which would be the glory of an English shrubbery: but they seem to require the deep shelter of their native Bush, for they never flourish when transplanted. I noticed the slender page 95 hold the large trees have of the ground, and it is not at all surprising, after such a gale as we had three weeks ago, to see many of the finest blown down in the clearings where the wind could reach them. They do not seem to have any tap-root at all, merely a very insufficient network of fibres, seldom of any size, which spreads a short way along the surface of the ground As long as a Bush is undisturbed by civilization, it appears to be impervious to wind or weather; but as soon as it is opened and cleared a little, it begins to diminish rapidly. There are traces all over the hills of vast forests having once existed; chiefly of totara, a sort of red pine, and those about us are scattered with huge logs of this valuable wood, all bearing traces of the action of fire; but shepherds, and explorers on expeditions, looking for country, have gradually consumed them for fuel, till not many pieces remain except on the highest and most inaccessible ranges.

It was a delightful, and by no means unacceptable surprise which awaited us on the other side, when, on emerging from a very thick part of the Bush, we came on a lovely spot, a true “meeting of the waters.” Three broad, bright creeks came rushing and tumbling down from the densely wooded hills about to join and flow on in quite a good-sized river, amid boulders and a great deal of hurry and fuss, —a contrast to the profound quiet of our ramble hitherto, the silence of which was only broken by the twitter and whistle of the birds. Never a song page 96 can you hear, only a sweet chirrup, or two or three melodious notes. On the opposite bank of the river there was the welcome sight of several hampers more or less unpacked, and the gleam of a white tablecloth on the moss. Half-a-dozen gentlemen had formed themselves into a commissariat, and were arranging luncheon. We could see the champagne cooling in a sort of little bay, protected by a dam of big stones from being carried down the stream. It all looked very charming and inviting, but the next question was how to get across the river to these good things. Twelve or fourteen feet separated us, hungry and tired wanderers as we were, from food and rest; the only crossing-place was some miles lower down, near the house in fact; so even the most timid amongst us scouted the idea of retracing our steps. The only alternative was to make a bridge: one of the gentlemen who were with us carried an axe in case of emergency, and in a moment we heard the sharp ringing sounds foretelling the fall of a tree. In the mean-time, others of the party were dragging out fallen logs—of course small and manageable ones—and laying them from one huge boulder to another, working up to their knees in water. So many of these prostrate trunks were “convenient,” that a cry soon arose to the woodman to “spare the trees,” for there were quite enough on the ground. However, two substantial poles had been felled, and these were laid over the deepest and most dangerous part of the current. The bridge page 97 was soon declared passable, and loud shouts from the opposite side proclaimed that luncheon was quite ready. I was called, as having a most undeserved reputation for “pluck,” to make trial of the aerial-looking fabric. I did not like it at all, and entreated some one else to lead the forlorn hope; so a very quiet young lady, who really possessed more courage in her little finger than I do in my whole body, volunteered to go first. The effect from the bank was something like tight-rope dancing, and it was very difficult to keep one’s balance. Miss Kate, our pioneer, walked on very steadily, amid great applause, till she reached the middle of the stream, where fortunately the water was shallow, but strewed with masses of boulders. She paused an instant on the large rock on which the ends of the saplings rested, and then started afresh for the last half of her journey. The instant she put her foot on the second part of the bridge, it gave way with a loud crash; and the poor girl, with great presence of mind, caught at the tree she, had just crossed, and so saved herself from a ducking. Of course, she had plenty of help in an instant, but the difficulty was to regain any sort of footing. She could not drop into the water, and there was apparently no way of dragging herself up again; but one of the gentlemen crept on hands and knees along the unbroken part of the bridge, and eventually helped her up the sides of the large boulder which acted as a pier, and from which the log had slipped. From the other side they now pushed page 98 across tall, slim trees, freshly cut, and the rest of the passage was safe enough. I did not like the mode of transit at all, though I got over without a slip, but it requires a steady head to cross a noisy stream on two slippery round poles—for really the trees were little thicker—laid side by side, bending with every step. It was a great comfort to me all luncheon-time to know that we were not to return by the same path through the Bush. We had a good rest after lunch: I lay back on a bed of fern, watching the numbers of little birds around us; they boldly picked up our crumbs, without a thought of possible danger. Presently I felt a tug at the shawl on which I was lying: I was too lazy and dreamy to turn my head, so the next thing was a sharp dig on my arm, which hurt me dreadfully. I looked round, and there was a weka bent on thoroughly investigating the intruder into its domain. The bird looked so cool and unconcerned, that I had not the heart to follow my first impulse and throw my stick at it; but my forbearance was presently rewarded by a stab on the ankle, which fairly made me jump up with a scream, when my persecutor glided gracefully away among the bushes, leaving me, like Lord Ullin, “lamenting.”

We sauntered home slowly, gathering armfuls of, fern and a large variety of a stag’s-head moss so common on the west coast of Scotland; and as soon as we had had some tea, the gentlemen went off with their towels to bathe in the creek, and the five ladies set to work at the decorations for the ball-room, weav- page 99 ing wreaths and arranging enormous bouquets very rapidly: we had such a wealth of flowers to work with that our task was not difficult. The most amusing part of the story is, however, that the ball took place in my bed-room! A very pompous lady of my acquaintance always prefaces the slenderest anecdote with these words, “And it happened in this wise,” so I think I shall avail myself of the tour de phrase.

It happened in this wise, then:-a large well-proportioned room had been added to the house lately; it was intended for a drawing-room, but for some reason has only been used as a: spare bed-room, but as it may possibly return to its original destination, very little bed-room furniture has been put in it, and many of its belongings are appropriate to a sitting-room. We called in the servants, the light cane bedstead was soon deposited under the shade of a tree in the garden, the washing-stand was similarly disposed of, and an hour’s work with hammer and nails and a ball of string turned the room into a perfect bower of ferns and flowers: great ingenuity was displayed in the arrangement of lights, and the result was a very pretty ball-room.

We are always eating in this country, so you will not be surprised to hear that there was yet another meal to be disposed of before we separated to dress in all sorts of nooks and corners. White muslin was the universal costume, as it can be packed flat and smooth. My gown had been carried over by F—— in front of his saddle in a very small parcel: I page 100 covered it almost entirely with sprays of the light-green stag’s-head, moss, and made a wreath of it also for my hair. I think that with the other ladies roses were the most popular decoration, and they looked very fresh and nice. I was the universal coiffeuse, and I dressed all the girls’ heads with flowers, as I was supposed to be best up in the latest fashions. In the meantime, the piano had been moved to the bay-window of the ball-room, and at ten o’clock dancing commenced, and may be truly said to have been kept up with great spirit until four o’clock: it only ceased then on account of the state of exhaustion of the unfortunate five ladies, who had been nearly killed with incessant dancing. I threw a shawl over my head, and sauntered alone up one of the many paths close to the house which led into the Bush. Tired as I was, I shall never forget the beauty and romance of that hour, —the delicious crisp new feeling of the morning air; the very roses, growing like a red fringe on the skirts of the great Bush, seemed awaking to fresh life and perfume; the numbers of gay lizards and flies coming out for their morning meal, and, above all, the first awakening of the myriads of Bush-birds; every conceivable twitter and chatter and chirrup; the last cry of a very pretty little owl, called, from its distinctly uttered words, the “More-pork,” as it flitted away before the dawn to the highest trees: all made up a jubilant uproar compared to which one of the Crystal Palace choruses is silence. I sat down on a fallen tree, and listened page 101 and waited: every moment added to the lovely dawn around me, and I enjoyed to the full the fragrant smells and joyous sounds of another day in this fresh young land.

All too soon came a loud “coo-ee” from the house, which I allowed them to repeat before I answered; this was to tell me that the ball- room was deserted, and had been again turned into a bed-room. When I opened my eyes later, after a six hours’ nap, the room looked like a fairy bower, the flowers still unfaded. We had another picnic the next day up the gorge of a river, amid very wild and beautiful scenery; but everything had been arranged so as to make the expedition an easy one, out of consideration to the weary five. The day after this we rode home again, and I had to set to work directly to prepare for my own Christmas party to the shepherds and shearers,—for we have just commenced to muster the sheep, and the shearing will be in full force by Christmas Day. One great object I have in view in giving this party is to prevent the shearers from going over to the nearest accommodation-house and getting tipsy, as they otherwise would; so I have taken care to issue my invitations early. I found great difficulty in persuading some of the men to accept, as they had not brought any tidy clothes with them; and as the others would be decently, indeed well dressed, they did not like putting in a shabby appearance. This difficulty was obviated by F—— hunting up some of the things he had worn on page 102 the voyage, and rigging-out the invited guests. For two days before the great day I had been working hard, studying recipes for pies and puddings, and scouring the country in search of delicacies. Every lady was most kind, knowing that our poor, exposed garden was backward; I had sacks of green peas, bushels of young potatoes, and baskets of strawberries and cherries sent to me from all round the country; I made poor F—— ride twenty miles to get me a sirloin of beef, and, to my great joy, two beautiful young geese arrived as a present only the day before. It is a point of honour to have as little mutton as possible on these occasions, as the great treat is the complete change of fare. I only ventured to introduce it very much disguised as curry, or in pies. We were all up at daylight on Christmas morning, and off to the nearest little copse in one of the gullies, where a few shrubs and small trees and ferns grow, to gather boughs for the decoration of the washhouse. Marvels were done in the carpentering line to arrange tables around its walls. The copper, which at first presented such an obstacle to the symmetry of the adornments, became their chief glory; it was boarded over, its sides completely hidden by flags and ferns, and the dessert placed on it peeped out from a bower of greenery. I don’t know how we got our own breakfast; from eleven o’clock there was the constant announcement “A horseman coming up the flat;” and by twelve, when I as beadle announced that all was ready, a page 103 large congregation of thirty-six came trooping into my little drawing-room. As soon as it was filled the others clustered round the door; but all could hear, I think. F—— began the service; and as the notes of the Christmas Anthem swelled up, I found the tears trembling in my eyes. My overwhelming thought was that it actually was the very first time those words had ever been sung or said in that valley—you in England can hardly realize the immensity of such a thought—“the first time since the world was made.” I think the next sensation was one of extreme happiness; it seemed such a privilege to be allowed to hold the initial Christmas service. I had to grasp this idea very tight to keep down the terrible home-sickness which I felt all day for almost the first time. There are moments when no advantages or privileges can repress what Aytoun calls “the deep, unutterable woe which none save exiles feel.”

The service only lasted half an hour, beginning and ending with a hymn; there were three women present besides me—my two servants, and the nice young wife of a neighbouring shepherd. It was a sultry day, not a breath of air; but still it is never oppressive at this elevation. We wound up a big musical-box, set it going in the banqueting-hall (late washhouse), and marshalled the guests in they were extremely shy as a rule, and so we soon went away and left them to themselves. They ate incessantly for two hours—and I hope they enjoyed themselves; then the men lounged about the stables and page 104 smoked, and the three women cleared away a little. F—— and our gentlemen guests got up athletic sports in the shade which seemed very popular, though it appeared a great deal of trouble to take on such a hot day. As the sun sank below the hills it grew much cooler, and my two maids came with a shamefaced request to be allowed to dance in the kitchen. I inquired about the music?—that was provided for by a fiddle and some pipes; so I consented, but I found they wanted me to start them. I selected as my partner a very decent young farmer who lives near, but has left his farm and is at work branding our sheep all shearing-time. The pride and delight of his mate was much greater than my partner’s; he stood near his friend, prompting him through the mazes of the most extraordinary quadrille you ever saw, with two extra figures. Then there was an endless polka, in which everybody danced, like Queen Elizabeth, “high and disposedly;” but the ball ended at nine o’clock, and we were given some cold dinner, for which we were all very ready. The next morning saw the remains of the festivity cleared away, and every one hard at work again; for this is our very busiest season. The work of the station, however, is carried on at the homestead two miles off. F—— is there all day long, but I see nothing of it. While the shearers’ hearts were tender, I asked them to come over to church on Sunday, and they have promised to do so: I lend them quantities of books and papers also, so as to keep them amused and away from the accommodation-house.