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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter XXIII. Concerning a Great Flood

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Letter XXIII. Concerning a Great Flood.

Since I last wrote to you we have been nearly washed away, by all the creeks and rivers in the country overflowing their banks! Christchurch particularly was in great danger from the chance of the Waimakiriri returning to its old channel, in which case it would sweep away the town. For several hours half the streets were under water, the people going about in boats, and the Avon was spread out like a lake over its banks for miles. The weather had been unusually sultry for some weeks, and during the last five days the heat had been far greater, even in the hills, than anyone could remember. It is often very hot indeed during the mid-day hours in summer, but a hot night is almost unknown; and, at the elevation we live, there are few evenings in the year when a wood-fire is not acceptable after sunset; as for a blanket at night, that is seldom left off even in the plains, and is certainly necessary in the hills. Every one was anxiously looking for rain, as the page 209 grass was getting very dry and the creeks low, and people were beginning to talk of an Australian summer and to prophesy dismal things of a drought. On a Sunday night about eleven o’clock we were all sauntering about out of doors, finding it too hot to remain in the verandah; it was useless to think of going to bed; and F—— and Mr. U—— agreed that some great change in the weather was near. There was a strange stillness and oppression in the air; the very animals had not gone to sleep, but all seemed as restless and wakeful as we were. I remember we discussed the probability of a severe earthquake, for the recent wave at St. Thomas’s was in everybody’s mind. F—— and I had spent a few days in Christchurch the week before. There was a regular low-fever epidemic there, and, he had returned to the station feeling very unwell; but in this country illness is so rare that one almost forgets that such a thing exists, and we both attributed his seediness to the extraordinary heat.

When we were out of doors that Sunday evening, we noticed immense banks and masses of clouds, but they were not in the quarter from whence our usual heavy rain comes; and besides, in New Zealand clouds are more frequently a sign of high wind than of rain. However, about midnight F—— felt so ill that he went in to bed, and we had scarcely got under shelter when, after a very few premonitory drops, the rain came down literally in sheets. Almost from the first F—— spoke of the peculiar and different sound on page 210 the roof, but as he had a great deal of fever that night, I was too anxious to notice anything but the welcome fact that the rain had come at last, and too glad to hear it to be critical about the sound it made in falling. I came out to breakfast alone, leaving F—— still ill, but the fever going off. The atmosphere was much lightened, but the rain seemed like a solid wall of water falling fast and furiously; the noise on the wooden roof was so great that we had to shout to each other to make ourselves heard; and when I looked out I was astonished to see the dimensions to which the ponds had. swollen. Down all the hill-sides new creeks and waterfalls had sprung into existence during the night. As soon as I had taken F—— his tea and settled down comfortably to breakfast, I noticed that instead of Mr. U—— looking the picture of bright good-humour, he wore a troubled and anxious countenance. I immediately inquired if he had been out of doors that morning? Yes, he had been to look at the horses in the stable. Well, I did not feel much interest in them, for they were big enough to take care of themselves: so I proceeded to ask if he had chanced to see anything of my fifty young ducks or my numerous broods of chickens. Upon this question Mr. U—— looked still more unhappy and tried to turn the conversation, but my suspicions were aroused and I persisted; so at last he broke to me, with much precaution, that I was absolutely without a duckling or a chicken in the world! They had been drowned in the night, and page 211 nothing was to be seen but countless draggled little corpses, what Mr. Mantilini called “moist unpleasant bodies,” floating on the pond or whirling in the eddies of the creek. That was not even the worst. Every one of my sitting hens was drowned also, their nests washed away; so were the half-dozen beautiful ducks, with some twelve or fourteen eggs under each. I felt angry with the ducks, and thought they might have at any rate saved their own lives; but nothing could alter the melancholy returns of the missing and dead. My poultry-yard was, for all practical purposes, annihilated, just as it was at its greatest perfection and the pride and joy of my heart. All that day the rain descended steadily in torrents; there was not the slightest break or variation in the downpour: it was as heavy as that of the Jamaica seasons of May and October. F——’s fever left him at the end of twelve hours, and he got up and came into the drawing-room; his first glance out of the window, which commanded a view of the flat for two or three miles, showed him how much the waters had risen since midnight; and he said that in all the years he had known those particular creeks he had never seen them so high: still I thought nothing of it. There was no cessation in the rain for exactly twenty-four hours; but at midnight on Monday, just as poor F—— was getting another attack of fever, it changed into heavy, broken showers, with little pauses of fine drizzle between, and by morning it showed signs of clearing, but continued at intervals till mid- page 212 day. The effect was extraordinary, considering the comparatively short time the real downpour had lasted. The whole flat was under water, the creeks were flooded beyond their banks for half a mile or so on each side, and the river Selwyn, which ran under some hills, bounding our view, was spread out, forming an enormous lake. A very conspicuous object on these opposite hills, which are between three and four miles distant, was a bold cliff known by the name of the “White Rocks,” and serving as a landmark to all the countryside: we could hardly believe our eyes when we missed the most prominent of these and could see only a great bare rent in the mountain. The house was quite surrounded by water and stood on a small island; it was impossible even to wade for more than a few yards beyond the dry ground, for the water became quite deep and the current was running fast. F——’s fever lasted its twelve hours; but I began to be fidgety at the state of prostration it left him in, and when Tuesday night brought a third and sharper attack, I determined to make him go to town and see a doctor during his next interval of freedom from it.

Wednesday morning was bright and sunny, but the waters had not much diminished: however, we knew every hour must lessen them, and I only waited for F——’s paroxysm of fever to subside about mid-day to send him off to Christchurch. I had exhausted my simple remedies, consisting of a spoonful of sweet spirits of nitre and a little weak brandy and water page 213 and did not think it right to let things go on in this way without advice: he was so weak he could hardly mount his horse; indeed he had to be fairly lifted on the old quiet station hack I have before mentioned with such deep affection, dear old Jack. It was impossible for him to go alone; so the ever-kind and considerate Mr. U—— offered to accompany him. This was the greatest comfort to me, though I and my two maids would be left all alone during their absence: however, that was much better than poor F—— going by himself in his weak state. Six hours of sunshine had greatly abated the floods, and as far as we could see the water was quite shallow now where it had overflowed. I saw them set off therefore with a good hope of their accomplishing the journey safely. Judge of my astonishment and horror when, on going to see what the dogs were barking at, about two hours later, I beheld F—— and Mr. U—— at the garden gate, dripping wet up to their shoulders, but laughing very much. Of course I immediately thought of F——’s fever, and made him come in and change; and have some hot tea directly; but he would not go to bed as I suggested, declaring that the shock of his unexpected cold bath, and the excitement of a swim for his life, had done him all the good in the world; and I may tell you at once; that it had completely cured him: he ate well that evening, slept well, and had no return of his fever, regaining his strength completely in a few days. So much for kill-or-cure remedies!

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It seems that as soon as they neared the first creek, with very high banks, about a mile from the house, the water came up to the horses’ fetlocks, then to their knees, but still it was impossible to tell exactly where the creek began, or rather, where its bank ended; they went very cautiously, steering as well as they could for where they imagined the cutting in the steep bank to be; but I suppose they did not hit it off exactly, for suddenly they went plump into deep water and found themselves whirling along like straws down a tremendous current. Jack was, however, quite equal to the occasion; he never allows himself to be flurried or put out by anything, and has, I imagine, been in nearly every difficulty incident to New Zealand travelling. Instead, therefore, of losing his head as Helen did (Mr. U—— was riding her), and striking out wildly with her forelegs to the great danger of the other horse, Jack took it all as a matter of course, and set himself to swim steadily down the stream, avoiding the eddies as much as possible: he knew every yard of the bank, and did not therefore waste his strength by trying to land in impossible places, but kept a watchful eye for the easiest spot. F—— knew the old horse so well that he let him have his head and guide himself, only trying to avoid Helen’s forelegs, which were often unpleasantly near; his only fear was lest they should have to go so far before a landing was possible that poor old Jack’s strength might not hold out, for there is nothing so fatiguing to a horse page 215 as swimming in a strong current with a rider on his back, especially a heavy man. They were swept down for a long distance, though it was impossible to guess exactly how far they had gone, and F—— was getting very uneasy about a certain wire fence which had been carried across the creek; they were rapidly approaching it, and the danger was that the horses might suddenly find themselves entangled in it, in which case the riders would very likely have been drowned. F—— called to Mr. U——to get his feet free from the stirrups and loosened his own; but he told me he was afraid lest Mr. U—— should not hear him above the roaring of the water, and so perhaps be dragged under water when the fence was reached. However, Jack, knew all about it, and was not going to be drowned ignominiously in a creek which would not have wet his hoofs to cross three days before. A few yards from the fence he made one rush and a bound towards what seemed only a clump of Tohi bushes, but they broke the force of the current and gave him the chance he wanted, and he struggled up the high crumbling bank more like a cat than a steady old screw. Helen would not be left behind, and, with a good spur from Mr. U——, she followed Jack’s example, and they stood dripping and shivering in shallow water. Both the horses were so done that F—— and Mr. U- — had to jump off instantly and loose the girths, turning them with their nostrils to the wind. It was a very narrow escape, and the disagreeable page 216 part of it was that they had scrambled out on the wrong side of the creek and had to recross it to get home: however, they rode on to the next stream, which looked so much more swollen and angry, that they gave up the idea of going on to Christchurch that night, especially as they were wet through to their chins, for both horses swam very low in the water, with only their heads to be seen above it.

The next thing to be considered was how to get back to the house. It never would do to risk taking the horses into danger again when they were so exhausted; so they rode round by the homestead, crossed the creek higher up, where it was much wider but comparatively shallow (if anything could be called shallow just now), and came home over the hills. Good old Jack had an extra feed of oats that evening, a reward to which he is by no means insensible; and indeed it probably is the only one he cares for.

The Fates had determined, apparently, that I also should come in for my share of watery adventures, for we had an engagement of rather long standing to ride across the hills, and visit a friend’s station about twelve miles distant, and the day we had promised to go was rather more than a week after F——’s attempted journey. In the meantime, the waters had of course gone down considerably, and there was quite an excitement in riding and walking about our own run, and seeing the changes the flood had made, and the mischief it had done to the fencing;—this was in process of being repaired. We lost very few sheep; page 217 they were all up at the tops of the high hills, their favourite summer pasture.

I think I have told you that between us and Christchurch there is but one river, a most peaceable and orderly stream, a perfect pattern to the eccentric New Zealand rivers, which are so changeable and restless. Upon this occasion, however, the Selwyn behaved quite as badly as any of its fellows; it was not only flooded for miles, carrying away quantities of fencing near its banks, and drowning confiding sheep suddenly, but at one spot about four miles from us, just under the White Rocks, it came down suddenly, like what Miss Ingelow calls “a mighty eygre,” and deserted its old timeworn bed for two new ones: and the worst of the story is that it has taken a fancy to our road, swept away a good deal of it, breaking a course for itself in quite a different place; so now, instead of one nice, wide, generally shallow river to cross, about which there never has been an evil report, we have two horrid mountain torrents of which we know nothing: no one has been in yet to try their depth, or to find out the best place at which to ford them, and it unfortunately happened that F—— and I were the pioneers. When we came to the first new channel, F—— with much care picked out what seemed the best place, and though it was a most disagreeable bit of water to go through, still we managed it all right; but when we came to the next curve, it was far worse. Here the river took a sharp turn, and came tearing page 218 round a corner, the colour and consistency of pea-soup, and making such a noise we could hardly hear ourselves speak standing close together on the bank; once in the stream, of course it would be hopeless to try to catch a word. I am ashamed to say that my fixed idea was to turn back, and this I proposed without hesitation; but F—— has the greatest dislike to retracing his steps, and is disagreeably like Excelsior in this respect; so he merely looked astonished at my want of spirit, and proceeded very calmly to give me my directions, and the more he impressed the necessity of coolness and caution upon me, the more I quaked. He was to go over first, alone; I was to follow, having first tucked my habit well up under my arm, and taken care that I was quite free so as not to be entangled in any way if Helen should be swept away, or if a boulder should come down with the stream, and knock her feet from under her: I was not to be at all frightened (!), and I was to keep my eyes fixed on him, and guide Helen’s head exactly by the motion of his hand. He plunged into the water as soon as he had issued these encouraging directions; I saw him floundering in and out of several deep holes, and presently he got safe to land, dripping wet; then he dismounted, tied Leo to a flax bush, and took off his coat and big riding-boots,—I thought, very naturally to dry them, but I should have been still more alarmed, if possible, had I known that this was to prepare to be ready to swim to my help in case of danger. As it was, my only hope was that Helen page 219 might not like the look of the angry flood, and would refuse to go in;—how I should have blessed her for such obstinacy!—but no, she was eager to rejoin her stable companion, and plunged in without hesitation. I found it much worse even than I dreaded; the water felt so resistless, as if it must sweep me right out of the saddle; I should like to have clutched Helen’s mane or anything to have kept me on, but both hands were wanted to hold the reins quite low down, one on each side of her withers, so as to guide her exactly according to F——’s pilot-hand on the opposite bank: steering implicitly by this I escaped the holes and rocks which he had come against, and got over safely, but trembling, and with chattering teeth. F——said, quite disdainfully, “You don’t mean to say you’re really frightened?” So then I scolded him, rather incoherently, and demanded to be praised for coming at all! I wrung my habit out as well as I could, F—— poured the water out of his boots, and we proceeded, first over a plain, and then to climb a high steep hill. I wonder if you have any idea how disagreeable and dangerous it is to go zigzag up the side of a mountain after such rain as we have had. The soil was just like soap, nothing for the horses’ hoofs to take hold of, not a pebble or a tuft of grass; all had been washed away, and only the slippery clay remained. As usual, F—— went first and I followed, taking care not to keep below him, lest he and Leo should come “slithering” (that is the only word for it) page 220 down upon me; but, alas, it was Helen and I who slithered! Poor dear, all her legs seemed to fly from under her at once, and she came down on her side and on my legs. I felt the leaping-crutch snap, and found my left shoulder against the ground; I let go the reins, and thought we had better part company, but found I could not move for her weight; she struggled to get up, and we both slipped down, down—down: there was no reason why we should not have gone on to the bottom of the hill, when a friendly tussock afforded her an instant’s resting-place for her hind hoofs, and she scrambled to her feet like a cat. I found myself still on her back; so I picked up my reins and tried to pretend that I had never thought of getting off. F—— dared not stir from his “bad eminence;” so Helen and I wended our slippery way up to him, and in answer to his horrified “Where is your habit?” I found I was torn to ribbons; in fact, my skirt was little more than a kilt, and a very short one too! What was to be done? We were only three or four miles from our destination, so we pushed on, and at the last I lingered behind, and made F—— go first and borrow a cloak or shawl. You would have laughed if you had heard my pathetic adjurations to him to be sure to bring it by himself. I was so afraid that some one else would politely insist on accompanying him. But it was all right, though even with this assistance it was very difficult to arrange matters so as to be tolerably respectable. My hostess was shocked at my tattered, wet plight, page 221 and dried me, and dressed me up till I was quite smart, and then we had a very pleasant day, and, best of all, came home by a different road, so as to avoid the slippery descent and the rivers in the dark; but I still mourn for my habit!-it was my last. Three have disappeared, owing to unfortunate accidents, this year, and now I am reduced to what can be contrived out of a linsey dress.