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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter XXV. How We Lost Our Horses and Had to Walk Home

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Letter XXV. How We Lost Our Horses and Had to Walk Home.

This will actually be my last letter from the Malvern Hills; and, in spite of the joy I feel at the hope of seeing all my beloved ones in England, I am so sorry to leave my dear little happy valley. We have done nothing but pay farewell visits lately; and I turn for a final look at each station or cottage as we ride away with a great tightness at my heart, and moisture in my eyes, to think I shall never see them again. You must not be jealous at the lingering regrets I feel, for unless you had been with me here you can never understand how kind and friendly all our neighbours, high and low, have been to us from the very first, or how dearly I have grown to love them. I don’t at all know how I am to say good-bye to my dear Mrs. M——, the shepherd’s wife I told you of. I believe she will miss me more than any one; and I cannot bear to think of her left to pass her days without the help of books and papers, which I was always page 229 so glad to lend her. I often walk down the valley to take tea with her of an afternoon and to say good-bye, but I have not said it yet. I wish you could see her parlour as I saw it yesterday afternoon—her books in a bookcase of her husband’s manufacture, very nice and pretty; her spinning-wheel in the comer; the large “beau-pot” of flowers in the window; and such a tea on the table!—cream like clots of gold, scones, oat-cakes, all sorts of delicacies! She herself is quite charming—one of Nature’s ladies. I have given her, as a parting gift, a couple of Scotch views framed; and they hang on the wall as a memento of places equally dear to both of us.

It is a sorrow to me to leave the horses and dogs and my pet calves and poultry; even the trees and creepers I go round to look at, with the melancholy feeling of other owners not loving them so much as I have done. However, I must not make my last letter too dismal, or you will feel that I am not glad enough to return to you all. My only apology is, I have been so very happy here.

Now for our latest adventure, as absurd as any, in its way. Have I ever told you that our post-office is ten miles off, with an atrocious road between us and it? I know you will throw down this letter and feel rather disgusted with me for being sorry to leave such a place, but we don’t mind trifles here. Lately, since our own establishment has been broken up, we have been living in great discomfort; page 230 and among other things we generally, if not always, have to go for our own letters twice a week. Upon this occasion F- — and I had ridden together up the gorge of the Selwyn rather late in the afternoon, to avoid the extreme heat of the day. When we reached the shepherd’s hut I have before mentioned, and which is now deserted, I proposed to F—— to go on over the hills alone and leave me there, as I was very hot and tired, and he could travel much quicker without me—for I am ashamed to say that I still object to riding fast up and down slippery hills. I cannot get rid of the idea that I shall break my neck if I attempt it, whereas F— - goes on over the worst road just as if it was perfectly level. Excuse this digression, for it is a relief to me to be a little spiteful about his pace whenever I have an opportunity, and it will probably be my last chance of expressing my entire disapproval of it.

Helen was tied up to a post, and F——, after helping me to dismount, set off at a canter over the adjoining swamp on his way to cross the chain of hills between the river and the flat where the great coach-road to the West Coast runs. I had brought the ingredients for my five o’clock tea (without which I am always a lost and miserable creature), and I amused myself, during my solitude, by picking up dry bits of scrub for my fire; but I had to go down the river-bank for some driftwood to make the old kettle, belonging to the hut, boil. I could not help wondering how any human being could endure such page 231 solitude for years, as the occupant of a hut like this is necessarily condemned to. In itself it was as snug and comfortable as possible, with a little paddock for the shepherd’s horse, an acre or so of garden, now overgrown with self-sown potatoes, peas, strawberry, raspberry, and gooseberry plants, the little thatched fowl-house near, and the dog-kennels; all giving it a thoroughly home-like look. The hoarse roar of the river over its rocky bed was the only sound; now and then a flock of wild ducks would come flying down to their roosting-place or nests among the Tohi grass; and as the evening closed in the melancholy cry of the bittern and the weka’s loud call broke the stillness, but only to make it appear more profound. On each side of the ravine in which the hut stands rise lofty hills so steeply from the water’s edge that in places we can find no footing for our horses, and have to ride in the river. At this time of the year the sheep are all upon the hills; so you do not hear even a bleat: but in winter, they come down to the sunny, sheltered flats.

It appeared to me as if I was alone there for hours, though it really was less than one hour, when F—— returned with a large bundle of letters and papers tied to his saddle-bow. Tea was quite ready now; so he tied up his horse next Helen, and we had tea and looked at our letters. One of the first I opened told me that some friends from Christchurch, whom I expected to pay us a visit soon, were on their way up that very day, and in fact page 232 might be expected to arrive just about that hour. I was filled with blank dismay, for not only did the party consist of three grown-up people—nay, four—but three little children. I had made elaborate plans in my head as to how and where they should all be stowed away for a fortnight, but had naturally deferred till the last moment to carry out my arrangements, for they entailed giving up our own bedroom, and “camping” in the dining-room, besides wonderful substitutes of big packing-cases for cribs, etc. etc. But, alas! here we were eight miles from home and nothing done, not even any extra food ordered or prepared. The obvious thing was to mount our horses and return as fast as ever we could, and we hastened out of the hut to the spot where we had left them both securely tied to the only available post, through which unfortunately five wires ran, as it was one of the “standards” of a fence which extended for miles. Just as we came out of the hut in a great bustle, our evil destiny induced F——’s horse to rub its nose against the top wire of the fence; and in this process it caught the bar of its snaffle-bit, and immediately pulled back: this made all the wires jingle. Helen instantly took alarm, and pulled back too: fresh and increased vibration, extending up the hill-side and echoing back an appalling sound, was the result of this movement. In an instant there were both the horses pulling with all their force against the fence, terrified to death; and no wonder, for the more they pulled the more the page 233 wires jingled. F—— did all he could to soothe them with blandishments. I tried to coax Helen, but the nearer we drew the more frantically they backed and plunged, and the more the noise increased—till it was a case of “one struggle more and I am free;” and leaving their bridles still fastened to the fatal fence by the reins, we had the satisfaction of seeing both our horses careering wildly about—first celebrating their escape from danger by joyous and frantic bounds and kicks, and then setting off down the gorge of the river as hard as they could go. I fairly sat down and whimpered a little, not only at the thought of our eight miles’ walk over shingle with a deep river to be crossed nine times, but at the idea of my poor little guests arriving to find no supper, no beds, “no nothing.”

F—— tried to cheer me up, and said the only thing was to get home as quick as possible; but he did not expect to find that our friends had arrived, for it had been very hazy over the plains all day, and probably had rained hard in Christchurch; so he thought they would not have started on their journey at all. But I refused to accept any comfort from this idea, and bemoaned myself, entirely on their account, incessantly. When we came to the first crossing, F—— picked me up and carried me over dry-shod, and this he did at all the fords; but in one we very nearly came to grief, for I was tilted like a sack over his shoulder, and when we were quite in the middle, and the water was very deep, up to his waist, he kept page 234 hoisting my feet higher and higher, quite forgetting that there was plenty more of me on the other side of his shoulder; so it ended in my arms getting very wet, which he did not seem to think mattered at all so long as my feet were dry; whereas I rather preferred having my feet than my head plunged into a surging, deafening yellow current. At the entrance of the gorge is a large stockyard, and near to it, at least a mile or two off, a large mob of horses is generally to be found feeding. We heard great neighing and galloping about amongst them as we came out of the gorge; it was much too dark to distinguish anything, but we guessed that our horses had joined these, and the sounds we heard were probably those of welcome. But the whole mob set off the moment we came near, and crossed the river again, entailing a tenth wetting upon poor F——. I was posted at the entrance of the gorge, with instructions to shout and otherwise keep them from going up by the route we had just come; but it was more than an hour before F—— could get round the wary brutes, so as to turn them with their heads towards the stockyard. Of course, he had to bring up the whole mob. My talents in the shouting line were not called out upon this occasion, for they all trotted into the stockyard of their own accord, and I had nothing to do but put up the slip-rail as fast as I could with only one available arm, for though it is better, I cannot use the other yet. When F—— came up we both went into the yard, and could soon make out the page 235 two horses which had their saddles on—that was the only way we could distinguish them in the dark. It was now nearly eleven o’clock, and though warm enough it was very cloudy, not a star to be seen. We fastened on the patched up bridles as well as we could by feeling, and mounted, and rode home, about three miles more, as fast as we could. When we entered the flat near our own house, we heard loud and prolonged “coo-ees” from all sides. The servants had made up their minds that some terrible misfortune had happened to us, and were setting out to look for us, “coo-eeing” as they came along. F—— pointed out to me, with a sort of “I-told-you-so” air, that there was no light in the drawing-room—so it was evident our friends had not arrived; and when we dismounted I found, to my great joy, that the house was empty. All our fatigue was forgotten in thankfulness that the poor travellers had not been exposed to such a cold, comfortless reception as would have awaited them if they had made their journey that day. I must tell you, they arrived quite safely the next evening, but very tired, especially the poor children; however, everything was ready, and the little boys were particularly pleased with their box beds, greatly preferring the difficulties of getting in and out of them to their own pretty little cribs at home. Such are boys all over the world!

Next month we leave this for ever, and go down to Christchurch to make our final arrangements for the long voyage of a hundred days before us. As the page 236 time draws near I realize how strong is the tie which has grown, even in these few short years, around my heart, connecting it with this lovely land, and the kind friends I have found in it. F—— feels the parting more deeply than I do, if possible, though for different reasons; he has lived so long among these beautiful hills, and is so accustomed to have before his eyes their grand outlines. He was telling me this the other day, and has put the same feelings into the following verses, which I now send you.


The seamen shout once and together,
The anchor breaks up from the ground,
And the ship’s head swings to the weather,
To the wind and the sea swings round;
With a clamour the great sail steadies,
In extreme of a storm scarce furled;
Already a short wake eddies,
And a furrow is cleft and curled
To the right and left.

Float out from the harbour and highland
That hides all the region I know,
Let me look a last time on the island
Well seen from the sea to the snow.
The lines of the ranges I follow,
I travel the hills with my eyes,
For I know where they make a deep hollow,
A valley of grass and the rise
Of streams clearer than glass.

page 237

That haunt is too far for me wingless,
And the hills of it sink out of sight,
Yet my thought were but broken and stringless,
And the daylight of song were but night.
If I could not at will a winged dream let
Lift me and take me and set
Me again by the trees and the streamlet;
These leagues make a wide water, yet
The whole world shall not hide.

Now my days leave the soft silent byway,
Arid clothed in a various sort,
In iron or gold, on life’s highway
New feet shall succeed, or stop short
Shod hard these maybe, or made splendid,
Fair and many, or evil and few,
But the going of bare feet has ended,
Of naked feet set in the new
Meadow grass sweet and wet.

I will long for the ways of soft walking,
Grown tired of the dust and the glare,
And mute in the midst of much talking
Will pine for the silences rare;
Streets of peril and speech full of malice
Will recall me the pastures and peace
Which gardened and guarded those valleys
With grasses as high as the knees,
Calm as high as the sky:

While the island secure in my spirit
At ease on its own ocean rides,
And Memory, a ship sailing near it,
Shall float in with favouring tides,
Shall enter the harbours and land me
To visit the gorges and heights
Whose aspects seemed once to command me,
As queens by their charms command knights
To achievements of arms.

page 238

And as knights have caught sight of queens’ faces
Through the dust of the lists and the din,
So, remembering these holiest places
In the days when I lose or I win,
I will yearn to them, all being over,
Triumphant or trampled beneath,
To this beautiful isle like a lover,
To her evergreen brakes for a wreath,
For a tear to her lakes.

The last of her now is a brightening
Far fire in the forested hills,
The breeze as the night nears is heightening,
The cordage draws tighter and thrills,
Like a horse that is spurred by the rider
The great vessel quivers and quails,
And passes the billows beside her,
The fair wind is strong in her sails,
She is lifted along.