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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter IV. First Introduction to “Station Life.”

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Letter IV. First Introduction to “Station Life.”

I have just had the happiness of receiving my first budget of English letters; and no one can imagine how a satisfactory home letter satisfies the hunger of the heart after its loved and left ones. Your letter was particularly pleasant, because I could perceive, as I held the paper in my hands, that you were writing as you really felt, and that you were indeed happy. May you long continue so, dearest.

F—— says that this beautiful place will give me a very erroneous impression of station life, and that I shall probably expect to find its comforts and luxuries the rule, whereas they are the exception; in the mean time, however, I am enjoying them thoroughly. The house is only sixty-five miles from Christchurch, nearly due north (which you must not forget answers to your south in point of warmth). Our kind friends and hosts, the L——s, called for us in their comfortable and large break, with four horses. Mr. L—— drove, F—— sat on the box, and inside were the page 24 ladies, children, and a nurse. Our first stage was to Kaiapoi, a little town on the river Waimakiriri, where we had a good luncheon of whitebait, and rested and fed the horses. From the window of the hotel I saw a few groups of Maories; they looked very ugly and peaceable, with a rude sort of basket made of flax fibres, or buckets filled with whitebait, which they wanted us to buy. There are some reserved lands near Kaiapoi where they have a very thriving settlement, living in perfect peace and good-will with their white neighbours. When we set off again on our journey, we passed a little school-house for their children.

We reached Leathfield that evening, only twenty-five miles from Christchurch; found a nice inn, or accommodation-house, as roadside inns are called here; had a capital supper and comfortable beds, and were up and off again at daylight the next morning. As far as the Weka Pass, where we stopped for dinner, the roads were very good, but after that we got more among the hills and off the usual track, and there were many sharp turns and steep pinches; but Mr. L—— is an excellent whip, and took great care of us. We all got very weary towards the end of this second day’s journey, and the last two hours of it were in heavy rain; it was growing very dark when we reached the gate, and heard the welcome sound of gravel under the wheels. I could just perceive that we had entered a plantation, the first trees since we left Christchurch. Nothing seems page 25 so wonderful to me as the utter treelessness of the vast Canterbury plains; occasionally you pass a few Ti-ti palms (ordinarily called cabbage-trees), or a large prickly bush which goes by the name of “wild Irishman,” but for miles and miles you see nothing but flat ground or slightly undulating downs of yellow tussocks, the tall native grass. It has the colour and appearance of hay, but serves as shelter for a delicious undergrowth of short sweet herbage, upon which the sheep live, and horses also do very well on it, keeping in good working condition, quite unlike their puffy, fat state on English pasture.

We drove through the plantation and another gate, and drew up at the door of a very large, handsome, brick house, with projecting gables and a verandah. The older I grow the more convinced I am that contrast is everything in this world; and nothing I can write can give you any idea of the delightful change from the bleak country we had been slowly travelling through in pouring rain, to the warmth and brightness of this charming house. There were blazing fires ready to welcome us, and I feel sure you will sufficiently appreciate this fact when I tell you that by the time the coal reaches this, it costs nine pounds per ton. It is possible to get Australian coal at about half the price, but it is not nearly as good.

We were so tired that we were only fit for the lowest phase of human enjoyment—warmth, food, and sleep; but the next morning was bright and lovely, and I was up and out in the verandah as page 26 early as possible. I found myself saying constantly, in a sort of ecstasy, “How I wish they could see this in England!” and not only see but feel it, for the very breath one draws on such a morning is a happiness; the air is so light and yet balmy, it seems to heal the lungs as you inhale it. The verandah is covered with honeysuckles and other creepers, and the gable end of the house where the bow-window of the drawing-room projects, is one mass of yellow Banksia roses in full blossom. A stream runs through the grounds, fringed with weeping willows, which are in their greatest beauty at this time of year, with their soft, feathery foliage of the tenderest green. The flower beds are dotted about the lawn, which surrounds the house and slopes away from it, and they are brilliant patches of colour, gay with verbenas, geraniums, and petunias. Here and there clumps of tall trees rise above the shrubs, and as a background there is a thick plantation of red and blue gums, to shelter the garden from the strong N.W. winds. Then, in front, the country stretches away in undulating downs to a chain of high hills in the distance: every now and then there is a deep gap in these, through which you see magnificent snow-covered mountains.

The inside of the house is as charming as the outside, and the perfection of comfort; but I am perpetually wondering how all the furniture—especially the fragile part of it—got here. When I remember page 27 the jolts, and ruts, and roughnesses of the road, I find myself looking at the pier-glass and glass shades, picture-frames, etc., with a sort of respect, due to them for having survived so many dangers.

The first two or three days we enjoyed ourselves in a thoroughly lazy manner; the garden was a never-ending source of delight, and there were all the animals to make friends with, “mobs” of horses to look at, rabbits, poultry, and pets of all sorts. About a week after our arrival, some more gentlemen came, and then we had a series of picnics. As these are quite unlike your highly civilized entertainments which go by the same name, I must describe one to you.

The first thing after breakfast was to collect all the provisions, and pack them in a sort of washing-basket, and then we started in an American waggon drawn by a pair of stout cobs. We drove for some miles till we came to the edge of one of the high terraces common to New Zealand scenery: here we all got out; the gentlemen unharnessed and tethered the horses, so that they could feed about comfortably, and then we scrambled down the deep slope, at the bottom of which ran a wide shallow creek. It was no easy matter to get the basket down here, I assure you; we ladies were only permitted to load ourselves, one with a little kettle, and the other with a tea-pot, but this was quite enough, as crossing the creek by a series of jumps from one wet stone to another is not easy for a beginner.

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Mr. L—— brought a large dog with him, a kangaroo-hound (not unlike a lurcher in appearance), to hunt the wekas. I had heard at night the peculiar cry or call of these birds, but had not seen one until to-day. “Fly” put up several, one after another, and soon ran them down. At first I thought it very cruel to destroy such a tame and apparently harmless creature, but I am assured that they are most mischievous, and that it would be useless to turn out the pheasants and partridges which Mr. L—— has brought from England, until the numbers of the wekas are considerably reduced. They are very like a hen pheasant without the long tail feathers, and until you examine them you cannot tell they have no wings, though there is a sort of small pinion among the feathers, with a claw at the end of it. They run very swiftly, availing themselves cleverly of the least bit of cover; but when you hear a short sharp cry, it is a sign that the poor weka is nearly done, and the next thing you see is Fly shaking a bundle of brown feathers vehemently. All the dogs are trained to hunt these birds, as they are a great torment, sucking eggs and killing chickens; but still I could not help feeling sorry when Fly, having disposed of the mother, returned to the flax-bush out of which he had started her, and killed several baby-wekas by successive taps of his paw.

I have wandered away from my account of the picnic in the most unjustifiable manner. The gentle- page 29 men were toiling up the hill, after we had crossed the creek, carrying the big basket by turns between them; it was really hard work, and I must tell you in confidence, that I don’t believe they liked it—at least I can answer for one. I laughed at them for not enjoying their task, and assured them that I was looking forward with pleasure to washing up the plates and dishes after our luncheon; but I found that they had all been obliged, in the early days of the colony, to work at domestic drudgery in grim and grimy earnest, so it had lost the charm of novelty which it still possessed for me.

As soon as we reached a pretty sheltered spot half-way up the hill among some trees and ferns, and by the side of the creek, we unpacked the basket, and began collecting dry wood for a fire: we soon had a splendid blaze under the lee of a fine rock, and there we boiled our kettle and our potatoes. The next thing was to find a deep hole in the creek, so over-shadowed by rocks and trees that the water would be icy cold: in this we put the champagne to cool. The result of all our preparations was a capital luncheon, eaten in a most romantic spot, with a lovely view before us, and the creek just like a Scotch burn, hurrying and tumbling down the hill-side to join the broader stream in the valley. After luncheon, the gentlemen considered themselves entitled to rest, lying lazily back among the fern and smoking, whilst we ladies sat a little apart and chatted: I was busy learning to knit. Then, about five, we had the most page 30 delicious cup of tea I ever tasted, and we repacked the basket (it was very light now, I assure you), and made our way back to the top of the terrace, put the horses in again, and so home. It was a long, bright, summer holiday, and we enjoyed it thoroughly. After a voyage, such an expedition as this is full of delight; every tree and bird is a source of pleasure.