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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter XXXV

Chapter XXXV.

“Westward Ho.”—Kingsley.

At this time the West Coast of the province of Canterbury was the scene of a brilliant rush. Gold had been lately discovered there, and numerous rich claims proved the richness of the land.

The country there being all covered with dense bush impossible to penetrate on account of the under scrub, save by cleared paths—was devoid of pasture, and consequently difficult of approach with stock from the plains. Therefore such stock as was driven there was being sold at exorbitant prices.

I was a practised stockrider, and in possession of a horse that would follow cattle anywhere. As I left the bank, the idea of returning and seeing if I could not persuade the manager to advance me a few hundred pounds on my own personal security, to invest in cattle, and drive to the West Coast, flashed across my mind.

The practicability of this plan, to enable me to scrape together some funds, had been borne in upon my mind before this. I had heard some men, at the hotel at which I put up—who had just returned from Hokitika, as the goldfield township was named—talking on this subject, and descanting on the excellence of the opportunity that this offered to any enterprising person with a few hundred pounds of capital in hand. Therefore, my idea was, if I could procure such an advance, to proceed at once to Canterbury, and to gradually muster among the farms on the plains there, or at sales, a herd of cattle, as I had means to pay for them, and to drive them to Hokitika, and there sell them; and to keep to this work as long as the present flourishing prospect of the goldfields continued to offer any inducement for its prosecution.

Whilst standing on the pavement outside the bank, and meditating on the probability of my being able to get such an page 244 advance, some one suddenly accosted me, and looking up, I saw Howden standing before me.

Whilst I had long suspected that this man's monetary resources were by no means to be gauged by his usual appearance, I knew as a matter of fact, that he had several hundreds of pounds located in that very bank, opposite to which we were now both standing; for I myself had at various times paid in sums in gold ore and money, amounting in all to as much. Therefore, after shaking hands with Howden, I bluntly remarked to him, “Howden, as you are doubtless aware, from the report in the papers, how matters now stand with me, I will just ask you, have you sufficient faith from what you have seen of my honesty of purpose, and business capacity, to intrust me with a loan of say £500? I have an idea that by proceeding to Canterbury, and purchasing cattle there, and driving them overland, and selling them at Hokitika, I should soon recoup myself for my risk and trouble. I would allow you full market value for the use of your money.”

He replied, “I am glad, Mr. Farquharson, that you have mentioned the matter. I can assure you I was desirous of asking you if I could be of any assistance to you, but was hesitating under the fear that you might be sensitive at any reference to the unfortunate calamity that has befallen you. Will £500 do you for the present?”

“Yes, it will be quite sufficient, as I should prefer not to involve myself too deeply at my first venture, so as to see first with my own eyes what the nature of the demand and prospect for the continuance of this work really is at Hokitika.”

“I will willingly let you have £500 now; beyond that it would be rather inconvenient for me to go, as the bulk of my money is locked up in investments, but to £500 you are welcome.”

“Many thanks, Howden, I can assure you that you have conferred a very great obligation upon me, by allowing me the use of this money. What rate of interest do you desire me to pay you for it?”

“The precise rate that the value of my life deducted from it will leave.”

“Tut, man! never mind that! that was only a simple action of humanity and duty. How much interest shall we say?”

“No more on that subject at present; we will talk about it when we come to settle up about the principal.”

“Well, as you will; by the bye, any further news about that other affair?”

“Some; but rather vague—but excuse me, I would rather not talk about it at present.”

page 245

“Where,” I inquired, “shall I address my letter when I want to write to you?”

“Address to the care of the post office here. If I should not be in Invercargill when it arrives it will be forwarded to me. But in all probability, before you require to do so, I shall see you in Hokitika. In the meanwhile let us adjourn to the bank counter and settle this preliminary business at once.”

This dispatched, I was once again ready for action and fighting with fortune.

A hope of inducing Lilly, with his ripe experience in such matters to co-operate with me in my new venture, induced me at once to write to him stating my wish, project, and address in Christchurch, for which place I should leave on the following day, and whither he could write, or come in person in case he purposed joining fortunes with me.

In a few days following my arrival at the A. J. Hotel in Christchurch, to which place I had been recommended by an Invercargill acquaintance, Lilly's answer arrived, testifying, in the first place, grief and consternation at the ruin that had overtaken me, and, in the next, a willing compliance with my proposal of casting in his lot with mine. He stated that on the conclusion of his present trip (for my letter, by my direction, had been forwarded to him where he was on the road, by the person with whom he lodged at Lawrence) he would send up his bullocks by an agent to be turned out at Campbell's station, where he knew they would be permitted to graze and be looked after, whilst he would come on immediately and join me.

Pending Lilly's arrival I went about among the farmers and attended sales, collecting a herd of cattle larger than I had at first intended, because of the larger capital that the knowledge of Lilly's intention enabled me to invest for our mutual enterprise. Lilly, I should add, had made such good use of his time in New Zealand that he was able to put £500 into the business with me.

Thus we were both, while working with a common interest, able to start our new business with the respectable capital of £1000.

Besides Selim, and Lilly's favourite mare Coleena, we each had provided ourselves with an additional horse, strong, sound, and spirited, for each of which we paid a tidy sum of money. Thus, on every trip we started with a fresh horse that was alternately used and rested, so that each animal, though severely worked while on his trip, had ample opportunity to recoup his strength by the time he was again required.

page 246

I now propose to pass over the details of this, my new experience in stock driving to Hokitika, and without pausing to give a description of the striking and varied scenery along our route, both of rugged mountain and primeval forest, or to dilate upon their effects on our minds on first witnessing the magnificent spectacle through the Otira Gorge, with the winding road that there rapidly descends, hewn out of the precipitous mountain sides on the Hokitika slope of the range, and the bridges there crossing and recrossing and crossing yet again the rushing torrents that foam down that wild ravine, or staying to describe our difficulties along the road, then in the process of formation on a most substantial basis of broad stones, now winding by the edges of precipices, now a simple track following for miles the pebbly channels of impetuous torrents, or crossing over dangerous streams that intersected our toilsome route, or again, a bridle path, garnished on either side with vine thickets and overhanging networks of supple jacks, winding through the primeval forest amid the deep mud formed under the almost daily droppings of that cloudy atmosphere, when our cattle were only kept back from the bush on either hand by our sagacious dogs. Without wasting time over such matters, however interesting in themselves, I will jump over twelve months that were continually occupied with the claims of this business.

Let it suffice here to say, that at the end of that period both Lilly and I found that, after deducting all expenses, we had rather more than £600 profit each left for our pains, a very happy result, with which we were both entirely satisfied.

Yet the events of this long interval shall not be wholly unrecorded. An account of one evening, as a sample of the times and rough surroundings, when money flowed freely in among reckless spendthrifts, the reader may find interesting as a type of what went on in the Colonies then.

The scene was at a shanty or sort of canvas hotel at the Bealy stream, an affluent of the Waimakariri, and a little way above its junction with the latter. There, as I remember is (along the course of the Bealy) a rather picturesque looking valley, bounded by steep mountain ridges on either side, clothed with thick bush almost to their tops—the tops, however, standing out bare, bleak, and verdureless beyond.

We were on one of our return trips, and consequently disencumbered of all impedimenta. The shanty, where there is page 247 now very likely a large substantial hotel and growing township, was then, as I have said, a mere calico affair. It was also, as far as my memory serves me, the only thing in the shape of a building on the ground—outhouses of course excepted. But primitive as was the construction of this hotel, it did not suffer from a lack of customers.

The chief of these customers were prospective miners, on their way to the new goldfield, and others returning from it; some flush with recent rises, others who, in sanguine expectations of similar windfalls, had started with small means to support them while endeavouring to realise such golden dreams, and were now returning with considerably less—that is, nothing. The lucky diggers, who were now rapidly spending in reckless “shouting” the money with which on leaving Hokitika they had decided to secure a more luxurious life in Christchurch, were showing signs of quickly arriving at the same low financial position. The swags of these travellers, mostly carried in oilskin wrappers as a protection from the almost daily rains of this region, were seen piled in a heap at the corner of the tent as we entered.

As this place, at least at that time, was the farthest point that vehicles coming from the plains en route for Hokitika could reach—a gap, between here and the top of the next mountain range, where the road was eventually to go being still unmade—there were several drays and waggons congregated together. The animals that drew them were feeding about in hobbles, and ornamented with tinkling bells—more for use, however, than for ornament—and their drivers made no unimportant item in the crowd who were freely liquoring up at the bar. Nor did their thirst for ardent spirits appear to be in the least moderated by the price of the beverages with which they were endeavouring to quench it—to wit—the good old colonial charge of one shilling per each “nobbier”.

On that day, like on most of the days during my stay in that region, it had been raining heavily. From these continuous rains, and the trampling of many animals, the ground outside the shanty was literally a mass of black, fluid mud. People accustomed to these parts, however, soon come to regard rain and mud as trifles.

Yet, if the exterior of the calico hostelry looked unpromising, still, when inside, we found that against the discomforts of the evening, there was most substantial provision made. There was, however, no fireplace, whether from prudential, or necessary considerations, I know not, but, in the cook house—a small sod hut, there was an ample fire for any who chose to make use of its comforting glow. And thither both Lilly and page 248 I adjourned—after having first tested our host's whisky, to give a start to the blood in our half-numbed bodies—for, though neither of us were habitual dram drinkers, neither were we teetotallers.

But as it happened that we had arrived just in time for the supper, of which we stood in great need, our stay by the fire was but a short one. We had previously seen to the feeding of our horses in a most dilapidated building or shed that did duty as a stable.

The signal for supper was now given by the cook, who announced the same at the top of his voice, and the intimation was received by the tippling, rough-mannered guests, with a sort of derisive yell, and an instant rush for places round the ample board. The rude table was soon closely surrounded by guests, some eager for food, but more hilarious with drink. Making our way there, too, with but little loss of time—for a long ride through a cold wet day is a wonderful stimulant to a healthy appetite—both Lilly and I soon became as keenly engrossed in the contents of the bill of fare set before us as anyone there. The supper, though but simple, was at least substantial, and well cooked, and the price for it too, by the way, of an equally substantial nature. Instead of cups, we were given tin pannikins, but this we did not mind, for it only recalled the old habits of our station life in Australia.

However, the keenest appetite must get satisfied in time—though ours, if not inconsiderable, were but contemptible in comparison with those of some that we saw there.

The table was again cleared, and the guests once more betook themselves to the consideration of the great problem of happily disporting themselves for the remainder of the evening. To many this consisted solely in “nobblerising,” and to most, in card playing.

As the evening wore on the scene among so many tipplers grew so wild that the climax of a free fight, in which all were likely to join, seemed to be a by no means improbable or remote contingency.

Among the roystering crowd were two undersized but smartly built men, who particularly engaged my attention. There was a sort of family resemblance between them, so to speak—for the idea was merely imaginary—though not in their features. In this regard, indeed, they were decidedly unlike. The resemblance was in their comparative sizes and general get-up. Both had evidently been seafaring men and were dressed in nautical fashion, with white moleskin trousers and blue shirts, arranged with that peculiar shirt-fold overlapping the trousersband that sailors alone seem to have the knack of making, and page 249 their similarity of costume was rendered still more marked by their both wearing a Kilmarnock bonnet. Yet not only were they not related, but they were not even of the same nationality, one being an Englishman and the other Scotch. The coincidence of their similarity of costume was the more odd because from what I gathered from their remarks I could see that they were not even acquaintances, and had not met until that evening.

But whether from some mysterious magnetic influence or not I cannot say, but certain it was that all that evening these two were seldom long apart. Yet whatever the nature of this mutual attraction on their part, it could not have been one of love or admiration, since the principal topic of conversation between them was of a decidedly belligerent character. The Scotchman, indeed, appeared to be most anxious to try conclusions with his English acquaintance, and he was continually swaggering up to him and taking him by the shoulders and shaking and pushing him roughly about.

The Englishman, indeed, seemed gifted with a rather more placid temperament, and bore this rough handling with surprising equanimity. Not that he was always patient, however, for his words at times betrayed considerable irritation, as he kept telling the other not to be a d——fool. Half-a-dozen times or so, at least, these two men moved towards the door, apparently with the determination of “seeing it out” on the “lovely grass,” as the Scot in a flight of high poetic fancy characterised what was in reality for some distance round the tent only a sea of black mud. Invariably, however, on these occasions, ere reaching the door their warlike spirits evaporated, leaving them apparently in a more amicable mood, and then either the one or the other swung his would-be opponent round in an opposite direction with the more friendly invitation, “Come along, old man, and have a drink”; only shortly afterwards to become more belligerent than ever.

At one time, however, this belligerent temperament on the part of the Scotchman, who was in reality the more obstreperous and boastful of the two, seemed to be happily diverted into a more peaceful channel, when he loudly signified his intention of favouring the company with the performance of a Strathspey dance. No one, however, happening at the time to notice this most condescending proposal on his part, it, like many a more important motion, fell through for want of support. This was to my great grief, for although I did not care to draw the attention of the others to a notice of this proposal, I was very keen to see the measure performed.

Up to about this stage of the evening Lilly had kept quiet page 250 —indeed, for him, most singularly so, for in company he was not usually so reserved. But now his attention seemed to be attracted to the movements of both of these heroes. In fact, I rather suspect that Lilly had been in reality taking stock of them all the evening. Now, however, he rose from where he was and reseated himself beside them, his eyes twinkling with some humorous thought, while he appeared to be perfectly delighted with their manners.

I took a sharp glance at my quizzical friend, as I felt persuaded by the deepening lines radiating from the corners of his eyes, always a sign of fun with him, that he was intending to get up to some piece of mischief. What the nature of it was to be, however, I could not imagine, for I observed him simply order drinks for three, the nature of his own being signified by a wink, that the shanty keeper perfectly understood to mean something soft—a temperance cordial—in fact.

Lilly apparently became greatly interested in his valorous new acquaintances, feeling their muscles, and declaring that he would be sorry to run the risk of a pounding by either of them. This flattery inflated them much, especially the Scotchman, and he was in the midst of the recital of a conflict, with a fourteen stone weight antagonist, whom he had gallantly felled with a blow, as I left the room to see to the horses, while I heard Lilly again remark, in tones of the most intense admiration, “Drink up your glasses, boys—my word, but you are the right sort, both of you”.

As the night looked wild and dirty, I decided on keeping the horses inside, for they were not always accommodated with a shelter on these trips. I stayed talking with the man who officiated as groom, for about half an hour, when suddenly our ears were startled by the sounds of voices raised as if in fierce anger, issuing from the door of the shanty, that was just then suddenly opened. “There is a row on,” remarked the groom, looking out from the door of the stable; “there is two coves going out to fight. My word, they'll fall soft anyhow.”

On going to the door in my turn, I beheld several people hurrying out from the shanty, one with a lantern—for the night was pitch dark—and in their midst two men stripped to the waist, each moving with very unsteady steps in the direction indicated by the man with the lantern, who was leading the way.

Now there are few sights more repugnant to my nature than that of a drunken fight. Indeed, to all such spectacles, whether in drink or not—and in my experience among shearers, I have seen many a bloody one—I might almost justly say that I have a sort of cowardly aversion, although I have given page 251 proof sufficient on an emergency, that of the grit of true courage, I have my fair average share.

Thus, on the present occasion, on seeing these preparations for this drunken encounter, my instant impulse was to at once adjourn to the house, when, to my intense amazement, accompanying the person who was leading the way to a suitable spot for the encounter, and who had now halted, where, in a hollow depression of the ground, the mud was positively deeper, and more diluted than at any other spot, I recognised Lilly. This recognition on my part at once changed the direction of my steps, and I now—all curiosity and astonishment—walked up to the crowd to see whatever had taken possession of Lilly's senses, to induce him to act in a manner so unwonted.

Lilly was the very reverse of a brawler, and brawling, especially drunken brawling, he detested, and was always ready to put a peremptory stop to.

“In the name of wonder whatever can Lilly mean? he surely can't have got the worse for drink that he is taking part in this drunken row!” I ejaculated, as I hastily strode, as best I could, through the mud to the scene of action, where a ring was being formed, and where inside, and behind one of the would-be combatants, Lilly might be said to be acting the part of master of the ceremonies, as it was he who was giving all the necessary directions.

By his orders, the man with the lantern was directed to hold it so as to throw the light straight in the faces of both combatants, behind one of whom, as I have said, he stood to act as picker-up in the approaching deadly slogging match. Behind the other, to perform a similar office, stood another man, with a remarkably good humoured expression of countenance. In both of the combatants I speedily recognised the two quarrel-some little sailors, who by this time were so blind drunk that they stood see-sawing in a most remarkable manner, preparatory to the signal from Lilly to begin the action.

Lilly, I should say, was backing up the Scotchman, who was now uttering the most frightful imprecations against the other's eyes, and livers, souls and bodies, imprecations which the Englishman paid back in kind.

Of course I now at once penetrated the object of Lilly's presence and previous demeanour with these two champions, with their bombastic wrangling, who, despite their protestations, were evidently afraid of each other; the mischievous fellow had hit upon a method of punishing both, that the sight of the mud, and their drunken condition, suggested as being so exquisitely ludicrous.

For this purpose he had deliberately filled them up with a page 252 succession of nobblers till they had reached their present stage of drunken imbecility, by which they were rendered totally unable to inflict any injury whatever upon each other. The amusement therefore that Lilly now proposed to himself, and the other spectators, who had been put up by him to his trick, was the sight of these pot-valiant champions, rolling and floundering in the mud, in their abortive efforts to damage each other, and which at the same time would be a sufficient punishment for them for their wrangling and noise. Nor was Lilly much, if at all, out in his calculation, as to the absurd effects that would result from this encounter.

Were a person disposed to view it from a merely philosophic standpoint, the sight was simply calculated to sadden and sicken him, as affording in itself such a convincing proof of the inherent depravity of human nature, that two reasonable beings could, on any terms, be brought to roll about in the mud in such a truly swinish fashion.

But taking a lighter view of the matter, I confess that among the others, I fairly roared with laughter at the scene.

On the word being given by Lilly to begin the fight, which he did in these terms, “Now lads, go it a-muck,” (and go it a-muck they certainly did), they both at once advanced with the most deadly purpose towards each other. For the better development of the scene expected to follow they had been kept considerably apart, so that on the signal for action being given, they had to traverse several yards of deep mud ere they could meet; and that in their inebriated state they accomplished with some difficulty. Ere they had actually done so, in fact, the Scotch sailor's foot sticking in the mud, he, in trying to release it, pitched head foremost into it, and lay there at full length, to be immediately followed by his English antagonist, who, lunging forwards with all his force as the other's descending head seemed within his reach, missed his aim, and losing his own footing, fell on the top of the Scot.

“Fair play, boys,” shouted the impartial seconds, darting forward, their shirt sleeves turned well up for the purpose of dragging up the mud-plastered champions and confronting them again with each other. Standing with difficulty, they now darted their fists at each other's faces, with the like result as before: one fell into the mud and the other atop of him; and there, this time, they were permitted to roll and flounder about as they liked until they were actually heard choking with the mud that had got into their mouths. Again lifted by their seconds, who had thus deliberately left them in the mud for a while, they now presented such a spectacle that their features could not be distinguished. This time the Englishman page 253 managed to hit his Scotch antagonist so true that the latter fell flat upon his back, and under the impression apparently that he had got into bed, he instantly fell asleep. His antagonist, who from the effect of his own blow had also fallen back, was, while lying helpless in that position, heard loudly denouncing the deepest vengeance against the other. He was now declared victor, and both he and his companion were pulled up and dragged into the tent. The breeches of both were then pulled off, and they themselves well washed by several pailfuls of water being dashed over their naked bodies—a treatment that, in their drunken state, they seemed to be scarcely conscious of—then after being thoroughly rubbed down, they were consigned to their beds, from which they did not move during our stay at the shanty, as we left early on the following morning.

The greatest hilarity prevailed while this wild practical joke was being played, and the combatants escaped unhurt.

As for their clothes, Lilly himself, aided by the man who had acted as second for the English sailor, rinsed them out in water and left them drying in the cook-house; and thus ended the joke.