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Waitaruna: A Story of New Zealand Life

Chapter IV. — The Last Stage of the Journey

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Chapter IV.
The Last Stage of the Journey .

"But sleep at last the victory won,
They must be stirring with the sun;
And drowsily 'Good night' they said,
And went still gossiping to bed."

Longfellow .

"So you think you can manage a sixty-mile ride," said Mr. Ramshorn; "I thought I could have given you two days to do it in, but I hear that young Ewart is to be at the station the day after tomorrow, to see after some sheep we have for sale, so I must push through in one day."

"Yes, of course you must, for I don't suppose you could send a telegram to any place where he would get it in time."

"A telegram! It's easily seen you're a 'new chum.' Why, bless you, there's only a mail to within ten miles of us once a week. And as for telegrams, they are almost unknown. Except a small line between this and the port, there is not a telegraph line in the country."

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"What time shall we start?" asked Gilbert Langton, who was the other speaker.

"About daylight; so you had better come round here to-night, so that there may be no delay in the morning. You can put a few traps in a valise, and leave anything else to be sent after you."

Gilbert accordingly left to pack up his things, and make arrangements for their being sent up by waggon to Waitaruna, as he had learned the station was called. In the evening he returned to the hotel where Mr. Ramshorn was staying, with whom he enjoyed an hour or two's pleasant conversation before retiring for the night.

Mr. Ramshorn was an entertaining companion when he chose to make himself agreeable. He was a gentlemanly man, between thirty and forty years of age, who had seen a good deal of the world both at home and since he had come to the Colonies.

He had gone out to Australia a good many years before, and after turning his hand to almost every kind of work, he succeeded in acquiring a station of his own. But he had very little capital, for he had been too restless to gain much himself, and he had none otherwise. He had therefore to buy the station on credit, giving bills at long dates for a great part of the purchase price. But the second year he had it was a most disastrous one. page 50There was a great drought, which parched everything up; many of the sheep died, and, to make matters worse, he was himself prevented giving his affairs much attention by a serious illness. Everything went wrong, and finally he was glad to get rid of the run by forfeiting all the money he had already paid. His want of success making him disgusted with Australia, he came down to New Zealand, and had filled the post of station manager on several runs. He had a frank manner; and his sunburnt face—or, at least, as much of it as was visible for a full tawny beard—wore an open, pleasant expression. When Gilbert went to bed that night his mental comment on his new friend was, "He seems to be not a bad sort of fellow."

Next morning saw Mr. Ramshorn and Gilbert clattering through the silent streets at an early hour. The air was keen and cold, but a sharp trot sent the blood tingling through Gilbert's veins. After leaving the town, the road led up a small eminence, on the summit of which Mr. Ramshorn drew rein, and, turning round, directed Gilbert's attention to the slumbering city they had just left.

"It's as pretty a little town as you will see anywhere," said he; "and though it's the fashion of most Victorians to abuse it, and the country in general, and the climate in particular, I can't say I agree page 51with them on any point. The view from the other road is better in some respects, but you must admit that this is fine."

"Indeed it is," replied Gilbert; "I had no idea I should have found the place so large or so far advanced."

"The last few years have made a marvellous difference. When I first came down from the other side, a few years ago, Dunedin was a very small place compared with what it is now. But let us push on."

"I suppose it was the discovery of gold that sent it ahead," said Gilbert, turning his horse's head away from the fair city again.

"Yes, it was the rush that gave it the start. It is a strange thing how gold seems to be always found in out-of-the-way places, as if it were put there to attract population. Look at California, and Australia, and now this country. Otago was considered the most outlandish, miserable part of the whole colony by those living further north, and now Dunedin has outstripped all the other towns in New Zealand."

"But don't you think that Dunedin will go down again as quickly as she has gone up?" asked Gilbert.

"Not a bit of it. I have no doubt that we shall have a strong reaction after the gold fever has subsided. There are already symptoms of its setting page 52in; but the reaction will be nothing like what some of the croakers you must have met in town try to make out. Did you ever notice how fond some people are of prophesying evil?"

But before Gilbert could reply, Mr. Ramshorn had put spurs to his horse, and was off at a canter. By chatting thus familiarly, they beguiled the tedium of the journey; but, except the necessary halts to bait both horses and men, the day was unbroken by any incident. The district through which they travelled in the morning was, in the main, well cultivated and studded with farms, but later in the day their route led through a tract of country which to Gilbert seemed desolate in the extreme. Nothing but undulating ridges covered with a yellow grass, growing in large bunches or tussocks; no trees, no houses, and no people to be seen. On they rode for miles through country of this description; only now and again would they see, on the top of some range, or in one of the gullies, a solitary cabbage tree. It looked more like a palm tree than anything Gilbert had ever seen, except that occasionally they were divided into several stems or branches, but the majority of them had only a straight stem, with a large head of long flag-like leaves, and resembled greatly a huge mop planted firmly in the ground.

It was getting dusk, when Mr. Ramshorn re-page 53marked , "Now we are on Waitaruna; we shall come to the station in about half an hour."

Gilbert was not sorry to hear this, for the unwonted exercise was beginning to tell on him severely. Presently the road, which had been keeping to the high ground, and winding round the heads of gullies in a sinuous course, began to descend. At the foot of the descent they came upon some cattle feeding. "Hullo! what have we here?" said Mr. Ramshorn, dismounting and stooping down so as to bring the outline of the animals against the sky. "Redman and Blackbird," said he, "and the rest of you, I wonder why you are over this way to-night."

"You don't mean to say, Mr. Ramshorn, that you have names for the cattle on the station, and can tell them in the dark."

A loud peal of laughter was the reply.

"That's about as green a remark as I've heard for a long time. Why, we would exhaust all the dictionary if we were to name all our cattle, and would never be done christening them. That's the team of working bullocks we have just passed; we have names for them, as you'll know when you come to try your hand at punching them. Yonder's the light at last."

Mid a barking of dogs, they alighted at the stables.

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"We have to be our own grooms here," said Mr. Ramshorn, putting up his horse himself; but as Gilbert was unaccustomed to the task, he called one of the men to his aid. One of the shepherds came in answer to the summons.

"Pless me, an' it's Mr. Ramshorn herself," said he.

"Yes, Dougal, it's me. Will you take off that gentleman's saddle for him?"

"Ou yes. An' what is the news in Du-nedin?"

"Nothing much, Dougal; but I've brought some newspapers that will keep you reading for some time. How have you been getting on since I left?"

"Ou, fery well at all," replied Dougal M'Lean, who was still more at home in the Gaelic tongue than in what he was pleased to think "fery goot English."

On reaching the house, they found that intelligence of their arrival had preceded them, and that Mrs. M'Lean, who acted as housekeeper, had already got the tea-table laid, on which she placed an immense dish of chops, and a large tin teapot capable of holding at least a gallon. Gilbert thought he had never been so hungry before, and, tired though he was, he did ample justice to the viands, even though he found the style a little rough. He was surprised to see no milk, and only salt butter on the table, for he supposed that a station would page 55have overflowed with dairy produce, and he remarked this to Mr. Ramshorn, who replied—

"Oh no, we never trouble with milking cows; it's too much bother getting them in, and we generally do without."

After the meal was over, they turned their chairs round to the fire, but Langton was very soon nodding as he sat, so he was fain to ask Mr. Ramshorn where he was to sleep, and to retire at once. But he was surprised again, though he said nothing, when Mr. Ramshorn, taking up a candle, opened the front door and said, "Come along, and I'll show you your quarters."

Mr. Ramshorn led him to the end of the verandah, which extended along the front of the house, and then pointed out to him a step-ladder which stood against the gable. "You'll have to roost aloft, you see. I expect you'll find everything right up there; but if you should want anything you can call down to me, for I sleep just below you. Goodnight."

Gilbert thought that this was the queerest arrangement he had ever heard of, giving him a loft to sleep in. But as he had always declared he was prepared to rough it, he concluded it would not do to grumble; so, taking the candle from the manager, he climbed the ladder, at the top of which he found a door, the upper half whereof was glazed. Open-page 56ing this, he stepped into the room which was to be his peculiar sanctum for some years at least. The room was like an inverted letter V, as, except in each end, walls it had none, and Gilbert soon discovered that though he could march from one end to the other with his head erect, he could not diverge much from the straight line without coming into contact with the sloping ceiling, which was papered with newspapers, chiefly illustrated ones. The loft was not such a bad little room otherwise, however; for, though plain, it was beautifully clean. The end of the room opposite the door was occupied by a small, brass-bound, travelling chest of drawers; a plain wooden washstand stood at one side, and opposite it was a fixed wooden bedstead. The floor was bare, except a skin rug in front of the bed; a chair, and a small looking-glass, hung on the wall over the drawers, completed the furniture. The homemade station candle hardly gave light enough to display all this to the sleepy eyes of Langton, but he saw enough to be satisfied with his quarters, though the entrance was not of the best.

The sun was streaming into his room when Gilbert awoke next day. Although he had slept in strange beds lately, he could not for the moment remember where he was, and then he lay and looked at the pictures on the wall overhead till he dozed off again into a second sleep, from which he was page 57aroused by hearing a murmur of voices below. He looked at his watch and discovered that it was nearly ten o'clock. He sprang out of bed, at least he attempted to do so, but his long ride of the previous day had considerably lessened his agility. So soon as he was stirring, he heard Mr. Ramshorn's cheery voice calling up to him—

"Now then, young man, these are not station hours; hurry up, and come down."

"I'll be down immediately," answered Gilbert, at the same time wondering how he was expected to act in the paradoxical manner indicated. "That phrase is almost worthy of my old friend Mike Donovan," thought he.

When Gilbert descended from his exalted regions, he found that Mr. Ramshorn was not alone, but a tall, fair young man was seated by the fire, engaged in cutting up tobacco with which to replenish his short, briar-root pipe. Gilbert was struck with his face, as it seemed to him he should know him; but before he had time to think about it, Ramshorn introduced the stranger to him as Mr. Ewart. Gilbert knew, from what had been told him by Mr. Ramshorn on the way up, that he could not possibly have seen Mr. Ewart before, and concluded that it was one of those chance resemblances to some one he had seen elsewhere that one sometimes encounters.

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The other two had breakfasted some hours before, and had been out to see some sheep while Gilbert was still asleep; but the large teapot was standing by the fire, and Mrs. M'Lean brought in a dish of smoking chops which would have sufficed for any two ordinary men.

"You must feel rather tired after your long ride, Mr. Langton. I am sorry I should have been the cause of your being hurried on," remarked Mr. Ewart.

"Oh! don't mention it," said Gilbert, "for I suppose I'll have to get accustomed to long rides, and I may as well do so sooner as later. I must own to feeling somewhat stiff, and I can't lift my left arm to my head, as it pains me."

"Then I'd advise you not to do it," said Ramshorn, laughing.

"Come, come, Ramshorn, it's all very well for a case-hardened individual like you to laugh, but every one is not built of the same material as you are," broke in Ewart. Then turning to Gilbert he added, "You'll find Ramshorn the most unsympathetic of mortals, but you must not mind that, for he does not mean all he says, and he dearly likes to chaff any one. If your arm is so sore as all that, you must have been holding your reins too stiffly, and perhaps the animal you rode was a puller, but you'll soon get used to that sort of thing."

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"Well, you had better give your arms a little mild exercise in disposing of these chops, for Ewart and I will be thinking of dinner presently," said Ramshorn.

While Gilbert is busy breakfasting, we may take a hurried glance round the room. It is a small room, with a low ceiling formed by the lower side of the floor of the room above, intersected at intervals by the rafters. The ceiling has at one time been varnished, but wood smoke has dimmed its brightness and darkened its colour. The walls are covered with a light-coloured paper of a small pattern, which helps in some measure to atone for the dinginess of the ceiling; but they are unbroken by picture or ornament, save over the mantelpiece, where two pairs of spurs, a couple of stock-whip handles, and three riding-whips have been disposed so as to form a rude sort of trophy. The furniture of the room is of the plainest description, and comprises, besides the table at which Gilbert is seated, only a few American cane-bottomed chairs, a wooden couch, known as a colonial sofa, which stands across the window, and two easy-chairs with well-worn cushions by the fire. In the corner, by the fireplace, over a small table covered with newspapers heaped together untidily, a few shelves of plain wood, evidently the handiwork of Mr. Ramshorn himself or some other amateur, have been fixed, and on these are placed page 60the library of the station, and not a very extensive one either, but most of the books give evidence of having been read and re-read more than once. The most conspicuous ornament on the mantelpiece is a tobacco-cutter, ingeniously manufactured out of one blade of a pair of sheep-shears. The window looks out upon the verandah, on which the door also opens, without any intervening porch or hall. A door opposite this gives immediate access to the kitchen, and two other doors communicate respectively with Mr. Ramshorn's bedroom and that reserved for strangers. The architect had evidently looked upon passages as luxuries which might very easily be dispensed with.

While Gilbert was breakfasting the other two sat chatting by the fireside. Mr. Ramshorn was retailing all the little scraps of news he had picked up in town for the benefit of his visitor. Amongst other topics mentioned was the career of Percy Brown, which he characterised as being the "shortest flutter he had ever heard of."

"By the way, Langton," he said, "was he not a fellow-passenger of yours by the Netherby?"

Gilbert replied in the affirmative, and gave some account of Brown's conduct on board ship.

"There's another fellow-passenger of yours, Mr. Langton, on Lambton's station, if you came by the Netherby. I think his name is Leslie, or something page 61like that. I only heard Lambton speak of him incidentally when I stopped there last night."

"Why, that must be Arthur Leslie. I must go and see him sometime. Is Lambton's far off?"

"Oh no, he is your nearest neighbour; his run bounds with you. It's about twelve miles over to Big Creek, isn't it, Ramshorn?"

"Yes; I wish it was half a dozen miles further off, for then it would make a more convenient place to stop at when we were going up your way. When are your people coming up from town, Ewart? I had not time to look them up when I was down, or I should have done so."

"Well," laughed Ewart, "you put things pretty plainly. That's as much as saying that it's no use coming up to Paketoa till they come back. Thank you for the compliment, old man."

"Now that's just like you, Ewart, always taking a man up wrong," said Ramshorn rather testily. "But you've not answered my question."

"I really don't know, old fellow. My sister is getting singing lessons from a master. I don't know how long that is to continue."

"My sister," thought Gilbert to himself. "I know who you are like now, Mr. Ewart. So my unknown beauty is Miss Ewart, and not a very distant neighbour as things go here apparently. That is one good thing. But I wonder what made page 62old Ramshorn get so huffy just now, and so particular about getting his question answered. Surely an old fellow like him can't care for a young girl like Miss Ewart." Gilbert had only seen the young lady once, had never spoken to her, and only supposed she was Miss Ewart, and yet he felt displeased at the idea of Mr. Ramshorn being in love with her.

After a very early dinner of mutton, tea, and bread, which Gilbert soon discovered was the almost unvaried round, the manager and Mr. Ewart set out for the out-station. But as the day had become somewhat cold and raw, and as locomotion was not altogether an unalloyed pleasure to Gilbert in his present circumstances, he remained at home, and, making himself comfortable with one of the well-thumbed novels from the bookshelf, passed the rest of the day by the fireside.