Waitaruna: A Story of New Zealand Life
Chapter VI. — Big Creek
"There be land rats and water rats."
"I had a letter yesterday from my old schoolfellow, Leslie," said Langton one morning at breakfast, some weeks after his arrival at Waitaruna.
"Indeed," replied Ramshorn. "He is the fellow who came out as a stowaway that you were telling me of, is he not?"
"Yes, the same; and he is now cooking at Big Creek, but he seems to be rather tired of that," said Gilbert, "judging from his letter, at least."
"Would you like to take a ride over there to see him? You can do so if you wish; but don't be longer away than a week at the most."
Langton did not take long in making up his mind to avail himself of the leave granted by the manager, and within an hour he was mounted on his mare Blanche, which he had bought from one of the men some time previously, and was ready to start.
"What in the world is all that swag you have page 77in front of you there?" asked Ramshorn, who had come over to the stables to see him off.
"Only a valise with a few things I shall need if I stay away a few days," replied Gilbert. "I could hardly do with less."
"Oh, no, of course not," said the manager; "for though you are not so green as many 'new chums,' you are not sufficiently colonised yet to be satisfied with carrying a tooth-brush and a paper collar as sufficient baggage for a week. I wonder you did not take a portmanteau and a pack-horse while you were about it, but off with you. Good-bye, and take care of yourself."
"Good-bye," replied Gilbert as he cantered away.
The road, or rather track, to Big Creek followed for a short distance that which led to Dunedin, when it struck off from it at right angles, and taking a leading ridge, tended away from the river towards the more mountainous country at the back. The morning was dull and the air was chilly, but the exercise of riding was sufficient to keep one warm. The country through which Gilbert passed at first was tame and uninteresting. When the top of the ridge was reached, the track led along the plateau or tableland for some miles. But although this part of the country bore the appearance of a tableland at first sight, it could perhaps hardly be called by that name, for a closer ac-page 78quaintance revealed the fact that it was cut up in all directions by gullies, separated from one another by rounded ridges, reminding one of a rolling sea, whose gigantic waves had been suddenly solidified. Round the heads of these gullies the rider followed the devious track; and, on one occasion, when he saw the path a little way ahead of him, he took what he thought would prove a short cut, but only to find his further progress barred by a deep gully, which compelled him to retrace his steps, as, though Blanche was a mare with many excellent points, and was indeed a treasure in the eyes of her owner, she did not number the wings of Pegasus among her many excellences. After that Langton did not venture to leave the beaten track; for, though originality may be a desirable quality, there is little room for the successful exercise of it among the Otago ridges. The sides of the gullies were covered with the dark russet of the bracken, while the tops were clothed with the whitish yellow tussock grass which, under the cloudy winter sky, looked duller and whiter than it does when warmed by the sunlight. There was little to attract Gilbert's attention, and as he rode along he indulged in the pleasurable but unprofitable occupation of day-dreaming at building castles in the air. But is day-dreaming an altogether unprofitable occupation? Do we not at times, when we give the reins to our page 79fancy, imagine things higher and better than we can in reality attain? And do we not sometimes make some effort to reduce our dreams to reality, and approach thereby nearer to our ideal? Too often perhaps we dismiss our dreams with a sigh, and turn to thoughts of something more practical; nevertheless, the imagination aids more materially in shaping our ends than many folks are apt to give it credit for. Yet there is no effort made to train or elevate this important element in our complex constitution. The influences brought to bear on the young imagination are often rather calculated to produce a contrary effect. We tell to the listening innocents in the nursery such tales as "Jack the Giant Killer," or picture to them Morgiana scalding to death with boiling oil the unfortunate "forty thieves;" and then in after-years we wonder whence comes the taste for the sensational we see developed.
The day-dreams which on this winter morning visited the brain of Gilbert Langton as he rode along were, if not very elevated, harmless enough; for he thought of the fair-haired girl he had seen in Dunedin, and who he decided must be Ewart's sister. Among the scenes his fancy wove from such materials, was one in which he saw the golden locks shining through a bridal veil, while he was putting a plain gold ring on the fair owner's white finger, with Ramshorn, his groomsman, standing by and page 80looking on approvingly. How far his dream proved a true one or the reverse, time will show.
"By the way," thought Gilbert, rousing himself from his pleasant reverie, "I wonder that Ramshorn has never married; for he is just the sort of man I should have thought would be susceptible to the influence of the fair sex, and he is one who would make any woman a good husband, for though he comes down a little rough on a fellow now and again, yet he has a good large heart of his own. He seems to have a sort of reverence for women too, for I notice he always treats even old Mrs. M'Lean at the station with as much deference and politeness as though she were the highest lady in the land."
The sudden descent of the track he was following into one of the gullies changed the current of Gilbert's thoughts, and as he cantered along the lower ground his exuberance of spirits found vent in song. Before he had gone far the gully joined another and larger glen of a rougher and wilder character than any he had yet seen. A considerable stream ran brawling in a rocky bed, and the range forming the side of the glen, opposite to that from which he had entered, was steep and rugged. Here and there huge masses of rock of fantastic shapes met the eye. The scant vegetation did not suffice to hide the brown earth, and the only thing which redeemed the otherwise barren and desolate appearance of page 81the mountain was the fact that many of the gullies with which its side was furrowed, were filled with a dense growth of manuka scrub. The razor edge of a leading spur nearly opposite the gully whence he had emerged into this wild glen, indicated by its scarred surface the way by which the hill-top was to be reached; so crossing the stream, and dismounting on the other side, Langton scaled the mountain on foot, leading Blanche, who scrambled up after him in a manner that showed it would have been no easy matter either for man or beast had he made the attempt on horseback.
The summit being gained, Gilbert paused before remounting to look down into the valley, which appeared wilder and more picturesque from this point of view than it did from below. "I should not like to come this road after dark," thought he as he rode away; "indeed, I am sure that if I made the attempt I should come to utter grief."
Leaving the hill-top again, the track led down a long, easy ridge towards a wide and grassy valley, whose gently sloping sides with their rounded spurs formed a great contrast to the rugged glen just passed. Throughout his ride Gilbert had seen no signs of life, and even now, when he knew he must be nearing Big Creek, the only living thing in sight was a large hawk sailing slowly along on lazy wing. Soon the distant bark of a dog told of the neighbour-page 82hood of human habitations, and as he rounded a bend on the road the station came into view just below him.
The original owner of Big Creek station seemingly had as little of an eye for the beautiful, in the choice of a site for his house, as he had been influenced by any considerations for euphony in the selection of a name. The house, which was a long, low, one-storied building of clay or "cob," thatched with snow-grass, and having two doors, stood as close as it conveniently could to a spur which ran from the mountain out into the valley, while it resolutely turned away from the somewhat pleasing prospect down the stream, to stare stolidly at a grassy bank a few yards distant.
As Gilbert approached, his arrival was announced by the barking of the dogs, and ere he could dismount the noise had brought the inmates of the house to the door. These comprised two shepherds and Arthur Leslie, who no sooner saw the cause of the canine concert than he rushed towards him, exclaiming, "Why, Gilbert, old man, where in the world did you come from?"
"From Waitaruna," said Gilbert; "but how are you getting on, old fellow? Is cooking ashore more to your mind than it was on shipboard?"
A grimace was Arthur's only reply, but he immediately said, "We were just going to have dinner; page 83so you are just in time, though the grub is too plain for you to tell whether I am improving or not."
After dinner—of which the guest, shepherds, and cook partook in company, and which was served in a style rougher and more uncomfortable than any Langton had yet encountered—the shepherds retired, leaving Langton to assist Leslie to wash up.
"Is not this a miserable outlandish hole for any white man to live in?" asked Leslie, while they were thus occupied. "I am thoroughly sick of it, and intend clearing out very soon. There are golddiggings not far from this, and I think I'll have a try at that sort of thing."
"It is rather an out-of-the-way corner, and judging from the road here, I should say you were not troubled with many visitors; for I don't think any one would come up that steep spur for the sake of coming here, unless they had something special to bring them. The scenery in that gully is worth seeing, but there is nothing on this side of it worth looking at."
"We don't have many visitors, that's true," said Arthur, "except the boss, who comes over now and again to see how things are going on. But we have had several fencers here up till a week ago, and there are some other men coming to put up a new wash, or dip, or something, in a few days. After page 84they are finished I expect I'll have to toddle in any case, or else go down to the other station. Old Lambton has another homestead where he lives, and this is managed by Stewart, the head shepherd. You can get here without coming up 'Old Nick's pinch,' though, but it is a longer way round; and as for scenery, I can show you something much better than you have seen, if what the shepherds say is true, for I have never bothered to go and see it myself. I'll tell you what: I'll give the beggars cold tucker to-morrow, or let them fry their own chops, as they had to do before I came, and we'll start after breakfast on an exploring expedition."
"You seem to be pretty well your own master," said Gilbert.
"I never tried on anything of that sort before," replied Arthur; "but if they don't like it they can only get the boss to sack me, and I should not much care if they did."
After supper that evening, Arthur informed Langton that he was in luck's way, as they had made all their arrangements for having a grand battue that evening, and though the game was only rats he thought that they might expect some fun. It appeared that the store was a small building of cob which stood a little way from the house, and that the rats had scraped a great many holes through page 85the bottom of the wall, by which they gained access after dark. These had all, except one or two, been stopped up for a day or two; and about eight o'clock, when the rats were supposed to be in the full enjoyment of their evening meal, the whole household, including a large cat and a terrier, sallied forth to the attack. Each of the human members of the force was armed with a large cudgel and a lantern. The first strategic move was to stop up from the outside the few holes which had been left open. The entire party then entered the building, shutting the door behind them. The rats could be seen scuttling off in all directions, looking for the holes, and hiding themselves behind bags and boxes. The onslaught was begun by the cat, which, springing from the arms of the man who carried her, caught a large rat by the nape of the neck and quieted him with an impressive squeeze. Quick as lightning she caught another, though still holding on to her first capture, and then, unable to relinquish her prizes or catch more rats, she stood looking as though she would like to effect her escape. The dog did more execution, for he seized rat after rat, and giving them a vicious shake tossed them from him, till in his haste he grabbed a cute old customer by the small of the back instead of the neck, which enabled the brute to turn and fasten on the terrier's muzzle, whereupon he at page 86once gave utterance to a yell of pain. Cries of "Hit him with your stick!" "Mind the dog!" "Pull him off!" at once arose; but though each told the other what to do, no one did anything till Leslie, by a well-directed blow, rendered the rat hors de combat. Towser after this did not seem to see where the fun lay; for, instead of further molesting the rats, he gave expression to his feelings by barking excitedly. Meanwhile the cudgels had not been idle any more than had those who handled them, for what between jumping about to avoid the rats as well as to follow them, the hunters had a pretty lively time of it. In the melée Gilbert came down with a thundering blow on the foot of one of the shepherds, mistaking it for a rat, and though the man wore a thick boot he sprang up as though he had been shot, and addressed Gilbert in language more forcible than polite. The other two laughed so immoderately that Gilbert could hardly repress a grin as he begged the man's pardon, Renwick, for that was his name, was apparently doomed that night, for while he was standing, still somewhat sulky, close to one of the shelves, he was suddenly startled by feeling a rat endeavouring to secrete itself down the back of his neck.
He screamed lustily to the others to take the nasty brute off, which he declared was biting him; and he seemed to be afraid to try to touch it even page 87with his stick. But the others could only look on and laugh, while Renwick, by wriggling about and shaking himself in a most absurd manner, tried to rid himself of the intruder. How long this might have continued there is no saying, had not the animal, finding he had made a mistake in the selection of a haven of safety, jumped back to the shelf again, where his retreat was cut off by a blow from a stick. The whole affair did not last long, and when it was over and they numbered the slain, they found that twenty-seven rats had been accounted for.
When he retired, Gilbert found that the accommodation for the night was very inferior to Waitaruna, but he could easily have slept on a deal board. He lay down thinking of his friends in old England, and how impossible it would be for them to picture his present situation and surroundings; but his head had not been long on his pillow ere all had vanished in the oblivion of refreshing slumber.
Next morning after breakfast, taking what Renwick called a "piece" in their pockets, Gilbert and Leslie started on foot for Waterfall Gully, which the shepherds had spoken of as being worth visiting. For fully two hours they trudged along among the hills without finding the place they were in search of, till they began to think they had missed the way and taken a wrong ridge, but shortly after they page 88saw a few trees rising to view in a gully ahead. From this they knew that they must be right after all, as the Waterfall Gully was the only spot on the whole run where a tree grew. Before they reached the trees they were surprised to see a man apparently at work a little way below them to the right.
"What can he be doing?" asked Gilbert, as they stopped to look at him.
"He is a digger, I expect," replied Arthur. "I know there is gold got on some parts of the run, and I have heard them speak of an old fellow who was digging up this way. He is what they call a 'hatter,' that is, he works alone."
"That's a peculiar term. I wonder what can be the origin of it?"
"I don't know, I'm sure. Oh, I'll tell you. Those men who work alone are, I should think, always more or less cranky, and you know the phrase, 'as mad as a hatter.' So I suppose they came to be styled 'hatters.'"
"Let's go and speak to the old boy. I wonder if he gets much gold there," said Gilbert.
They accordingly descended towards the solitary miner, and on coming up to him availed themselves of that ever-blessed, never-hackneyed topic, the weather, as a means of opening the conversation.
"It is a fine day," said Leslie.
"It micht be waur," replied the miner, hardly page 89looking up from the cradle which he was steadily engaged rocking with one hand, while he baled water into it by means of a dipper with the other.
This was not a very promising beginning; neither of them made any further attempt at conversation, but stood watching him for a few minutes in silence. As he was replacing the hopper of his cradle, after having tossed the gravel from it, Gilbert renewed the attempt to establish communication with the hatter.
"You find this ground pays you, I suppose?" said he.
"Oh! the grund's weel eneuch," was the reply.
"How much do you make a week at this work?" asked Gilbert, nothing daunted.
"Sometimes ae thing, sometimes anither," said the miner.
Arthur now came to the front, and thinking to show his superior knowledge of the subject, said, "How much does this ground give to the dish?"
"It's hard to tell till it's washed up," was the only information he could extract.
"You seem to have been at work here for some time. Is there much more ground which you can work, do you think?" again asked Arthur.
"That remains to be seen," said the hatter.
He was evidently hopeless; but before leaving Gilbert made one more attempt, and asked if some page 90of the gold was not carried away with the sand and water.
"May be there is," was the miner's reply, "but no muckle, I'm thinkin'; for ye see gold's a cunnin' deevil and likes to be quiet, and sae settle's down as soon's he can."
This was more hopeful; but carrying on a conversation under such circumstances was too much like hard work, so they turned away with a parting "so long" by way of good-bye.
"Did you ever see such an old beast?" said Leslie when they were beyond earshot. "I have heard of Scotch caution, but I think that specimen has gone cranky on the subject. Why, the old scoundrel would not even commit himself to an opinion on the weather."
"I'll venture to say that he has not a mate," said Langton, "because he would be afraid to trust any one."
"It certainly was not worth going down the hill to see him, though he is a curiosity in his way," said Arthur as they climbed the ridge again.
On reaching the top of the Waterfall Gully they could not obtain any view, for the trees which grew on the sides of the gully rose high enough to obscure any prospect, except of the top of the opposite hill. Into the bush they went, and found that the trees grew on a well-nigh perpendicular page 91face, down which they scrambled through a thick undergrowth, entwined with bush lawyers and other creepers. Fortunately for their garments, this dense vegetation did not continue any distance; for as they got down the bush became more open and the ground less steep, and when they reached the creek they found a glade of birch trees of considerable size, beneath whose shade there was an entire absence of brushwood.
The noise of the falling water had been in their ears for some time, and from it they knew they had struck the creek a little way below the fall. Gilbert was much impressed with the beauty of the birch trees; but, though he praised them greatly, he could awaken no enthusiasm in his companion, who contented himself with observing that there was a "deal of good fencing in them," and added that he would not like to have to "hump" the posts out of the bush.
The fall proved to be, as they had been told it was, well worth visiting, though in all probability it had not been seen by more than half a dozen persons since first the stream chose its rocky bed. The water came from some unseen source in the hills above, leaping and dashing from rock to rock down to where they stood. The steep sides of the glen were densely clothed, except where a rugged cliff showed its scarred face, with rich deep green page 92leafage, contrasting beautifully with the whiteness of the falling water, and the cold grey masses of the rock; though some of the latter, apparently where they were kept damp by a shower of spray, were covered with lovely mosses of the brightest green. Those of the rocks which retained their natural grey were lightened and relieved by the vegetation which filled each crank and cranny. Here a sapling stunted from the lack of soil, there a cluster of luxuriant ferns. A small fly-catcher would ever and anon dart from the bush, hover a moment over the pool at the foot of the fall, and disappear again, flirting her long white tail with all the airs of a coquette; but save this little bird there was nothing living visible.
Above the ceaseless sound of the ever-flowing, ever-falling water, the mellow notes of the tui could be heard, but the songster himself remained hid in some snug leafy retreat. Gilbert stood gazing in silence at what was indeed a lovely picture, drinking in its beauties with a subdued pleasure and appreciation. He felt as though he could never be satiated with its loveliness; but he found his companion was more easily satisfied, for his reverie was broken in upon by Leslie exclaiming, "I am uncommonly hungry, and vote we grub now."
Thus recalled to himself, Gilbert could not but admit that his appetite had been rendered more page 93than usually keen by their morning's scramble, and he readily seconded Leslie's proposition, which was immediately carried into execution.
After discussing their luncheon and spending some time in climbing about the waterfall, Leslie and Langton started homewards; and choosing a different and, as they thought, easier route to the top than that by which they had descended, commenced to reascend. Before they had climbed far, however, they found that it would have been better to have returned by the way they came, rather than by that which they had selected. For a time there were no difficulties, but when they had reached about half way from the summit the bush gave place to a thick growth of manuka scrub. This scrub of itself would not have proved such a formidable obstacle, had it not, unfortunately for the climbers, been swept by fire a year or two before. The effect of this had been to char and kill all the scrub which had then been growing, and which had since been laid prostrate by the winds, while a vigorous young growth had sprung up through the interlaced branches of their fallen predecessors. Mounting upon a good stout limb of the prostrate scrub, and stepping thence to another and another, Gilbert, who was leading the way, found locomotion a comparatively easy matter, and he called to Arthur, who had not yet emerged from the taller bush—page 94
"Come along, here's a place where we'll get on swimmingly."
If by getting on "swimmingly" Gilbert meant using both hands and feet, and that vigorously, he found that his metaphorical expression was fully realised. If, however, as is more probably the case, he intended to indicate that they would be able to get over the ground rapidly and easily, he was doomed to disappointment, for he had not taken many steps further when a treacherous bough snapped beneath his feet, and he was precipitated headlong into a bed of broken branches. To make matters worse, a bush lawyer had twined some of its long straggling prickly limbs through the scrub. One of these embraced Langton affectionately round the neck, and it was only after receiving some severe scratches that he was able to disentangle himself from its grasp. When he regained his feet he stood surrounded by the fallen scrub, which lay openly heaped as high nearly as his waist. He tried to get again on the top of this mass, but now the fallen stems would not bear his weight, and he was only able to proceed by crushing and breaking the dead wood before him as he went, an operation which the fresh growth from below greatly retarded. Leslie's shouts told that he too was in the same predicament. After some hard climbing and struggling, Gilbert managed again to reach the surface of the floor of page 95branches, only to fall through once more a little higher up. He thought of returning, and trying to find a place clear of scrub, but he found that going down-hill was almost worse than ascending, and, judging from the distance they had climbed in all, he concluded they must be near the top. By dint of no little exertion, and after many falls, they managed to get clear of the scrub at last; but both were pretty well exhausted, scratched, bruised, and torn.
"I could not imagine anything worse than that to come through," said Gilbert as they lay resting awhile on the grass above.
"I could, though," said Arthur, "and that would be that same place, just after the fire had been through it."
"I don't think that would be so bad," replied Gilbert, "for then you would not have the young scrub or the lawyers."
"That's true; but in place you would have the other scrub all black and grimy, and the ground all dust and ashes, which would rise and choke you."
"Well, I have no wish to test the question by actual experiment," replied Gilbert, rising. "Come, let us move on; it will be dark long before we get home."
It had been dark for some hours when they page 96reached Big Creek. The shepherds had "turned in" for the night, and the fire was nearly out. Luckily there was some cold mutton still left, or they probably would have gone supperless to bed, as they were both so tired, they would have preferred that alternative to cooking anything for themselves.
Arthur Leslie did not venture to take another holiday during Gilbert's stay, and there was little to mark the remainder of his visit to Big Creek.