A First Year in Canterbury Settlement, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 6

Hut — Cadets — Openings for Emigrants without Capital — For those who bring Money — Drunkenness — Introductions — The Rakaia — Valley leading to the Rangitata — Snow-grass and Spaniard — Solitude — Rain and Flood — Cat — Irishman — Discomforts of Hut — Gradual Improvement — Value of Cat.

I am now going to put up a V hut on the country that I took up on the Rangitata, meaning to hibernate there in order to see what the place is like. I shall also build a more permanent hut there, for I must have someone with me, and we may as well be doing something as nothing. I have hopes of being able to purchase some good country in the immediate vicinity. There is a piece on which I have my eye, and which adjoins that I have already. There can be, I imagine, no doubt that this is excellent sheep country; still, I should like to see it in winter.

June, 1860. — The V hut is a fait accompli, if so small an undertaking can be spoken of in so dignified a manner. It consists of a small roof set upon the ground; it is a hut, all roof and no walls. I was very clumsy, and so, in good truth, was my man. Still, at last, by dint of perseverance, we have made it wind and water tight. It was a job that should have taken us about a couple of days to have done in first-rate style; as it was, I am not going to tell you how long it did take. I must certainly send the man to the right-about, but the difficulty is to get another, for the aforesaid hut is five-and-twenty miles (at the very least) from any human habitation, so that you may imagine men do not abound. I had two cadets with me, and must explain that a cadet means a young fellow who has lately come out, and who wants to see a little of up-country life. He is neither paid nor pays. He receives his food and lodging gratis, but works (or is supposed to work) in order to learn. The two who accompanied me both left me in a very short time. I have nothing to say against either of them; both did their best, and I am much obliged to them for what they did, but a very few days’ experience showed me that the system is a bad one for all the parties concerned in it. The cadet soon gets tired of working for nothing; and, as he is not paid, it is difficult to come down upon him. If he is good for anything, he is worth pay, as well as board and lodging. If not worth more than these last, he is simply a nuisance, for he sets a bad example, which cannot be checked otherwise than by dismissal; and it is not an easy or pleasant matter to dismiss one whose relation is rather that of your friend than your servant. The position is a false one, and the blame of its failure lies with the person who takes the cadet, for either he is getting an advantage without giving its due equivalent, or he is keeping a useless man about his place, to the equal detriment both of the man and of himself. It may be said that the advantage offered to the cadet, in allowing him an insight into colonial life, is a bona-fide payment for what work he may do. This is not the case; for where labour is so very valuable, a good man is in such high demand that he may find well-paid employment directly. When a man takes a cadet’s billet it is a tolerably sure symptom that he means half-and-half work, in which case he is much worse than useless. There is, however, another alternative which is a very different matter. Let a man pay not only for his board and lodging, but a good premium likewise, for the insight that he obtains into up-country life, then he is at liberty to work or not as he chooses; the station-hands cannot look down upon him, as they do upon the other cadet, neither, if he chooses to do nothing (which is far less likely if he is on this footing than on the other), is his example pernicious — it is well understood that he pays for the privilege of idleness, and has a perfect right to use it if he sees fit. I need not say that this last arrangement is only calculated for those who come out with money; those who have none should look out for the first employment which they feel themselves calculated for, and go in for it at once.

You may ask, What is the opening here for young men of good birth and breeding, who have nothing but health and strength and energy for their capital? I would answer, Nothing very brilliant, still, they may be pretty sure of getting a shepherd’s billet somewhere up-country, if they are known to be trustworthy. If they sustain this character, they will soon make friends, and find no great difficulty, after the lapse of a year or two, in getting an overseer’s place, with from 100 to 200 pounds a year, and their board and lodging. They will find plenty of good investments for the small sums which they may be able to lay by, and if they are bona-fide smart men, some situation is quite sure to turn up by and by in which they may better themselves. In fact, they are quite sure to do well in time; but time is necessary here, as well as in other places. True, less time may do here, and true also that there are more openings; but it may be questioned whether good, safe, ready-witted men will not fetch nearly as high a price in England as in any part of the world. So that if a young and friendless lad lands here and makes his way and does well, the chances are that he would have done well also had he remained at home. If he has money the case is entirely changed; he can invest it far more profitably here than in England. Any merchant will give him 10 per cent. for it. Money is not to be had for less, go where you will for it; and if obtained from a merchant, his 2.5 per cent. commission, repeated at intervals of six months, makes a nominal 10 per cent. into 15. I mention this to show you that, if it pays people to give this exorbitant rate of interest (and the current rate must be one that will pay the borrower), the means of increasing capital in this settlement are great. For young men, however, sons of gentlemen and gentlemen themselves, sheep or cattle are the most obvious and best investment. They can buy and put out upon terms, as I have already described. They can also buy land, and let it with a purchasing clause, by which they can make first-rate interest. Thus, twenty acres cost 40 pounds; this they can let for five years, at 5s. an acre, the lessee being allowed to purchase the land at 5 pounds an acre in five years’ time, which, the chances are, he will be both able and willing to do. Beyond sheep, cattle, and land, there are few if any investments here for gentlemen who come out with little practical experience in any business or profession, but others would turn up with time.

What I have written above refers to good men. There are many such who find the conventionalities of English life distasteful to them, who want to breathe a freer atmosphere, and yet have no unsteadiness of character or purpose to prevent them from doing well — men whose health and strength and good sense are more fully developed than delicately organised — who find head-work irksome and distressing, but who would be ready to do a good hard day’s work at some physically laborious employment. If they are in earnest, they are certain to do well; if not, they had better be idle at home than here. Idle men in this country are pretty sure to take to drinking. Whether men are rich or poor, there seems to be far greater tendency towards drink here than at home; and sheep farmers, as soon as they get things pretty straight and can afford to leave off working themselves, are apt to turn drunkards, unless they have a taste for intellectual employments. They find time hang heavy on their hands, and, unknown almost to themselves, fall into the practice of drinking, till it becomes a habit. I am no teetotaller, and do not want to moralise unnecessarily; still it is impossible, after a few months’ residence in the settlement, not to be struck with the facts I have written above.

I should be loth to advise any gentleman to come out here unless he have either money and an average share of good sense, or else a large amount of proper self-respect and strength of purpose. If a young man goes out to friends, on an arrangement definitely settled before he leaves England, he is at any rate certain of employment and of a home upon his landing here; but if he lands friendless, or simply the bearer of a few letters of introduction, obtained from second or third hand — because his cousin knew somebody who had a friend who had married a lady whose nephew was somewhere in New Zealand — he has no very enviable look-out upon his arrival.

A short time after I got up to the Rangitata, I had occasion to go down again to Christ Church, and stayed there one day. On my return, with a companion, we were delayed two days at the Rakaia: a very heavy fresh had come down, so as to render the river impassable even in the punt. The punt can only work upon one stream; but in a heavy fresh the streams are very numerous, and almost all of them impassable for a horse without swimming him, which, in such a river as the Rakaia, is very dangerous work. Sometimes, perhaps half a dozen times in a year, the river is what is called bank and bank; that is to say, one mass of water from one side to the other. It is frightfully rapid, and as thick as pea soup. The river-bed is not far short of a mile in breadth, so you may judge of the immense volume of water that comes down it at these times. It is seldom more than three days impassable in the punt. On the third day they commenced crossing in the punt, behind which we swam out horses; since then the clouds had hung unceasingly upon the mountain ranges, and though much of what had fallen would, on the back ranges, be in all probability snow, we could not doubt but that the Rangitata would afford us some trouble, nor were we even certain about the Ashburton, a river which, though partly glacier-fed, is generally easily crossed anywhere. We found the Ashburton high, but lower than it had been; in one or two of the eleven crossing-places between our afternoon and evening resting-places we were wet up to the saddle-flaps — still we were able to proceed without any real difficulty. That night it snowed, and the next morning we started amid a heavy rain, being anxious, if possible, to make my own place that night.

Soon after we started the rain ceased, and the clouds slowly uplifted themselves from the mountain sides. We were riding through the valley that leads from the Ashburton to the upper valley of the Rangitata, and kept on the right-hand side of it. It is a long, open valley, the bottom of which consists of a large swamp, from which rise terrace after terrace up the mountains on either side; the country is, as it were, crumpled up in an extraordinary manner, so that it is full of small ponds or lagoons — sometimes dry, sometimes merely swampy, now as full of water as they could be. The number of these is great; they do not, however, attract the eye, being hidden by the hillocks with which each is more or less surrounded; they vary in extent from a few square feet or yards to perhaps an acre or two, while one or two attain the dimensions of a considerable lake. There is no timber in this valley, and accordingly the scenery, though on a large scale, is neither impressive nor pleasing; the mountains are large swelling hummocks, grassed up to the summit, and though steeply declivitous, entirely destitute of precipice. Truly it is rather a dismal place on a dark day, and somewhat like the world’s end which the young prince travelled to in the story of “Cherry, or the Frog Bride.” The grass is coarse and cold-looking — great tufts of what is called snow-grass, and spaniard. The first of these grows in a clump sometimes five or six feet in diameter and four or five feet high; sheep and cattle pick at it when they are hungry, but seldom touch it while they can get anything else. Its seed is like that of oats. It is an unhappy-looking grass, if grass it be. Spaniard, which I have mentioned before, is simply detestable; it has a strong smell, half turpentine half celery. It is sometimes called spear-grass, and grows to about the size of a mole-hill, all over the back country everywhere, as thick as mole-hills in a very mole-hilly field at home. Its blossoms, which are green, insignificant, and ugly, are attached to a high spike bristling with spears pointed every way and very acutely; each leaf terminates in a strong spear, and so firm is it, that if you come within its reach, no amount of clothing about the legs will prevent you from feeling its effects. I have had my legs marked all over by it. Horses hate the spaniard — and no wonder. In the back country, when travelling without a track, it is impossible to keep your horse from yawing about this way and that to dodge it, and if he encounters three or four of them growing together, he will jump over them or do anything rather than walk through. A kind of white wax, which burns with very great brilliancy, exudes from the leaf. There are two ways in which spaniard may be converted to some little use. The first is in kindling a fire to burn a run: a dead flower-stalk serves as a torch, and you can touch tussock after tussock literally [Greek text which cannot be reproduced] lighting them at right angles to the wind. The second is purely prospective; it will be very valuable for planting on the tops of walls to serve instead of broken bottles: not a cat would attempt a wall so defended.

Snow-grass, tussock grass, spaniard, rushes, swamps, lagoons, terraces, meaningless rises and indentations of the ground, and two great brown grassy mountains on either side, are the principal and uninteresting objects in the valley through which we were riding. I despair of giving you an impression of the real thing. It is so hard for an Englishman to divest himself, not only of hedges and ditches, and cuttings and bridges, but of all signs of human existence whatsoever, that unless you were to travel in similar country yourself you would never understand it.

After about ten miles we turned a corner and looked down upon the upper valley of the Rangitata — very grand, very gloomy, and very desolate. The river-bed, about a mile and a half broad, was now conveying a very large amount of water to sea.

Some think that the source of the river lies many miles higher, and that it works its way yet far back into the mountains; but as we looked up the river-bed we saw two large and gloomy gorges, at the end of each of which were huge glaciers, distinctly visible to the naked eye, but through the telescope resolvable into tumbled masses of blue ice, exact counterparts of the Swiss and Italian glaciers. These are quite sufficient to account for the volume of water in the Rangitata, without going any farther.

The river had been high for many days; so high that a party of men, who were taking a dray over to a run which was then being just started on the other side (and which is now mine), had been detained camping out for ten days, and were delayed for ten days more before the dray could cross. We spent a few minutes with these men, among whom was a youth whom I had brought away from home with me, when I was starting down for Christ Church, in order that he might get some beef from P-‘s and take it back again. The river had come down the evening on which we had crossed it, and so he had been unable to get the beef and himself home again.

We all wanted to get back, for home, though home be only a V hut, is worth pushing for; a little thing will induce a man to leave it, but if he is near his journey’s end he will go through most places to reach it again. So we determined on going on, and after great difficulty and many turnings up one stream and down another we succeeded in getting safely over. We were wet well over the knee, but just avoided swimming. I got into one quicksand, of which the river is full, and had to jump off my mare, but this was quite near the bank.

I had a cat on the pommel of my saddle, for the rats used to come and take the meat from off our very plates by our side. She got a sousing when the mare was in the quicksand, but I heard her purring not very long after, and was comforted. Of course she was in a bag. I do not know how it is, but men here are much fonder of cats than they are at home.

After we had crossed the river, there were many troublesome creeks yet to go through — sluggish and swampy, with bad places for getting in and out at; these, however, were as nothing in comparison with the river itself, which we all had feared more than we cared to say, and which, in good truth, was not altogether unworthy of fear.

By and by we turned up the shingly river-bed which leads to the spot on which my hut is built. The river is called Forest Creek, and, though usually nothing but a large brook, it was now high, and unpleasant from its rapidity and the large boulders over which it flows. Little by little, night and heavy rain came on, and right glad were we when we saw the twinkling light on the terrace where the hut was, and were thus assured that the Irishman, who had been left alone and without meat for the last ten days, was still in the land of the living. Two or three coo-eys soon made him aware that we were coming, and I believe he was almost as pleased to see us as Robinson Crusoe was to see the Spaniard who was brought over by the cannibals to be killed and eaten. What the old Irishman had been about during our absence I cannot say. He could not have spent much time in eating, for there was wonderfully little besides flour, tea, and sugar for him to eat. There was no grog upon the establishment, so he could not have been drinking. He had distinctly seen my ghost two nights before. I had been coherently drowned in the Rangitata; and when he heard us coo-eying he was almost certain that it was the ghost again.

I had left the V hut warm and comfortable, and on my return found it very different. I fear we had not put enough thatch upon it, and the ten days’ rain had proved too much for it. It was now neither air-tight nor water-tight; the floor, or rather the ground, was soaked and soppy with mud; the nice warm snow-grass on which I had lain so comfortably the night before I left, was muddy and wet; altogether, there being no fire inside, the place was as revolting-looking an affair as one would wish to see: coming wet and cold off a journey, we had hoped for better things. There was nothing for it but to make the best of it, so we had tea, and fried some of the beef — the smell of which was anything but agreeable, for it had been lying ten days on the ground on the other side the Rangitata, and was, to say the least, somewhat high — and then we sat in our great-coats on four stones round the fire, and smoked; then I baked, and one of the cadets washed up; and then we arranged our blankets as best we could, and were soon asleep, alike unconscious of the dripping rain, which came through the roof of the hut, and of the cold, raw atmosphere which was insinuating itself through the numerous crevices of the thatch.

I had brought up a tin kettle with me. This was a great comfort and acquisition, for before we had nothing larger than pint pannikins to fetch up water in from the creek; this was all very well by daylight, but in the dark the hundred yards from the hut to the creek were no easy travelling with a pannikin in each hand. The ground was very stony, and covered with burnt Irishman scrub, against which (the Irishman being black and charred, and consequently invisible in the dark) I was continually stumbling and spilling half the water. There was a terrace, too, so that we seldom arrived with much more than half a pannikin, and the kettle was an immense step in advance. The Irishman called it very “beneficial,” as he called everything that pleased him. He was a great character: he used to “destroy” his food, not eat it. If I asked him to have any more bread or meat, he would say, with perfect seriousness, that he had “destroyed enough this time.” He had many other quaint expressions of this sort, but they did not serve to make the hut water-tight, and I was half regretfully obliged to send him away a short time afterwards.

The winter’s experience satisfied me that the country that H— and I had found would not do for sheep, unless worked in connection with more that was clear of snow throughout the year. As soon, therefore, as I was convinced that the adjacent country was safe, I bought it, and settled upon it in good earnest, abandoning the V hut. I did so with some regret, for we had good fare enough in it, and I rather liked it; we had only stones for seats, but we made splendid fires, and got fresh and clean snow-grass to lie on, and dried the floor with wood-ashes. Then we confined the snow-grass within certain limits by means of a couple of poles laid upon the ground and fixed into their places with pegs; then we put up several slings to hang our saddle-bags, tea, sugar, salt, bundles, etc.; then we made a horse for the saddles — four riding-saddles and a pack-saddle — and underneath this went our tools at one end and our culinary utensils, limited but very effective, at the other. Having made it neat we kept it so, and of a night it wore an aspect of comfort quite domestic, even to the cat, which would come in through a hole left in the thatched door for her especial benefit, and purr a regular hurricane. We blessed her both by day and by night, for we saw no rats after she came; and great excitement prevailed when, three weeks after her arrival, she added a litter of kittens to our establishment.

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