Going for the Letters, An Australian Story

IT was a bitter cold day in the end of the month of January. The morning had been a very unpleasant one—neither frost nor snow, a sort of compound of rain and sleet; but now the snow was falling fast, and the clear crystals were fast hiding every shrub and plant that had a place in the beautiful flower garden, in front of the drawing-room windows of Arundel Manor, while inside a roaring fire, that made the handsomely-furnished apartment look even more than usually snug and comfortable, was surrounded by a family party consisting of Mrs. St. Clair, the three children, and uncle Godfrey.

It was the “children’s hour,” and his niece was trying to coax a tale out of “dear uncle,” who did not seem much in the humor to comply with her request, when mamma looked up and said, “My dear, do not trouble your uncle so. I am sure, Godfrey, that Lydia must torment you; and if she does, we must send her to the nursery.”

Poor Lydia’s face fell at once. “I am sure I did not mean to tease uncle.”

“Never mind, my pet; I know I promised to tell you a story to-night, and was just thinking what it was to be, when my fit of musing sent memory back many a long day, and revealed a scene distant many a thousand miles. Now that I am  fairly awake, I will show you the picture of my waking dream. So up you jump;” and Lydia, catching hold of his hand, was quickly seated on her uncle’s knee, her usual place at story time, and throwing her arms round his neck, exclaimed,—

“O, you dear old pet!”

“I heard,” began uncle Godfrey, “some boys, who shall be nameless, grumbling this morning at being kept inside, for fear of catching cold on such a raw day, and my thoughts instantly turned to a day similar to this, and how I then prayed to be under the shelter of some friendly roof; and I also thought how thankful every one ought to be who is able to sit at a warm fire, when it freezes hard, or when the snow is covering the earth by inches every hour.

“I dare say you think it fine fun to run over to the lodge and bring the letters from the post-boy; at least I did when as young as you are; but going for letters is not always the pleasantest thing imaginable, as I once nearly found out to my cost.

“If you are all so anxious to hear the contents of letters from your uncle Wilfred, you may fancy how eagerly he and I used to watch for the arrivals of the mails at Sydney, and be sure that one or both of us were certain to be at the office in Kiandra on the day it reached there, and with what delight we read and re-read the letter which never failed to make its appearance monthly to one or other of us.

“Our winter fall of snow generally began about the 12th of May, and from that date till the month of October it was a matter of no small difficulty to get our letters at the place where we lived, a long nine miles from Kiandra of a very mountainous track.

“186- was an extraordinary season. May passed, no snow—June the same, only heavy, I may say, nearly constant showers of rain. ‘A glorious year,’ the diggers called it. ‘Never such a season for work since the diggings broke out. Two months’ work at a time when there is never any water. O, what a wash-up there will be in November!’

“Such was the substance of the conversation when any two of the residents met, varied, perhaps, by remarks as to whether old So-and-so, who had been twenty years in the district, would be right in saying there was to be nine feet of snow, or whether So-and-so was a better judge in saying we were to have none at all?

“I was then living by myself, Wilfred being away in Sydney, and was looking out for him every day, and hoping he might be back before the winter fairly set in, when it was scarcely possible to travel. As I said before, June had passed, and we were getting well into July, when I heard that our English mail would be in Kiandra on the following Wednesday. It was now Friday.

“We had got a fine week for work, raining gently all the time, which is what we diggers like, and no frost, which dries up the water, and makes us all idle, when on Sunday the weather completely changed, and very suddenly, too, as, indeed, it always did there. The wind, which had been from north or east, without any warning chopped right round to the south-west, and we had a strong frost. Next day was cloudy, but at night frost was harder than ever, and everything with liquid in it, even to the tea-pot in a room where there was a fire nearly all night, was full of solid ice.

“The thermometer was down to 18° below zero in the same place; and in bed, in the next room, with four pairs of new blankets, I thought I should have been fairly frozen. We were hard at work all that day, which was a drizzly, snowy one, everything betokening a fall of snow; so, when Wednesday dawned, though not so  deep as I expected, I was not surprised to find more than a foot of it all over.

“Down the country the floods had been dreadful; nearly all the bridges had been washed away, and the roads turned into bogs, so that our mails came in very irregularly, sometimes ten days behind time. You may therefore imagine I was in a great worry to hear from Wilfred, my last letter being a month old, as well as anxious for home news. So I donned my oil-skin over my blanket-coat, put on my thigh gum-boots, tied my comforter round my neck and up over my ears, and pulling my south-wester on, prepared to face the weather.

“I found the walk into town, though very heavy, not so bad as I expected, and arrived safely, without any mishaps, but rather tired and uncomfortably moist, it being a sort of drizzle all the way; but a letter from Wilfred, saying he would not leave for some time, and so would not be caught in this storm, and the perusal of a kind one from ‘the old country’ soon made me forget my discomfort, and I spent a pleasant evening at a friend’s.

“At bed-time it was a beautiful starry night; but I did not altogether fancy it. There was a kind of half soft feel through the frost, that sounded to me like a change, and the thought of the morrow’s walk was not a pleasant one; but there was no use forestalling what might never be. So to bed and to sleep; but ere my eyes were well closed, the wind began to whistle round the corner of the house, and—hallo—what’s that! Big drops of rain, and lumps of earth and gravel, were pelting the panes of glass.

“A few minutes there was a lull—a dead silence—when flash! crash!—the room was in a blaze of light, and at the same instant the thunder made the very bed shake again, and also made my heart rise to my mouth. Listening earnestly for some time, and no further disturbances occurring, I began, after thanking a kind Providence for his protection, to think over the matter, and came to the conclusion that at last we were in for a downright fall, this being the third time that, to my knowledge, such had been preceded by a single clap of thunder.

“Next day the snow came down in earnest; and as it was drifting in every direction, I took the advice of my friends, and quietly stopped where I was. Large, feathery flakes fell unceasingly all the afternoon, and by night there was fully two feet in the town; but as it looked a little better on Friday afternoon, and my dog, cat, and fowls could get nothing to eat until my return, I determined to make a start, though against the opinions of most of the town’s people.

“When I left Kiandra there was a dense fog, which shortly changed, first to a light, and then to a heavy snow; and by the time I dragged myself the mile to the top of the mountain, it was coming down, and no mistake!

“It was impossible to see one yard in any direction, and my legs were already beginning to talk; but it was too late to think of turning. I had had only to fight through one extra deep drift as yet, and knew the road hitherto well; but now I had to turn off from where the track lay hid, and had not gone far when my difficulties fairly began, and I was quickly ploughing my way through some five or six feet of snow.

“Half an hour’s hard work found me clear of that, and for a couple of miles everything went swimmingly. The snow was here firm enough to bear my weight, although now and again, bump! down I went through the crust, nearly jerking my joints out. The nearer home the deeper got the snow, and, of course, so much the more tired I felt. The main creek to be crossed was hidden entirely; and as its exact whereabouts was not very easily  guessed at, you may depend it was not a pleasant sensation to plump down and find myself up to the neck. Luckily, the water was no depth, and as my boots were tight and long, a hard scramble pulled me out of my first trouble.

“A short rest, and I was again on my way; but it took me a good many hours to get the next three or four miles, even though I met no more serious difficulty than some very heavy drifts. I was getting very tired, and hungry, too, and you may fancy it was no joke wading the snow, never less than two feet, lucky if not going past the knees at every step; but at last I was in a mess, and how to get out of it I knew not. The look of the country, when a lull gave me the chance of seeing, showed I was off my road; and when I felt I was lost, my thoughts were anything but satisfactory.

“I knew not which way to turn, so sat down to think it over, and was looking around as well as the drifting snow would permit, when coming along my tracks was a large yellow dog. My heart gave a bound of delight, and jumping up, I let a ‘cooey,’ to tell its master that some one was in the same predicament, as I doubted not he was.

“Slowly a minute or two passed, but no reply to my communication. Alas! all was silence, and I then saw, by its pointed ears and bushy tail, that it was a dingo, or native dog, which was running my footsteps. It was no use sitting where I was. So on I started in the direction I fancied, every minute feeling more and more fagged, and when at last darkness set in, was almost inclined to give up.

“My yellow friend followed me for some time at a respectful distance; and though the dingo is a sneaking coward, still, had sleep overpowered me, he might have been tempted to try how I tasted, as he must have been hungry to come so close to me as he did. So, although I never had any fear of such an event actually occurring, I was not at all sorry when he trotted off, his tail, as usual, between his legs, to join some of his companions, whose unearthly howls he heard at no great distance; there must have been five or six.

“I felt really glad they came no nearer, as a mob of them are very daring; and I have known them, when well starved for a week or two, kill calves, and even colts, when the mothers were weak and could not fight for them. But it was not very long before I found that they were not after me, as I nearly stumbled against a mare and colt belonging to myself, that were standing under a tree, and whinnied as I spoke. We had sent all our horses away two months ago but this one, as she could not be found, and we thought she was dead. The poor thing could not have tasted food for days; but what could I do but pity the pair, and feel that their end was to be food for the warregals (native dogs).

“As I had now been walking seven or eight hours, and hard at it all the time, I could see nothing for it but to yield to necessity, as sleep was fast overpowering me, when I distinctly heard the bark of a dog, which I felt confident was my old watch, ‘Jack.’ My spirits rose at once, and again I was alive, and pushed in the direction of the welcome sound.

“At the same time I caught a glimpse of a cluster of trees, whose peculiar shape I had often remarked, which told me where I was; and this fact was also quickly proved by my plunging into an old prospecting hole—the only one in the neighborhood. It was about six feet deep, and full of snow and water. I thought I was lost, as the frozen slush went down my back, and that I, who had been picked out of the Canton River, in a dark night,  when the tide ran six knots an hour, was fated to be drowned in a filthy pot-hole.

“But, luckily, such was not my lot on the present occasion, as, after many a failure, I managed to pull myself out, my boots full of water, and my whole body nearly numb from the cold. Luckily, the house was only half a mile off.

“I reached it in safety, and just in time, as my feet were all but frost-bitten, when I should have been fortunate to lose only a few of my toes, as I knew a man here who had both legs cut off in consequence of a severe frost-bite.

“As it was, I was a sorry figure; my clothes were like a board, my socks were in a similar state, while icicles hung in festoons from my hair and beard. But, when at last I managed to open the door, and get a light, one or two rough towels, and some ten minutes’ hard rubbing, soon put a glow of heat over my whole body; and by the time I turned into bed, after a cup of scalding hot coffee (I was too hungry to eat), my misfortunes were forgotten, and all I felt was thankfulness for having reached my house, which seems to me, even now, to have been a very doubtful matter, had ‘Jack’ not barked when he did.

“See how many things turned out all for my good—the mare and the colt in the snow, the dingo running after her through hunger, and my dog barking at it, showed me where my house was, when I was fairly lost, and thus saved my life, and enabled me to spin you this yarn, which I must now finish by saying that since that time I am always glad to have a warm house to shelter me in such weather as this, and cannot help thinking that if any boys had ever been placed in my predicament, they would only be too thankful to remain inside on such a day as this, without requiring their mother to order them to do so.”

“But what about the poor mare? Did she die? and did the wild dogs eat the colt?”

“O, I almost forgot to tell you that, to my astonishment, in two or three days, when the snow hardened a bit, the pair found their way home, and I, after a deal of trouble, got them to the banks of the Tumut River, which, although only a couple of miles away, was so many hundred feet lower, that they could paw away the snow, and so got grass enough to live till spring when they soon got fat. The little colt I named ‘Snowdrop,’ and when she was old enough, broke her in; and many a good gallop we had over the place where she and her mother neighed to me on that dark and dismal night.”