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Check to Your King

Chapter Seventeen — Sister Anne, Sister Anne…

Chapter Seventeen
Sister Anne, Sister Anne

Lieutenant Smart is gone through the Long Bush. At Russell, Governor Hobson is holding out against the land filibusters, at the cost of popularity, patience, and life itself. The Land Commission is the only subject discussed among the settlers, though men of discernment might find something to interest them in the temper of the Maoris. Chiefs from northern and coastal districts drift through the Hokianga. They have never set eyes on the Treaty of Waitangi, they treat Queen Victoria's sovereignty as a false rumour. “Stir-about, stir-about, have you too eaten the White Queen's stir-about?”

The tohungas of the north are speaking in prophecy. To come upon them at their rites is death. The tohunga teaches in the way page 158 praised by Plato, that of direct discipleship. His disciple sits at his feet in the smoke of the wood-fire, hearing by word of mouth what a nation with no written language has kept intact for centuries. He sees the old man with foam on his lips, in the time of the darkened moon, when the dead cry through him with their reedy voices, or call in jest from the thatched roof of the whare. He handles the genealogical trees, scored pieces of whalebone. He watches the bathing of the dead, whose flesh has rotted from their bones before they are taken from the tapu place, washed carefully thrice with oils, and then decked for the last time in the splendour of plumes, greenstone ornaments, and feathered cloak. Over the pa the dead man looks down, and the women cut their flesh with sharp paua shell until blood streams, and wail with voices like dark birds flocking over the moon. When the lament is ended and the tribe feasted, the dead man is taken to the burying-place.

In the south, the island named Te wai Pounamu, the Greenstone Place, where Poutini the Fish-God guards the greenstone ornaments and weapons quarried there, the dead lie in cave-tombs of secret access. In the north, the chief rests in kindlier earth, but where he lies the ground becomes tapu, forbidden.

The dead, who do not lose power in their dying, are angry. Their messages are not sent in peace. Those whose spirits have plunged from Te Reinga, the cliffs of ghosts, down into waters churned to whirlpools of milky thunder, have crept to earth's surface once again, back through the hollow stems of flax and toetoe. The spirit tribes are abroad in the land, and seek for their inheritance.

At Mount Isabel, nothing is sure except that the sons of the house have grown broad-shouldered and tall, and a child with dark hair walks in the forest. Winter stars stand over the house, angry stars, the Sword and Belt glittering as if heaven bent to a crusade, the Cross lifted up in a stream of chilly fire.

“But not my star.” Charles wonders if he will ever again see that star. It was caught low in the branches of Somerset's apple-orchards, when a dim golden-green melted day into twilight, and the west grew slowly transparent, a drowned wood under veils of sea. Hesperus rose there, the star of far-off islands that men seek for ever, moving in sudden freedom over the restless sea of their dreams.

* * * *

May 2nd, of 1840. A native runner hastens to Mount Isabel with news of two French warships anchored at the Bay of Islands. The page 159 Maori bears the invitation of Captain Dumont d'Urville, Commander of the Zélée and the Astrolabe, cordially bidding the Baron de Thierry to call on him at his earliest pleasure.

In his wardrobe, Charles hunts desperately through suits respectable enough when Captain d'Orsay clinked glasses with him in the cabin of the Momus. Ah, thunder of God!… what a position for a Baron! To have nothing; no shirts that have not become distasteful to fashionable men years ago, no hat but one whose beaver brim flaps lamentably over his eyes, no pantaloons that do not bag – hardly a stitch to his back. At the last moment, Margaret Neilsen produces a suit which has certainly retained an air of respectability, but which smells horribly of the camphor-balls in which she has smothered it. Charles fixes her with the glassy eye of despair.

“Would ye rather go to company in holes, then?” she stalks away, looking as vulnerable as an iceberg, and Charles flings up his hands. What a race! He cannot understand how even the English contrived to conquer the Scots, and what, in any case, they expected to get out of it.

I have always had a weakness for Dumont d'Urville, on account of the spot to which he attached his name. The average explorer and his admirers become, one can't help noticing, very ostentatious. Nothing short of the largest snow-peaks and lengthiest lakes will do them, if they don't decide to afflict whole continents and seas with their often unreasonable names. However, d'Urville, one of the first navigators to nose about the New Zealand coastline, and first of all to take his ship through the whirlpools of French Pass, contented himself with an island measuring perhaps twenty-five miles from tip to toe.

D'Urville Island, even today, is the oddest place. From a small town named Picton, which is noted only for a regatta, a special kind of bloater, and the fact that its harbour is allegedly so fine and deep it could accommodate the whole British Navy (but what the devil would the British Navy be doing there?), one sails between the wooded edges of the Marlborough Sounds over a sea of incredible transparency. Fishes designed in outré shape, fishes sapphire, scarlet, silver, lie palpitating on the ocean floor. There is a ridiculous isle where a million starlings live and striped yellow lilies grow; just there, nowhere else on earth. Everywhere the vegetation bordering or island-studding this crystal sea is indigenous, except for a few peach-trees, whose flaky pink scallops blow across their background as if sent scudding by the brush of a Japanese fan-painter.

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Here, at the head of Tory Channel, Charles has recorded the scandalous existence – just before he himself sailed from Sydney – of an old shark who issued his own currency among the whalers and traders; a royal prerogative on which Charles had doubtless fixed his own eye. What happened to this first New Zealand noteissue I do not know. Farther along, there is Endeavour Inlet, with a stone anchor marking where Captain Cook's ship put in.

Then French Pass. The purple-headed mountains, as in the hymn, all scissored out of cardboard. Whirlpools, and funny little baked islands which are ancient Maori burying-grounds. Their rocky soil is so shallow and the confraternity of the dead so large that the corpses, for years, have been buried one on top of the other. What white people live here inhabit ramshackle houses half buried in jasmine and the beautiful clematis, which produces starlike blossoms, white and indigo. The population is so small, everyone has thirteen children to make up for it. Then it doesn't matter when their boats overturn in the whirlpools and they are drowned. I have a recollection of the squealing of innumerable children and pink piglets around these parts. Also there were ruddy strings of onions, very handsome; and the wharfinger, when at 3 a.m. the vessel touched at French Pass, removed from the jetty its only illumination, a tin lanthorn, and employed this for guiding guests to the only hotel, where the bedrooms each possessed half a tallow candle, and there was no supper whatsoever. Again, there was a monstrous spider, which unravelled its legs and leapt from a watercock over the bath, where one had to pump one's bath-water. Great God… is it possible?

Whirlpools, whirlpools… the sun glittering, and d'Urville Island ineffably secure behind its nobody-wants-to-see-me barricade. There are no roads on the island. One has to swarm over huge rocks, like a cat. The wild birds are small, and delicious minstrels. For some reason there are no mice or rats on the island, and this pleases the inhabitants. But the ferrets got there, perhaps by swimming. “Ah, there's those ferrets,” they say, solemnly looking up from behind their periodicals, which are read over driftwood fires, and which are exclusively farming journals, containing pictures of immense rams, bullocks, and castrators.

Why did Captain d'Urville give his name to a little island like this? It was exceptional. He was a good fellow, anyhow, and particularly kind and sympathetic towards Charles.

Remember the bombast of the Paris journals, their portraits of “the Court of the Baron de Thierry”, all sprinkled with flunkeys and fleurs-de-lis?

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There in the door of Bishop Pompallier's dining-room at Russell – where the gentlemen of the Zélée and the Astrolabe were entertaining themslves as the Bishop's guests at dinner – they beheld the King; hands broadened and roughened from odd jobs about the farm; hair grey at the temples; hazel eyes, with that look of nervous anxiety, of mental quarrel, advance and retreat; and, what was worse, reeking of mothballs.

To the eternal credit of these young officers, seeing him dilapidated, they put their generous hearts into lionising him. Charles warms to it. Half an hour, and he is better than a hero. He is a martyr, with an uncommon gift of the gab.

(“I dare say I have long been forgotten by them. But I shall ever remember.”)

Captain d'Urville, with his great leonine head, his flowing brown hair, his shaggy brows, is an impressive figure. It was not only that he bequeathed his name to irrational islands containing neither roads nor rats. There was something about him… a slightly heavy-handed but definite air of command, amounting to stateliness. He was a staunch Republican. In fact, it was d'Urville who had the pleasure of escorting the fallen Charles X to England in the ship Great Britain, after the French had kicked him off the throne.

You may remember this Charles X as the Comte d'Artois, godfather – so Charles never wearied of claiming – to himself, the King of Nukahiva and Sovereign Chief? One might have expected some awkwardness between the godson of the fallen monarch and the Republican skipper. And there was another difficulty. After his earlier New Zealand voyages, in 1827, Captain d'Urville published The Voyage of the Astrolabe, in which scathing references were made to the Baron de Thierry, the authority being the early missionaries.

Charles doubtless brings these little matters up, and disposes of them in mind, before accepting d'Urville's invitation. After all, they lie in the past. Now, he is warmed by a cordial reception, by the smile in Bishop Pompallier's quiet eyes, by wine, by firelight, by the impressiveness of the Republican Commander's tawny head. Something more than a man to be played with, this one. The scoundrels will see for themselves.…

I mentioned how, when Charles feels on terms of amity with another man, he cannot bear that the poor fellow should be anything less than right out of the top drawer. So, on the next morning – according again to Charles – we have the Republican Commander expressing himself in these remarkable terms:

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“I also, M. le Baron, am a Baron, but I allow nobody on these ships to call me so. When in 1830 I conducted your godfather from the shores of France, I treated that priest-ridden monarch as he deserved to be treated by a Republican. He was called Charles Capet on my ship. But you I address as M. le Baron, because you have been a persecuted man, and the English have done their best to put you down.”

About that you must decide for yourself. Even if Captain (“I also am a Baron”) d'Urville did not actually make these remarks, they would have been tactful in him; and Charles loved tact.

The sails were flapping when next day a long-boat put out, taking the Baron de Thierry to visit Captain d'Urville on his flagship, the Astrolabe. The cabin was panelled in polished wood, its only ornaments a great globe, and d'Urville's own beautiful pictorial charts of New Zealand and the South Seas. On these the Captain indicated where the French settlement in the South Island – its transport vessel and convoy now due in New Zealand waters – would be located. This nearness of a French settlement might make considerable difference to the de Thierrys. At worst, if driven from Mount Isabel, Akaroa would not be far to go, and there they could settle in honour under the French flag. However, better than this was hoped for. In Captain d'Urville's opinion, French influence would be consolidated in the South Island, and such an interest would serve to secure the Baron in his tenure at Mount Isabel, as an act of friendship between two nations sharing in New Zealand.

D'Urville himself left letters strongly supporting the Baron's land-claims, and mentioning that in 1824 he himself had met Thomas Kendall and learned from the missionary's own lips of the purchase made on Charles de Thierry's behalf. More he could not do. But “soon” was the word on the lips of both men.

Suddenly, as they talked, the port-hole dipped, a blue rim of sea swung across their view. The vessel quivered as if her heart had begun to beat. Captain d'Urville smiled, and drew back the curtains from the port-hole. The Astrolabe was moving towards open sea. She stood a full mile out from Russell, her narrow helm turning northwards. The Zélée, too, was moving out from shore. Beyond the ships lay the long journey whose end was France.

“If you had your family with you, I'd take you with me now to France. You could not seek justice in vain, M. le Baron.”

A handshake, before Charles put his foot on the swaying rope ladder. He looked up, saw the stern face watching him, forced himself to smile and wave as he took his place in the long-boat. The sailors of the Astrolabe and Zélée flourished their red caps page 163 and raised a cheer for him. Spray stung sharp and bitter on his face, for a stiff breeze was bellying the sails of the moving ships. The long-boat had to fight an hour against a heavy swell before it made the beach.

Help would certainly come, declared Dumont d'Urville.

Sister Anne, Sister Anne… do you see horsemen?

* * * *

On the sixth day he was back at Mount Isabel, to find that three of the eight white labourers now left to him had deserted. One couldn't blame them. The place was cut off from the world. Governor Hobson was arranging postal services, but his line of communication stopped short twenty miles down-river, and with winter churning the roads into bog, they might as well have been at the Pole.

From the Long Bush, £180 worth of squared timber arose and walked one dark night.

There's comedy in it. Margaret Neilsen, for the first time, received an immoral proposal. It's that riff-raff who deserted the expedition, hung about at Lieutenant McDonnell's heels until that engaging gentleman kicked them off, then settled down for themselves, surly and penniless, hangers-on at the Maori villages. By and by, times are hard, or their ways too rough. The Maoris also expel them, and they are forced to earning their own living. This they accomplish best as brigands, but are pining for the softening influence of a woman's association… more than one woman, if possible, but one would do to go on with.

Therefore, an unkempt gentleman, whose ragged moleskins might have moved Margaret to pity if his breath hadn't smelt of mightily bad whisky, barred her path one day, and invited her to share the couch of an outlaw… of half a dozen outlaws.

“The loon's daft!” she snorted, drawing up her petticoats as though from the nimbleness of a singularly vile beetle. But the bush-dwellers were not so easily discouraged.

Margaret Neilsen, a grim little figure with spinsterly mittens hiding her mottled crimson hands, made her way home from the nearest approach to a store, a crazy hillside shanty, its tinned goods piled beneath its dirty thatch. The store kept treacle, tea, weevily flour, and split peas, but the inebriated storekeeper, with his very wet lower lip and his chuckle, went against the core of her being. She picked her way disdainfully among the manuka, thinking, “Men… they're all alike – fair disgusting.” At this moment came a shout from the manuka. “At her, lads!”

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The first thing she saw about her aggressors was that they were the lowest of the low. They were ragged and drunken, their chins were blue, their language was coarse. Nothing about them could impress or daunt a Scot who for fifteen years had seen service with a noble, albeit a slightly erratic, family. She lifted her chin, and as the first outlaw staggered towards her, her hand went up to a majestic black steeple of a hat. The gentleman dropped howling, three inches of steel hatpin in his belly.

“There, ye randy!” said Margaret, pale but undaunted, and took to her heels, thanking heaven that men who live on liquor are mostly short in the wind.

Richard was working in the garden, and rubbed his eyes at the sight of his mother's pocket Napoleon approaching on the run, her hat flapping dissolutely over one eye. Then he observed the pursuit, seized his potato-shovel, and with a roar of delight sprang down the track.

Margaret, straightening her hat, suddenly and anxiously burrowed in the bowels of her string bag, and sank down among the newly dug potatoes, crying as if her heart would break.

“The tea!” she sobbed. “The tea! Those randies have lost the tea on me, and it's seven shillings the pound!”

Nothing comforted her that night – not even Charles, shaking his head over the vileness of his own sex, and going outside to refill the double barrels of his best shot-gun.

Tea at seven shillings the pound isn't the worst of it. The valleys are flooded this winter, the Maoris suffering a cruel loss of their crops, kumaras, and maize. Casual traders in the Hokianga are taking advantage of what looks like a famine. The little steel mill, which has ground the de Thierry wheat and maize since their arrival, is silent for want of feeding. To keep alive until the Land Commissioners sit becomes a problem. The three hundred acres left seem about as profitable as the Sahara.

Nene offers for £300 cash to drive natives and white men from the whole of the original 40,000 acres. Everyone, drenched, sodden and disheartened, needs money and food. Charles shakes his head. He hasn't got £300. Moreover, how would Captain Hobson like a war on white settlers and natives? The French… that's the trump left in his pack.

Out of winter darkness came a message from Bishop Pompallier, warning the Baron de Thierry, of Captain Lavaud's arrival with the French warship, L'Aube, in New Zealand waters.