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Check to Your King

Chapter Twenty-Two — Wind of the Sea

Chapter Twenty-Two
Wind of the Sea

The door of her room was open, the song floated through.

Wind of the sea, come fill my sail;
Lend me the breath of a favouring gale
And bear my port-worn ship away.
For it's oh, the greed of the tedious town,
The shutters up, and the shutters down,
Wind of the sea, sweep over the bay,
And bear me away, away.

Whither you bear me, wind of the sea,
Matters never the least to me;
Give me your fogs, with the sails a-drip,
Or the weltering path through the starless night.
On, somewhere beacons the new daylight,
And the cheery gleam of a sister-ship
As its colours shine and dip.

Wind of the sea, sweep over the bay.…

Isabel Matson, who since her marriage had almost forgotten that she had tried to escape from her father's domination, thought confusedly, “Not that song… I hate it.” He didn't sing it badly, though his voice was apt to crack on the top notes now. He was singing it for her benefit; he knew she'd be awake.

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Coherence slid out of her mind. The moonlight was hot and restive, window-bars cast shadows over the counterpane, like the steel bars of a cage. Any other song.… But Papa likes that one best; oh, of course, he sails tomorrow. Frederick and Will in California already. Will's far too young to be away from home.… Where have we gone to? It was safe by the fire, the room like a big cave with the winds roaring outside, and we used to tell ghoststories. Papa had one about an old gipsy-woman who told his fortune. “You shall sleep in a strange bed, pretty gentleman, pretty little lady.” This is a strange bed. Strange to be sleeping again under my father's roof, and only for the one night, because tomorrow he sails. I am not Isabel de Thierry, I am Mrs. Matson; there was a baby, and she died. The room smells of apples. Oh, if only somebody would cut open my side and take the pain out.…

The memories began in Baltimore, where Will was born. Isabel could see a high house, with a yard behind it, and trees very broad and leafy over a wooden swing. There was a boy who used to push the swing for her, and say, “Higher, higher,” in a funny, sing-song voice, and points of light came glittering down through the leaves; not white, but deep blue, orange, and scarlet, all in tiny flecks.

But she was sad, of course, and they had to give her strawberries, because Papa and Mamma and all-the-little-brothers were living in another house, queer and sickly-smelling, the blinds like shut eyes. She was told they were ill of the cholera, and she must say her prayers for them every night. This she did obediently, first brushing out her hair with the blue-enamelled hair-brush, as she had been taught, then kneeling with her hands like a church steeple against the white counterpane. “Please-God-bless-Papa-and-Mamma-and-all-the-little-brothers-and-Margaret-Amen.” But that wasn't the same as saying them with Papa there to listen, and to tell stories afterwards, sometimes with the lights out, and no Papa visible at all – just a voice talking reflectively in the darkness about old, curious things that happened to princesses, and a shaggy coat-sleeve if she put out a hand to feel where the voice came from.

Then she remembered candles lighted, a million of them, dancing and funny behind the enormous melons in Jamaica, and a black man sitting beside each melon, his teeth white and laughing. She had been wearing a brown velvet coat with pink scallops, and a poke-bonnet which came down over her eyes.… There were riding-lessons; he was lifting her on the back of an enormously tall black horse, somewhere in a town with blue and pink houses, and palm-trees pointing stiff, dark fingers at the sky. Sand scattered deliciously under her horse's hooves, and their sound page 207 was like a drum in a great hurry, and her hair went flying, flying.

The boys were opening a door in the attic of Mr. Feraud's store, and she was frightened because it might have been a pirate door. But when they were inside, there were only cobwebs and big chests of tea, which smelt clean and nice. Then the sea streamed green and white under the keel of a ship, streamed out V-shaped, and the clouds were a crimson V above, and between them shone the flag. Her father was excited, and pointed at it, talking of golden castles in the woods, and princesses. This was what made him so different from the fathers of other children. She couldn't have imagined other fathers asking her to help choose plumes and swords in a big store, with a little dark shopman, like a monkey, doubled up with bowing.

Sometimes she had wished he would look more like the others. She had wanted to cry out, “Oh, don't!” when he did things more and more like Papa. On this she had trodden as if on a serpent. And, anyhow, those moments came so rarely that she could afford to laugh at them.

She thought she could remember a white island, and her father saying very importantly, “This is the first marmoset that the natives have ever seen.” There was a delicious smell in the air, a smell like Paradise. Oh, far away.… Yes, that came next. Willy and she had made up the tune for “Over the Hills and Far Away”, and she had played it in Sydney, where the piano was so old that its keys stuck under her fingers. But Papa had liked the tune. She could remember his coming in from the hall, and making her sing it over and over; and his eyes were bright-that was tears. Because the night was hot, because “Over the Hills and Far Away” is a sad song.

Then it was New Zealand, and she was three people rolled into one. She was Princess Isabel. She was Isabel de Thierry, whose father is always in trouble. And she was herself.

Princess Isabel had vanished now, years ago. The last time she had been taken out of the box was at Kororareka, when Isabel didn't want the English to think that the de Thierrys were afraid. Of course, the de Thierrys were really just as much afraid as anyone else, and she had been terrified of Repa, his hands were so large and his eyes so queer. But it had been necessary to pretend.

Isabel who was herself belonged mostly to the thatched temple in the forest, where nobody else had ever come but her father. The boughs were closely plaited overhead, and the greedy wood-pigeons would plump down berries with soft, dull little thudding noises from the karaka trees. They had an altar of piled stones, page 208 and used to leave gifts for Tane Mahuta, who was lord of the wild-woods-bright bits of cloth, flowers, notes on white paper, scraps of food stolen from the table. These were always gone next day, but that was the work of the wekas, incorrigible thieves, with their beady bright eyes and their long-billed heads cocked on one side.

It had been best here with the stars coming out on summer evenings, pointing down like long white swords with jewelled hilts. He would tell her their lovely names. In that thin streaming darkness, taking its own soft colour from fern and smoke and star, Papa never seemed to be acting at all. She could feel the curve of the earth, enormous and placid, through the thin cotton of her frock. She loved to feel it against her, it was a sort of secret. It seemed to move and bear her along with it, on a vast circle that rolled through the shadows into some peaceful place… the Garden of the Hesperides, perhaps, with the singing women white as starlight around the jewel-fruited trees. Her father's voice, talking of the Nature of God and of the way the planets were made, was quite different, a part of the steadfastness. “Once this fiery orb was but a breath of vapour. Once man was nothing more than a pinch of dust. And if God could perform these wondrous works, and if we trust in Him …”

Yet it seemed strange that the God to whom one prayed wouldn't take away anything so dreadful as the pain in her side. It wasn't as if she had done any harm. God couldn't blame her, because unhappiness had poisoned her, and the baby nursed at her breast had died.

“I am dying too,” thought Isabel, and thrust the heavy wet hair back from her forehead.

Isabel de Thierry, whose father was always in trouble. Since they had come to Auckland, it had been that from year's end to year's end. Her mother had grown cold and silent, despising the world. Isabel couldn't. She had to keep herself lovely, to smile and pretend, because her father always turned to her.

First it was the horrible shanty-house, and in the tangled, fenceless garden which ran down under dusty-flowered laurestinus stood the other cottage, where the Negro and the worthless little white man lived together. She remembered the quick shiver of evil, sensed without perception, which had caught her one night as she sat brushing her hair before her looking-glass. She was eighteen then. She had looked round, her dressing-gown loose over white shoulders and breasts, hair tumbled around her young face. She saw the two faces, negroid and white, pressed, grinning, against the panes. Somehow they seemed a mere symbol of this world to page 209 which they were all exposed. She had run to her father that evening… and even as she felt his hand on her hair, she knew there was little he could do to protect his own.

She was opening the door to the mothers of her father's pianoforte pupils… not one of them that she hadn't disliked on sight, for she knew how hopelessly sensitive to discords poor Papa had always been; and music, like the temple in the Long Bush, was a place where she could always join him. But she had forced herself to smile and curtsy, like a prim little governess. “And this is your daughter, Baron?” Voices like bits of stick poking into a cage. They might as well have called him Great Auk. It was curiosity, not respect. Isabel wore starched dresses, the fichus crossing high at her throat, and plaited her hair tightly. When she was alone, she let it fall loose, and knew that it was beautiful.

People were always promising support and assistance. There were Governor FitzRoy's rather funny and nice letters about journalism.

“A few letters on the native question might be well received by the public through the medium of both papers, if not complimentary to the Governor. And might, if carefully written, bevery useful at this time of excitement. The good points of the New Zealand character might be shown, his improvement described, and his faults stated with truth. The propriety of adapting law to his transitional state, the hope of raising and amalgamating the native race with the white, might with good effect be stated.”

Papa had laughed, saying, “Well, at least he doesn't want bouquets from the French spy.” But in Auckland, even the boys were suspected everywhere. Frederick was appointed to the Customs Office when Captain Grey became Governor; George was in charge of a Maori road-gang; Richard and Will both sent as interpreters where Maoris were used in constructional work. It never lasted. There was too much understanding between the boys and the natives, who came to them over the heads of older men. Then the white workmen treated the de Thierry name as a joke, which made the boys show at their worst. Even in these days of poverty, Maoris were always drifting in at Papa's gates, and making themselves at home. Frederick was at the Customs Office still, but they paid him five shillings a day, and labourers fresh from the emigrant ships wouldn't take less than eight.

General Dean Pitt, who came to take charge of the military, was an old friend of her father's, and tried hard to get him the post of Postmaster-General. Then the French ship, Dido offered page 210 them all free passage to France, and Papa decided, happy and excited, to accept. But Governor Grey at once communicated through General Dean Pitt an offer to give the Baron de Thierry a resident magistracy and charge of a pensioners' settlement, at a place called Ruapekapeka. They promised him £650 a year… and the Dido sailed without him. A few days of silence, and after that, letters again. The family didn't need to be told what had come of it. It had happened again, that was all.

And two more years, like a strange dream, impossible to unravel. Long, hot nights before the baby was born, two terrible days of sheer agony, Margaret Neilsen actually in tears, the doctor bending over her, and the hall door opening for a moment, so that, through it all, she heard two voices lifted in quarrelling… her father's voice, her husband's voice. She wanted to shriek to them both, “Don't be ridiculous!” But the pain caught her, a great claw, and she lost herself in a different sort of cry, which carried her senses away. And baby Isabel hadn't lived three months; and she was only a guest for the night at the little Parnell house, which bore the unimaginative name, “Rosebank”. Tomorrow, her father sailed for California, where men were making fortunes in the gold-fields. “Wind of the sea, sweep over the bay.…” He was making the most extravagant promises about the success he would have. The new golden dream glittered all about his nakedness. He was very nearly old, worn-out, ill; and worse than all, he hated leaving her so much that it was almost killing them both. Isabel hadn't the strength left to tell him that the golden dream was preposterous, and he, though he knew it, would not admit it. He was going in order to impress her. “Let him go, the damned old fool,” said her husband.

“But I am dying, and I shall never see him again.” Past pain, she turned into the short blackness of sleep, into the empty place where they had taken her child and her youth.

Lieutenant-Colonel Wynyard, later Acting-Governor of the Colony, wrote a sentimental little poem about Isabel. It began “I saw her as a bride”, and told how she walked up the aisle in white satin and myrtle-sprays, to be married to Major Matson of the 58th Regiment. That was early in May 1848, when she was twenty. Her daughter, Isabel, was born on July 10th, 1849, and on the third day of October they buried the child in the Grafton Cemetery, a deep gully thick-matted with native trees. Of little Isabel Matson, Charles says, “She was the loveliest little thing imaginable, but she would not thrive.” Isabel, her mother, dying, said she was glad the baby had not lived.

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That Major Matson should have married Isabel de Thierry was a rather remarkable circumstance. The de Thierry stocks were low in Auckland, when the Major arrived there in 1848, to be given a paragraph in both newspapers, the New Zealander and the Southern Cross. They expressed the hope that “this distinguished officer will see his way to making his home permanently in our midst”; and Major Matson strode further into popularity by becoming President of the Colony's first Horticultural Society. Then to marry the little de Thierry, when so many charming girls must have been setting their caps for him!

It can only have been her peculiar and haunting loveliness, of which all who saw her spoke; the goose-girl effect, which presents a princess so much at her best, until one gets tired of fairy-tales and feels sheepish at having succumbed to them. And then, her very sense of unreality, the way in which she made a world for herself, as she and her papa proceeded on their fantastic course, must have puzzled and attracted Major Matson. But one must never let a materialist finger those bubble worlds.

Auckland at the time had a nickname. It was called “The English Garrison”. The title sums up its society… red-coats, crinolines, camaraderie borrowing a glow from the dangers outside its window-panes. There was no place for Isabel Matson in that world, especially with her papa, like the superabundant tail of some small kite, for ever in the offing.

Soon there was open estrangement between the young couple. Her husband and her papa quarrelled bitterly. Major Matson somewhat neglected her; the baby pined and died. In the fifty black-bordered pages which he calls “Mysteries Surrounding the Death of my Daughter Isabel”, Charles almost accuses Major Matson of murdering the girl. This was nonsense. But, in the realm of the spirit, they certainly harried her between them. Her death broke Charles de Thierry's life, and perhaps unhinged his mind. Those black-bordered pages were not written by a perfectly sane man.

Charles sailed in the Noble, in 1850. The house where he said good-bye looked across the harbour, and from its balcony the canvas and lifting spars of the brig could be plainly seen. He has left record of that parting… too long a record; dazed, confused, unwilling to believe that he could have sailed, never knowing that she was dying. What is life but a tall candle-flame blown out? “Be buried quick with her, and so will I.” He must have it so; carefully reconstruct the scene of her death, every word said, every look. Hundreds of flat little poems, all about “My poor Isabel”, crowd page 212 themselves into his pages. Then he writes to a friend, “I have sworn that I will write no more poems.”

All the words cannot obscure the fact that he loved her.

Margaret Neilsen sat in her rocking-chair, at the foot of Isabel's bed in Major Matson's house. The doctor had called, the last of three, and the one who discovered the hopeless condition of her lungs, after the others had declared her sound. She was in agony, and begged him to take the pain away.

“I wish I could, my dear child,” he said, and hurried from the room. But then, unexpectedly, all pain left her. It was evening, and she persuaded her mother to go into the next room where her piano stood, and play over the music of her father's favourite songs. She seemed gay and animated all night, though sleepless, and for a few hours they believed she was getting better. But in early morning she asked them to carry her into the room where her baby had died. They called Major Matson, who lifted her and placed her on the great sofa where the child had lain. She said goodbye then, and gave them various trinkets… a gold pin with a pearl for George, a prayer-book that her father had given her for Richard. All she asked of her husband was that he wouldn't quarrel with her father.

They closed her eyes and left her alone for a little while in the room. But there was something left for dead Isabel Matson to do.

The Noble was nearing Pitcairn Island. It had been a wretched voyage, on an ill-conditioned vessel. Charles had kept to himself. That night, he came on deck and stood watching the troubled green seas.

“Suddenly I saw my darling's face and form on the waters. Her eyes were closed, her arms outstretched as if in sleep, her long dark hair swept out around her. I called to her, but the vision was gone. Going back to my cabin, I wrote the whole in my diary, and sealed it and gave it to Mr. Barker… While there is still an honest heart in my family, never let this page be destroyed. That vision was a link between heaven and earth, and I bless God who sent it to me.”

At the French Hotel in Honolulu, months later, a sea-captain heard the Baron de Thierry talking about his daughter.

“Isabel Matson? Why, she's dead,” blurted out the sailor.

Twelve officers, one of them Lieutenant-Colonel Wynyard, were the pall-bearers when Isabel was buried in Grafton Cemetery, so soon after her baby's death that all the frocks in her wardrobe were the stifling black mourning of the day. Mrs. Mary Jane Brown, a friend of the family, wrote to the Baron that the girl of not quite twenty-three looked lovely in death, and that she herself had page 213 parted her hair and placed a scarlet rose against it. Her old friend, the Rev. Mr. Churton, who had been a second father to her in the absence of her own gold-seeking papa, was inconsolable, and locked himself in his room without victuals for a whole day after her death. Many shops were closed along the road as the funeral cortège, black plumes nodding from the heads of the horses and black crêpe weepers on the carriage doors, trailed past.

Isabel who was herself belonged to a flax-roofed temple on Mount Isabel, and had nothing to do with them. As far as they were concerned, she was simply Isabel whose father is always in trouble.