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Check to Your King

Chapter Twenty-Three — Pardonne

Chapter Twenty-Three

I Sailed in the Noble, February 10th, and was marooned on Pitcairn Island, where I remained with my kind friends, the descendants of the Bounty mutineers, for a whole month. The schooner Velocity took me to Honolulu, and thence to San Francisco, where I remained six months. … I later returned to Honolulu, where I remained in charge of the French Consulate until March 1853. I then returned to Auckland, in consequence of the news I received concerning the dangerous state of my wife's health. At Honolulu I left friends whom I shall love to the last day of my life, and if I came back with but scanty supplies of this world's goods, I was rich in the regard of many who won my warmest esteem and gratitude.”

There again, that peculiar ability to magnetise the unexpected crops up. Almost any other man could have made the journey to the gold-fields without being marooned on Pitcairn Island and spending a month with his kind friends, the descendants of the Bounty mutineers. However, it is fair to add that the sailors of the Noble did not throw Charles de Thierry overside as a Jonah, and then speed away towards the horizon. Having been very seasick and miserable, he spent a day on Pitcairn sight-seeing, whilst the Noble took on fresh water. A sudden gale blew the brig out to sea, leaving five passengers stranded. The stiff wind held, and the Noble's captain, refusing to pile up his brig on the rocks for the sake of prospective gold-diggers, who were probably travelling steerage, departed for Honolulu, leaving his strays to Neptune and Chance.

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Charles made the very best of his opportunities on Pitcairn Island, which is an idyllic spot. He could be very charming when he liked. Do you know the main passion of the inhabitants? It is for organs. This sounds extravagant, but I have had it from the lips of Pitcairn Islanders themselves. The taste for organ music amounts to fanaticism, and one of the few things that will induce a Pitcairn man to leave home is in order that he may earn the money to buy himself a new organ. There is very little high finance on the island; the women are all chaste – at a rough estimate – the men silent, efficient, and good-looking. They marry young and die centenarians. Only one man smokes a pipe on Pitcairn, and he is an American, who, for love of an island lady, settled himself there. For the rest, Pitcairn has some exports, but is off the track of ships.

In the beginning, John Adams, having no native Bible, taught the natives their religion and its language entirely in English, thus realising Charles's long-lost dream of a native populace speaking “English, all English, and nothing but English”. I forgot to mention that the entire island was converted to Seventh Day Adventism, which makes it a more respectable place than ever. Being sheltered from the greed of commerce, the viciousness of diplomacy, the brutality of war, and the weak though strident passions of society, the Pitcairn brand of respectability has charm. The natives had amalgamated peacefully and without deterioration with the whites; there was no colour distinction. Probably at the time of Charles's unexpected visit they would be able to make only a rough guess at what a baron was. But Charles was a musician, too, and since he had the sense to parade this talent, he became very popular. A letter from Caroline Adams, one of the mutineers' descendants, illustrates this fact. It was written in 1850.

My Kind Friend,

Dull indeed have the days been since you left us. I am distressed to hear that you have received none of my letters. Your corner at table, the piano you used to play, the music-rule with which you taught us, all speak of you a hundred times in the day. John Noble read out your letter from the pulpit last Sunday, and asks me to tell you that your singing-classes have done as you bade them, and practise daily…. The children love the Bacon and Potatoes round, and the older girls do well in the Bread-making Song. But we shall be grateful to you if you can possibly send us some music in the modern manner, from which we can learn part-singing in our church … unless you can come again yourself, for a few months or as long as you please, and teach us, which is what we would page 215 like best of all. I cannot say how grieved I was to hear of your loss. There is a little namesake here, for I have now a grand-daughter called after your Isabel…. The double balsam seeds you sent us have not come up, I am sorry to say, but the waxflowers and the paper-lilies are thriving splendidly, and should make a pretty show…. John is writing to you also today.

Caroline signs herself, Ever your sincere friend.

Other folded letters, their ink now faint, are written by Pitcairn Islanders to Charles, until within a few months of his death. The Adams family migrate to Norfolk Island, and send him cases of the island oranges, and boxes containing the seedlings of Norfolk Island's beautiful pines. If he wished, he might find a nook in the chimney-corner.

Come and spend your declining years with us. It is little we can offer, but there is a room looking over the sea, a garden, and a piano….

But Charles has a fancy for dying on the soil of Utopia, though he stores the Adams letters carefully away.

“On Governor Grey's departure in 1853, my much valued and respected friend Colonel Wynyard became Acting-Governor. A more honourable, more kind-hearted, more gentlemanly and hospitable man than himself could not have been found. He and his truly amiable lady honoured me with their friendship since their arrival in the country. The natives hold Colonel Wynyard in great esteem….”

Did Colonel Wynyard and his truly amiable lady also honour Emily de Thierry with their friendship, until in 1854 death took her into the quiet of his keeping? There is only the one portrait of her – a tiny, faded chromo-photograph, taken in old age. A stiff black gown, all ruffles and tucks, flows over a short little person from which the lines of youth have long departed. Her hair is drawn back, a bonnet perches above. The photograph is too sadly faded for one to see whether there is still gentleness in her eyes, or about her mouth.

George de Thierry, who was drowned crossing a river, had himself photographed on glass, a modish device. He looks the beau ideal of a Victorian novel, all dashing side-whiskers and wax moustache. But the eyes are very honest, ready to face the world. It is a good face.

Charles made his home in the suburb named after the gallant page 216 and unfortunate Parnell, and now known for its three P's: Pride, Poverty, and Pianos. His cottage had not much to its credit but that the piano was kept tuned. The pines took root firmly in the soil of a sloping garden, forget-me-nots made blue shores here and there among long grass which aided and abetted the strayings of his bantams, willing to lay anywhere on earth except in the nests which their lord provided for them. Music-pupils, loneliness, memories….

“Shall I ever forget when crowds of smiling natives used to follow the footsteps of my lovely girl, the children calling ‘Irapera, Irapera’, which was all they could make of her name? And she, poor thing, lies in New Zealand clay; and with her, her mother, who did so much for the natives….”

“It is time now that I speak of the outlines I had planned for my Chieftaincy, before Waitangi ever took place.”

He writes of the first days, and of how against the efforts of missionaries he fought two powers: the lawlessness of men embittered with civilisation, and the covetousness of some of these missionaries themselves.

“During their fits of intemperance,” he writes of the convicts escaped from the penal settlements, “these men became frantic. With the years of long and painful exile, the marks of their manacles deeply imprinted upon them, they represented to the native how guilty were the men who, under the cloak of religion, were betraying them into the hands of the nation that had robbed themselves of liberty. These men were not a little successful in neutralising the efforts of the missionaries, as acid will neutralise an alkali. The refugee to these wild shores was as free as the air he breathed, and became a stranger to actual want, for the natives were generous and friendly, and supplied all his needs.

“Example has done its prodigies. The natives are keen observers. …. They have to some extent progressed, by noting the usefulness of white men's appliances in commerce and labour. They have large flour mills, they grind their own wheat; and dress, bag, and weigh their flour. They have fine horses, and now use ploughs, harrows, drays, powerful threshing machines. They have a great number of vessels, from brigantines down, and work these with skill. They have cattle, and are beginning to rear sheep. They gather vast quantities of wild honey, and bring into Auckland a considerable amount of fruit. But great as their strides have been in these matters, they remain absolutely stationary as civilised beings. Gunpowder is now manufactured secretly among the natives at three places, and there are men among them who have page 217 been abroad, working in factories where armaments are made. They delight in pointing out the ways in which Auckland could be attacked, and how the defences could be rendered useless…. At this moment, they are preparing for action. God only knows how it will end, and how it may retard the progress of a race which might have been happy and prosperous, had it been ruled with foresight.

“It is not a week from the writing of these lines that the natives declared that if the Governor attempted to seek restitution of the gunpowder stolen at Kawau by force of arms, they would do by Auckland what they did by Kororareka in 1845. In such a case, the outsettlers would be in deadly peril. The punishment of death by hanging has lowered us with the natives. They say we talk of being better than themselves, and then treat one another like dogs. This is because dogs are hung at the Auckland Police Office, if found wandering without collars. We were safe without soldiers, we are in danger now that we have two regiments to fight for us.”

Writing in 1856, he does not prove a bad prophet. A few years later the Waikato wars were raging. Auckland was in a state of nerves. The old windmill, looking over the town like a quaint toy soldier, stopped grinding flour, for its space was used in melting and moulding bullets. But what even Charles never foresaw was the degree to which the clash between white and native would retard the development of the Maori race. Those promising industrial and commercial signs of the early years have for the most part melted like snow. The museum-piece attitude used towards the native has, in the long run, an effect nothing less than a futility which proves it hypocritical. The race is now numerically on the increase. What that may mean, to the Maori or to anyone else, depends largely on the incidence of the next fifty years.

He speaks of the missionaries. “The Quakers in Pennsylvania did more good than the Puritans in Massachusetts, thereby proving by natural implication that the savages are more easily managed by gentle means than by despotic ones. When once the sort of mysterious halo which surrounded the New Zealand missionary began to be dispelled by the wider intercourse of the two races, their influence gradually lessened, and they are at this time little more regarded than any other men…. For this task” (the moral elevation of the native) “they were well qualified in every way, since most of them were mechanics, and could have assisted in every development of native life. But they must have remained content for some years with their fustian jackets, instead of indulging in fine linen and broadcloth.”

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Never once did he write, “All this was a fool's dream. The man who looks for advancement of the natives will be disappointed.” He wrote, instead, of the obscure Sandwich Islands, civilised more by level and moral influence than by force of arms, trade, or mysticism. “In their homes I have seen fine furniture and splendid pianos… and these instruments were for use, not for ornament.”

There were to have been villages in Utopia, starting off with a metalled road for each village, and settlements in which “respectable” whites and natives would live side by side. The schools were the pride of his heart. Respecting the Maori usage which divides the rangatira and his kin from lesser men, he planned separate schools, in which the sons of chiefs would be tutored with those of white gentlefolk, while the hoi polloi should have free schooling in rival institutes. This, of course, was abominably snobbish; but at least Charles insisted that schooling be free and compulsory. Parents keeping their offspring away were to be disqualified from holding “any State post or emolument”… and these, if he had only had his way, would have been many and gorgeous.

On the other hand, he was not opposed to a little discreet bribery and corruption. Children were to be given clothing and attractive books as prizes, and he brought over much of these goods from Sydney, abandoning a whole trunk of picture-books at Mount Isabel. A new plan was attendance prizes for virtuous Maori parents, whose infants presented their “shining morning face” regularly at school. Punishments were to be strictly of a moral nature, but, lest one should think him soft, Charles explains that this was not because he minded beating boys, but because the chiefs wouldn't have their sons and daughters whacked. He was not a co-educationalist. “The sexes were to be kept apart,” he writes primly. While the children were to be boarded when possible, they were to have separate beds. In their playtimes, the infant Utopians would speak only English.

From their juvenile schools his pupils were to graduate–by learning, not by pull – to District High Schools. (He is, I think, the first man to have suggested these institutions in New Zealand.) Every child, during its high-school education, was to be taught a trade of its own choice. During the last year's schooling, all but two hours a day would be spent in apprenticeship to this trade, and the profits–if any – devoted to the “Public Fund”, out of which everything from roading to native hospitals was expected to spring. As for this fund, its main resources would be the produce of the gigantic trading farm into which he hoped to turn his page 219 Chieftaincy. For the exports of this he had already arranged markets and insurance with established houses overseas. “I visioned the entire Chieftaincy as a hive, with no drones among it.” Was it Communism? In any case, it was charming.

Temperance advocates might have found something to smile or scowl at, according to the rigidity of their natures, in his remarkable plan for a Temperate Utopia. How, puzzled Charles, was he to deal with the problem of the Low Dive? Eureka … he had it! There would be no sly grog-selling. Anyone, on paying a small licence fee, might sell the light wines and beers to be produced from the Chieftaincy's vineyards and hop-gardens. But nobody must get drunk.

“On a third offence of drunkenness, the offender is to be banished for a year from the Chieftaincy. If, after this absence, he has reformed, he will be received again, and offered employment in a position of moderate trust, as on probation. I do not desire to interfere with the pleasures of men, but I fear the effects of strong liquors sold by unscrupulous men among the natives.… Everything must be done by example, and by the love of good.”

Was he in earnest, this ageing gentleman who sat scribbling at his teak desk, when the last music-pupil had tucked flower-scrolled music-sheets into leathern satchel and stumped out of the room where the French dragon scolded so if one jumped on the loud pedal? Before leaving Sydney for New Zealand, he had the Sydney Herald offices, in Lower George Street, print a form of agreement, to which each settler put signature or mark before boarding the ship. Here are the articles:

Charles, Baron de Thierry, shall be Sovereign Chief over his own territories, and shall exercise all rights and prerogatives of an independent Chief within their limits.

No neighbouring Chief or people of his tribe shall be molested in person or in property, nor compelled to lend, cede, give, barter, or sell anything in his possession.

No New Zealander on the Baron de Thierry's properties shall be deprived of land or dwelling, but shall ever be protected in the same, unless guilty of some heinous crime or of open mutiny; nor then shall be removed, without trial by a mixed jury.

No New Zealander shall be compelled to work for a white man, unless in punishment for crime.

No native tribe, Government, foreign State or power shall exercise jurisdiction within the Baron de Thierry's territory.

No one shall be molested in the free exercise of any religion. But no nunneries or monastries shall be permitted within the Baron de Thierry's lands.

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If any white man marry a native woman, he shall be bound to treat her in all respects as he would a white woman.

No gambling is to be allowed.

There shall be no distinction of colour within the Baron de Thierry's territories.

Incidentally, much as he admired friendship between white lambkins and brown, Charles did not approve of mixed marriages, and is quoted in Brett's Early History of New Zealand – one of the few histories mentioning him at all – as telling a tale against the Anglican Bishop Selwyn on this point.

“How would you like that fine young man for a husband?” asked the Bishop of a pretty girl, indicating a Maori.

“How would your lordship like him for a son-in-law?” was the damsel's demure retort.

I would not have you think, however, that the Chieftaincy was to be a tristful place, buried under mountainous morals, with never a ribbon on the maypole or a feather in the troubadour's bonnet. Right at the bottom of a pile of ancient, unsightly documents are some family letters written to Charles's sister, Caroline. There is an engaging frankness in one, dated March 1838.

I cannot live without female society. Louis and his wife; James and his; Frank, if he has one; and Frederick, if he has got tired of the single state, all joining my circle, and bring Georgiana and her kindred with her, with as many more amiable petticoats as you can add to the list. That indeed would make New Zealand a happy place for me.

And note the sunburst of optimism in which Caroline is asked to behold her brother's future, when in 1834 the Guadeloupe syndicate is playing about with crowns and thrones.

I am so completely harassed with preparations that I have with difficulty found time to scribble this horrid letter. The time is certainly come, for everything favours me; friends, followers, means, and good wishes. The blue and crimson flag will float in the Bay of Islands by the first week in February. The flag of whom? Of him, my ever dearest sister, who, humble or exalted, will ever be,

Your devoted Charles.

In 1856, the New Zealand Government made the Baron de Thierry a present. He was allowed one hundred and six acres of land, in recompense for a claim of 40,000 acres, an extravagant page 221 claim, over which, however, some said the old gentleman had been hardly done by. Various rumours associated with his name were recalled. Yet it was undeniable that the Baron de Thierry had never murdered, raped, pilfered, caroused, nor even led an armed rebellion against Her Majesty. Hence the gift.

But Isabel was dead, and there could be no second Mount Isabel. Emily was gone too; the family was scattered. And long ago a flag of crimson and azure had been cut into the tiniest pieces by fingers which no doubt trembled as they lifted it from the shelf where it had lain rolled up and hidden away. So he remained at Auckland.

One need not feel too sympathetic. There was a secret scandal. If the Government had known, they would never have given him a sniff of their hundred and six acres.

In his old age Charles was writing an epic poem on the invasion of England by the French. It concludes with a portrait of Queen Victoria kneeling in tears before a French general, who is stern but just, and who properly hauls Victoria over the coals. You will take this to be a lie. However, the whole poem is preserved in the Sir George Grey collection at the Auckland Library. It contains more cantos than those of Mr. Ezra Pound, and they are larger cantos, too; preferable in every way, those who don't like modern poetry might think. I cannot quote from the poem, it is too bad. But Charles is probably the only being who during his lifetime got the better of Queen Victoria in verse, even though she never knew it.

A clipping in a journal of 1864:

There was much laughter in the New Plymouth Gentlemen's Club last night over an account of a Frenchman who thought he had bought vast lands in New Zealand by a payment of thirty-six axes, and came here meaning to set himself up as a King. But the natives drove him away, and the King was reduced to teach music for a living.

And a caustic enough little retort, written perhaps by an editor who had watched the old man making his way between the sailing-ships and the Parnell cottage.

It is a pity that those gentlemen of the New Plymouth Club who laughed so heartily at a Frenchman's purchase of lands for thirtysix axes were not honest enough to admit how some of them paid for their own land, if they paid for it at all. If light were let in on their buyings, there would be more to wonder at than one Frenchman.

The last de Thierry documents I can trace are entirely in the page 222 sanguine vein. One is a gold-prospector's licence for the new fields at Ballarat, Australia, taken out by Charles, Baron de Thierry, in 1863. It was never, so far as one can gather, put into use. The old gentleman was by then past sixty-five. Was that, however, to put him on the shelf? Here is his final (discoverable) letter, written, in May 1863, to that Captain Grey who had a second time been appointed Governor, and who now shone as Sir George Grey.

My Dear Sir,

I most sincerely congratulate you on your escape from the savage murderers whose deeds have filled the whole community with horror, Being in my sixty-eighth year, I believe I am exempt from military service. But I once had the honour to hold a commission in His Majesty's 23rd Light Dragoons, and do not like the idea of skulking in the hour of danger. If Your Excellency should see fit to form a Company of elders for the city's defence, I beg to offer you my services. Most people have heard of plans for incendiarism among the Maoris, and a trusty Guard might be useful for the protection of life and property. Though so old, I have yet pluck enough to perform my duty. With best wishes for your health and service,

I am,

Charles, Baron de Thierry.

Ancient Pistol had not cooled off with the years. There is no record of decorations pinned on his veteran breast. Yet, after all, music… The young man Shelley had written:

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory. …

All the soft voices were long dead, long dead. Sitting in the dusk alone, his fingers on the keyboard, he let them wander as if they were no part of that discredited old man, the Baron de Thierry. They were changed, perhaps, with the years, swollen and knotted. Yet the beloved ivory keys still seemed familiar with them. They took him far away, and into other worlds.

“The Baron de Thierry played a harp solo at the Masquerade and an Imperial lady fell in love with him.” He wondered for a moment whom she had been. He couldn't remember. Soft voices die… soft voices die. ….

“Over the Hills and Far Away.” If he played it very quietly, like this, she came and stood beside him, and sang it again in that voice page 223 so clear and sweet that nobody else might hear it. It was the sacred thing, for him alone. There was a voice that would never die, a pure voice ringing in some eternal place… but not in the lofty, forgetting hymns, that go with the eyes turned away from earth and its poor people … not in these, but in the little song she had sung again and again, because it pleased him. The melody was her own, a silver master-key, and she was the child of his heart. The room filled with a tranquil light, clear and golden, light sweeter than any sunset. It wasn't a room any more, but a wider place, and he could see the waves rippling far below. “We are at Mount Isabel,” he said. She laughed at him for thinking she might have forgotten.

The little nuns who had come to see him often of late, visited him together this evening. The Sèvres nymph held up her candlesticks, and looked down at him.

An old man, lying half out of his bed, his slippers off to reveal the fact that nobody has darned his worsted stockings, looks up at them, but cannot speak. They raise him between them. Although his thin body is tall enough to be still heavy, they have a singular impression that he has no more substance left than a dead leaf. The old man, however, feels terribly sick in the pit of his stomach. With a convulsive movement, he indicates that he wants them to give him the flowered chamber from under the bed. He leans over this for a moment, coughing, and then feels a little better. He says in a feeble whisper something that sounds like “Pardon”, and they think he is apologising for his plight. But then he raises his voice, and says with a questioning inflexion, “Pardonne? Pardonne?” as though requesting that some unseen person should speak up a little.

I think the Invisible Stranger repeated his demands: “You are Charles Philip Hippolytus, Baron de Thierry, King of Nukahiva, Sovereign Chief of New Zealand?”

A nod indicates that all this is true.

“Then,” says the Invisible Stranger politely, “will you please explain why things happened in such and such a way? You must excuse me…. We have our records to keep, and it's no end of a job, with every unlicked cub of a cherub fancying himself a learned clerk. But we try to keep things tidy. Your case seems a little complicated at first sight. No doubt you will be able to put us right?” He smiles in the most affable way. A beam of golden light, which the nuns mistake for the last of sunset, pierces between the bed-curtains and all the dust-motes spring out from ambush and dance.

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The old gentleman, for his part, smiled in return. And though he spoke no other word, and the little room was so quiet that they knew they could fold his hands on his breast, I am quite sure that the answer to it all was on his lips.