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Check to Your King

Chapter Five — Ships Putting Forth

Chapter Five
Ships Putting Forth

The notice-board, lugged forth from years of oblivion, leans drunkenly over the stage. (We couldn't contrive without it.) “Budge Row,” runs the legend, “London, a.d. 1825.”

Almost empty, the vast theatre. Motes of dust take on a rainbow life in long, solemn beams of light. One has the idea that they are more alive than dust-motes have reason to be. Perhaps each is the spirit of some old playgoer, not to be whisked out by any attendant's broom. In the wings are men with unshaven chins and unimpressionable faces. Those are the scene-shifters, but some folk call them The Years. Hear them whispering….

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“You're a dead man, Charles.”

“Not quite, Francis, but it's damnably hot. I wouldn't mind that, either, except for the flies and the Poles. They're both difficult to get rid of. On the whole, l'd rather have the flies. They aren't so plaguy ambitious. Look at these.”

On the desk of the close little office hung a tremendous banner of crimson and silver. There were samples of scarlet cloth, numerous twinkling buttons. A lance stood proudly in one corner of the room.

Francis de Thierry began to laugh.

“For pity and piety's sake, Charles, what's all this? Are you fathering a mere colony, or starting a crusade? Have you turned Chartist, and mean to introduce some colour into their processions?”

“No laughing matter, Frank. It's the Poles. A deputation of them waited on me today, with Budge Row staring from every window as though the world were coming to an end, and I the angel Gabriel, getting ready to hoot on the trump of doom. The desire of my Polish pests is that I should form a regiment of Lancers to accompany my settlers to New Zealand. Wouldn't take ‘no’ for an answer. ‘You will find the uniforms very becoming, mon general,’ says a swarthy fellow, all gimlet eye and onion breath. So away they go, leaving me to think it over. How the devil am I going to get rid of that confounded lance? Then here's a letter representative of a considerable number of French foot-soldiers, who are very willing to act as my infantry. In God's name, Frank, doesn't Europe think of anything at all beyond slitting throats?”

“Or stretching necks, dear lad. But this time there's no shortage of emigrants.”

“Shortage? There's clergymen in dozens open to clerical appointments. There's lawyers who tender me their services as magistrates, physicians and surgeons innumerable, authors who'll write books for me, and odes even… at a price… penny-a-liners anxious to sell their eloquence. Actors aren't few, barbers and fitters enough to found a colony on their own, and then we've the gentlemen, bless them, who for the most part insist on telling me more about their private affairs than I have any wish to know. There are so many schoolmasters offering that, if I take the lot, I can teach every native in New Zealand English at one fell swoop… best thing that could happen to them. The most interesting of today's bag was a young American surgeon, offered me a neat little invention for use when Sawbones wants to make the vile body viler. The spring lancet, he calls it. Why, by the time the page 37 day's out, my brain goes round when I try to sort sense into the mass of information and lies I've received.”

“So in rolls Captain Billy Stewart, hitches up those great elephantine britches of his, and says, ‘Baron Charles, me lad, away with you to the “Saracen's Head”,’ or some other hovel of all the vices. I don't like your tarry friend, Charles.”

“Oh, he's a good fellow, and knows the country. But tonight I'm too weary for Captain Billy. I'm for home, if you call three rooms in a London hotel a home, though the children are happy enough there, stuffing the pigeons from the window-sills. Don't forget New Zealand in your prayers, Frank”

Much water has flowed under London Bridge since Thomas Kendall and two handsome chieftains waved a fond farewell. Barons, naturally, do not pipe their eye. Otherwise one might declare that a proportion of this water was tears, to which Our Charles had contributed most handsomely.…

If a man wasn't in earnest, would he have the sheer audacity to stick flippant beauty-patches all over the face of London? You know the sort of face London has: beautiful, in a relentless, grimy way, especially when the tree-tresses are all in young leaf again, but not by any means a hail-fellow-well-met face. All through these stifling months, Londoners have discovered the stone face of their city plastered with huge coloured bills. The handsomest bear portraits of savages with large bare legs and blue tattooing over their beaky noses. All refer in enthusiastic terms to the merits of this New Zealand. A Baron de Thierry, it would seem, is running an expedition there this year… promises to make a fortune for the lot of us. Where the deuce, then, is New Zealand? Stuck on the tail end of the world; people walking about like flies on a ceiling. Nothing to be seen but convicts and cannibals. That's the gag at the back of those Australian penal colonies, you know. The cannibals were expected to eat the convicts, but our lads turned out too tough for 'em. Oh, there must be more to it than that. Come along to this office in Budge Row, as the posters advise us.… The Baron will tell us what's in the idea.

An Appeal to the People of England, in the Matter of a New Zealand Settlement. That's the title of the brochure published early in '25, under the sign and seal of Charles. New Zealand, it is evident, possesses everything desirable: metals, tangled in the fibrous hair of old earth; kauri spars, for which sea-captains will come begging you on their marrow-bones; then there's a strong plant, Phormium tenax, which is to corner the world's rope market. And the land will grow anything. Cannibals? Pish to that!

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… The Baron has been on intimate terms with the chieftains; he corresponds with them still, and swears they'll live with his settlers like brothers. Framed on his office wall there's the deed which proves him owner of 40,000 New Zealand acres. He got the land for thirty-six axes… seems a shrewd fellow.

The expert on the natives and their passion for axes is, however, not Charles de Thierry, but Captain Billy Stewart.

It would be convenient, if one had a map, to glance at an island of the three red dots that make up New Zealand. Not the scraggy topmost one, like a fish – though that's where Charles and his settlers are bound. Not the middle island, shaped rather like a sheepskin. The little one at the tail end, south of nowhere. It grows beautiful oysters, and the whalers used it a lot for boiling out blubber in their great tripod-legged iron pots. However, that's not the point. The name of this islet is Stewart Island, named after Captain Billy Stewart. He may be a bit of a rough-neck, but he's also a Jacobite. You have observed the name? He says he's one of those Stewarts, the ones whose posteriors have a right to the English throne, who got their heads chopped off or were chased up oak-trees, and who, despite hard times, always maintained a sufficiency of glamour and mistresses. That gives Captain Billy a little in common with Charles. How we kings love one another!

Of course, there's the usual little something of irregularity. Captain Stewart was a deserter from the King's Navy, then prizemaster on a privateer, and didn't put his nose inside an English port until an amnesty was declared, some few years ago. But bygones are bygones, and, besides, Captain Billy is reassuring about Thomas Kendall's thirty-six axes.

“Payment, lad? What payment d'ye think your mouse-livered little friends the missionaries made to the Maoris for the thousands of acres they've whittled off in their settlements… ay, and dug themselves in so pretty it 'ud take Shunghie on the warpath to get 'em out again, even if a squeal out of 'em wouldn't bring the warships over from Sydney? I tell you, the missionary, for the most part, makes it a matter of condescension to risk his bacon among the heathen. Spreading the word o' God among the Maoris… maybe, maybe, but they spread it at a price, my boy. The native Bibles and prayer-books that get round among the Maoris don't drop from heaven, not by no manner of means. They're paid for in kits of sweet potatoes and hogs, which have come on wonderful in New Zealand since Captain Cook had the brains to turn 'em loose there. This Kendall, I'm not saying he's more or less of a scoundrel than others. But you can't quarrel with his page 39 thirty-six axes as payment for New Zealand land. The Maori will give more than a few acres for a matter of axes.”

One wishes to do things in orderly manner. Olympus, of course, is the British Colonial Office, Jove the supremely indifferent Earl Bathurst. Those old geese up yonder won't lay anything beyond an occasional china egg. There's an Under-Secretary named Horton, who does my lord's “Answers to Correspondents”. It hurts him to talk, though. Of course, the Duke of Wellington's behind the Colonial Office policy. He sticks that surpassing beak of his in the air and says England has too many colonies already.

“The Baron de Thierry has the honour to present his compliments to the Right Honourable Earl Bathurst.…”

Over and over again, processions of compliments. The Right Honourable Earl never turns a hair.

Would the Colonial Office in any way assist a new settlement accepting the Baron de Thierry's title deeds of land as guarantee, with immediate repayment promised in “cowrie spars”?

The Colonial Office would not.

Would any protection be offered British settlers making their homes in New Zealand?

New Zealand not being a possession of England, settlers there must shift for themselves.

The correspondence develops into a one-sided duel. The Baron de Thierry, hearing this stricture or that passed in the House of Commons concerning his beloved colonising project, sits down and tosses off another letter to the Earl. He begs to assure all that he will certainly not, as has been suggested, permit his settlement to be the happy hunting-ground of escaped convicts; he will rather return such persons at once to their proper habitation. He volunteers to supply the Colonial Office with any information it may require concerning New Zealand.

The Colonial Office remains mute.

In spite of indifference and jests, in spite of the want of adequate finance – much more serious – the first expedition in 1823 had begun to take shape fairly well. The Princess Royal, a barque of 360 tons, was fitted out – the first ship ever chartered to colonise New Zealand. Settlers were welded together. Then the Press broke out in a rash of warnings. There were shouts in the House of Commons of a second Poyais expedition. Cannibalism enjoyed a vogue in the Grub Street limelight. Before Charles's eyes, his expedition melted away, all but a few gentlemen of quality joining in the sauve qui peut. He thanked his gentlemen of quality page 40 … but, alas, one can't spread a single teaspoonful of jam, even the best strawberry, over 40,000 lawless acres.

Yet there were men in England whom nobody wanted. No journal would have uttered a protest if every cannibal in the South Seas had made arrangements for dining on them. The parishes offered the Princess Royal expedition their paupers, with £5 a head thrown in.

There were men here who had grown up, from sickly childhood to pallid and dejected youth, in the shadow of the workhouse. For the poor, England of that day was a bitter place. Danger was rising on the wind. Chartist murmurings were heard, and the hand of Authority, of the old and hard-headed, grew tighter on the reins. These men would crush rebellion by trampling it into the dust.

One does not forget. One fails, is helpless, but one does not forget. Forty years later one's hands, though no longer so confident and strong, take pen and paper, and write.

“They were men weighed down by poverty and destitution, and I would willingly have befriended them. They were suffering, and it would have been my most earnest wish to relieve them. They were without homes, and to settle them in a new country where they might be comforted and made happy was a bright dream.… And I could not realise it. There were men among them who begged me with tears in their eyes for their chance in that new world. Had the Government aided them, ever so little, we might have contrived what they asked. But the poor-laws of England do not fall on the Government, and if the poor starve and suffer, there is money enough still to be squandered by the wealthy man.… Think:a few of those millions thrown away on warlike armaments, a few of the thousands of men whose blood fertilises the fields of an enemy – with no more than that we could carry civilisation to the very ends of the earth.”

There were, of course, other possible supporters than England. The Dutch discovered New Zealand; there's a whole sea named after their navigator, Abel Tasman. But Baron Tagel, Holland's Ambassador in London, blandly disclaims all interest in the country when Charles pops in to talk the matter over.

France, then, perhaps? After all, the de Thierrys are Frenchmen at root.… And Paris, for émigré barons, was a happy place just then. The former Comte d'Artois, godfather to Charles, was by this time King Charles X.

You remember Caroline, the first little de Thierry, the clever one who got herself born at the Orange palace? She is now page 41 Madame Caroline de Cordoza, a personage of credit at Court. It all helps. Madame the Baroness de Thierry accompanies her energetic husband. Hers is a singular life. Now her lord is exclaiming over the duplicity of the French enthusiast who received the colonising project so kindly, and then departed hastily for America with the large fund raised for the expedition.… Now he is receiving from M. le Duc d'Aumont an invitation to the games at the Tuileries… Now he is in despair again, because the French, the moment you say “colony” to them, fly into raptures about Brazil, and can be tempted by nothing but the smell of coffee-beans. “C'en est trop!” wails Charles.

The little Baroness might also, for her part, feel she has had rather too much of a good thing. She is again expecting – this is the third time – and really, when one has no settled home, when one does not know whether the next pied-à-terre will be a palace or the attic of a detestable London lodging-house, three pregnancies are, if not too much, at least sufficient. The first boy was Charles Frederick; the second, born at Cambridge, Richard. The third, if it's a boy – and she knows from the way the little creature disposes itself that it will be a boy, though Charles, when not harping on New Zealand, is demanding of her a daughter – will be called George. One born in London, one in Cambridge, one in Paris. As for the others, God knows where they will take it into their heads to arrive. One marries an innocent, who agrees to study law and theology. One finds oneself attached to a species of Ulysses, expected to have babies all over the world, girls preferred.…

George, however, is a boy all right, and the French, enraptured with their coffee-beans, won't look at the project of a New Zealand colony, though out of the wreck Charles does save certain vague but extensive promises from influential sources of French support for his colony, when it is settled and in good working order. They return disconsolate to London, and Charles gets up early to go out sticking bills. It does not seem dignified, but it works. Over four hundred people call daily at the office in Budge Row.

At the Tuileries the Baroness de Thierry was presented to the Dauphine, who, hearing with interest of the young couple's romantic past and future, presented Emily with a token of her regard. This token now holds up gilt candlesticks in one of the three London rooms where, as Charles has said, the children make far too much fuss of the pigeons.

Look well at the tiny Sèvres figure. She is, in a way, the genius of the story. Though exquisite, she has that abstracted porcelain look which might make her face quite insipid, if one didn't page 42 wonder, “Does she ever think at all? What goes on behind those painted blue eyes? Do the little china breasts over her robe never heave with womanly emotion?” She has already seen so much, this figurine, whose gilt candlesticks support the clear tapers of which Charles, at his most impoverished moments, must never be denied. This little shepherdess of the Dauphine's was standing on a writingdesk in that apartment of the Tuileries from which King Louis XVI was dragged away to imprisonment and death. Irreparable day! Unimpressionable shepherdess! To have seen a king ruined, yet to maintain a china smile, a china elegance! The figurine always travelled with the de Thierry circus. In New York – what won't the Yankees do? – a trusting thug stole the candlesticks under the belief that they were gold, so they had to be replaced with others less fine. But in New Zealand the shepherdess lighted strange scenes.

The summer wears out, hot and torpid over Budge Row. There's an unexpected crack of thunder when Captain Billy Stewart, tired of gentility, not only deserts the expedition, but associates himself with a rival one, bound, as is the de Thierry armada, for the Hokianga district in the far north. But this desertion comes too late in the day to do much damage, though it's a disillusion to find that kings don't love one another so much after all.

The ships are the things to consider now, beautiful, living, and mettlesome ships. The Swiftsure, a brig with sixteen nine-pounder guns; the Calista, a vessel of three hundred and fifty tons; and the Woodbridge, of five hundred tons, all chartered by Charles and his brother Francis, who has been like the right hand of this expedition. They are getting ready for sea towards early autumn, 1825.

There was a curious tale that the rats had formally declared the Swiftsure a ship of ill omen, trooping ashore in a hustling grey tide at Portsmouth. But the majority of Charles's recruits were either strapping fellows from the country or cheerful little Cockneys, unmoved by deep-sea superstitions. The sailing ship was then in the heyday of its pride and glory, and the vessels chartered for the expedition were almost new; clean-cut, shapely, with the towering splendour of canvas like a shining cloud above them, as they swam in state up London's river.

A day of blazing heat, of gnat-like worries and details. And then came Francis de Thierry, running, white-lipped, into the office.

The trouble on the Swiftsure had been so little… a cabin panel damaged by the fall of a piece of furniture. The ship's carpenter, putting this in order, came on a plank of rotten wood. He was ordered to remove it.

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Under the rotten plank a broken futtock was revealed. The carpenter sucked in his breath, worked on. Another broken futtock, and another.…

In one morning they discovered twenty-two broken futtocks. Francis, who was in charge of the Swiftsure for the expedition, sought out the shipmasters from whom she had been chartered. Their captain, a weazened little Cockney, was discovered in a crimping-house.

The ship had been on the rocks at Trincomalee. The incident had never been logged. But for the trivial accident of the cabin repairs, it would not have been discovered save in the might of a storm on the high seas, which give up no dead nor their secrets.

The Swiftsure was condemned as unseaworthy.

“There's still the Woodbridge and the Calista. We've got to manage with two ships, I tell you. England won't forget this, not in twenty years. There'll never be another de Thierry expedition raised from this country if we fail now.”

“Come down yourself, for God's sake, and see if you can shout sense into your emigrants. You're working against Billy Stewart now. How soon did he know of this? The moment one of his own paid men could duck from your crew on the Swiftsure, and pass him the word. Do you know what tale is going round? That to beat the other expedition at the post, you're putting out in death-ships, and you'll see the emigrants drowned before you'll let him win. Yes, and now that things are going against us, there's the cry of cannibals too. Another day of this and I tell you they'll stampede like a mob of sheep. I wouldn't put it past Stewart to have had a hand in selling you this pup. There's something queer in the way that Trincomalee business was kept dark, until now, when it can smash us.”

“I'll come,” said Charles mechanically. He reached for his silk hat; one looks best in one's silk hat. Yet he knew, as he closed the door of the office in Budge Row, that he had closed also a chapter of his life, and one which had promised well.

She looked proud and lovely as ever, the Swiftsure. Men had broken her with their drunkenness, their cringing lies. Otherwise, no doubt, she would have been proud to serve the expedition.

“Why do reputable men shrink from such an adventure and such a humane enterprise? Surely, my dear Baron, England had more spirit a few years ago.”

“Yes, but… it's faith that has somehow gone out of the world, isn't it, Thomas Kendall? As though youth had left the loins of a man.…”

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Men and women who were to have sailed within the week, sat on the docks, squatting on boxes and coils of rope, arguing, staring, shouting. Something a little blind and animal about them, a half-satisfaction in the sheer excitement of trouble. They're good enough people you know, but not like the paupers, who, poor creatures, had such an extreme longing to escape at any cost. These people are conservative; it was a tremendous step that they should uproot themselves. The suspicion that somebody is trying to fool them is too much.

That they wouldn't hear him speak was not much more than he had expected. The crowd has a funny way of expressing its will. A sort of treble S sound, made with the tongue pressed hard on the front of the palate. Gigantic coils of serpents… then separate little cries bursting out. “The Calista, they said, was cranky.… The Woodbridge, the noble Woodbridge, with her lofty 'tween-decks, they said she was fit only for a prison-ship.”

Some of the more talkative, inflamed by free liquor passed round by a curiously sympathetic little knot of sailormen, barred his way. “A death-ship… ! Taking us out to sea, to drown in your bloody death-ships!”

The Calista, encompassed in the evil spell of her sister ship's disaster, had been new painted in white and green. Her figurehead, the head, shoulders, and breasts of a woman in a robe blue as larkspurs, rose up high and undaunted. There were seagulls with coral claws and wings of white and grey, fluttering around sails that hung slack now, yet shone where the sunlight caught them.

Charles turned away.

Thirty years later, round the jutting yellow of a headland which flaunted great garish tree-banners of crimson blossom, the ship Calista stood into Auckland harbour, the chief anchorage then in the north part of New Zealand. The deeper and wilder blue of the New Zealand sea shone up under her keel, the figure of the proud blue-robed woman thrust forth before her. Watching her draw close, unnoticed by any person of importance in the little crowd which always greeted a ship from England, stood a rather shabby old man, in decorous but distinctly outmoded clothing.

On she came, sails full and gleaming in that clear sunlight. And in that old man's eyes was such a look as not even this world, with its losses, its disappointments, its cold cruelties, dares often to paint on a human face. She had kept her own nobility, had outlived the old slanders which set a London crowd snarling. So she moved easily and most graciously through the waters where he would have brought her on a gallant enterprise. It was thirty years too late page 45 that the death-ship Calista vindicated herself. Thirty years can do much to a man and to his hopes. Yet, watching the larkspur robe shine against the bluer sea, he was glad that among all perishable things so much of loveliness had lived on.

The rival expedition, under Captain Herd in the Rosanna, sailed late in this year and made land in the Hokianga river-mouth, not far from the Baron de Thierry's land-purchases. Its success, however, was quickly turned to mourning, or to low comedy, as one chooses to look at it. The emigrants had no title to land, though they bought two islands in the Hauraki gulf. The chieftains ranged themselves against the expedition, either in genuine annoyance or, much more likely, for the fun of the thing. On either bank of the river they lined up and did war-dances. Is this neighbourly? They jump about, they roll their eyes, they protrude their tongues, their navels, and their abdomens, waving formidable weapons and shouting all the time. With the exception of four men, the terrified emigrants refused to leave the ship, and insisted on being taken direct to Hobart Town in Tasmania, where, comforting thought, the natives had already been exterminated. The four who stayed in New Zealand were (need I say it?) Scotsmen. They landed, unmolested by the Maoris, and remained there as peaceful and prosperous settlers for the rest of their lives.

In New York, late in 1828, Charles met with an officer from the Rosanna. It was in a hotel parlour. The officer was a good deal more than half-seas-over. Charles says he was sober himself.

“Your expedition, sir, was a failure… hic… failure,” warmly declared the officer – by then attached to a heart-breaking old she-devil of a merchantman. “But ours, sir, ours… hic… was a burst.”

Budge Row, at least, is done with. “Good-bye, England,” says the Baroness de Thierry, formerly Emily Rudge.

Where now can one promote an expedition to further the brotherhood of man, white, brown, and café-au-lait? In heaven, perhaps, with rebel angels for settlers. Then there is the United States. “A gentleman who owed me a considerable amount of money had departed there,” writes Charles. That seemed to settle their course.

Budge Row escapes the excitement of further Poles, banners, and lances. Brother shakes hands with brother. Charles won't have the parting as “Adieu”. For years he keeps writing, “We shall meet in New Zealand yet.”

“Adventurer… yes, as Walter Raleigh was an adventurer,” writes Francis de Thierry, twenty years later, trying to give some page 46 account of his fantastic brother to a Paris journal, L'Amoricain. And to Charles, separated from him by the width of a world, he writes, “Don't, I beg of you, write to me in English, the tongue of our exile. Ah, that accursed New Zealand, it has cost you everything.”