A man with many irons in the fire needs the material for constant stoking, and so Nick Flower, having no page 128 patience with cooling irons, was rarely in one place long. Waterside taverns everywhere knew the tall man with his big shoulders and harsh voice and sharp half-closed eyes; rickety little offices in Auckland and Wellington and Sydney knew him, their owners rising to shake hands in a heartiness they seldom felt—for Flower usually got more than his pound of flesh out of every bargain. The Maoris knew him and welcomed him more freely than others did, since proud chiefs, refusing to deal any longer with ordinary traders, found Flower always ready to remember that they had backbones and had owned the country long before the graceless pakeha came.
So Flower did heavy trade in the midlands; and, besides the smuggled ammunition, many kegs of strong black tobacco, many cases of saws, axes and knives, many bottles of sauces and vinegars to give a relish to plain food were landed free of duty from brigs and cutters lurching in the rough seas along those rugged wooded coasts. Flower, who never saw why he should have mercy on any man, fleeced the chiefs too, but not so savagely as other white men did … white men who had infinitely fewer morals than the Maori, he thought, sitting now by a camp-fire within the tall carved ramparts of Te Mahia's pa below the snowy shoulder of Mount Egmont in the Taranaki.
Close in the red flicker of light lay a young Maori; hands clenched, dark eyes rolling under the anguish of tattoo, but scorning (stout fellow) to let a groan out of him as the naked squatting old tohunga tap-tapped out the long cheek-lines with mallet and shark-tooth knife, wiping away the blood with the twist of dressed flax round his little finger. For many months the torture would go on, as much at a time as the protesting flesh could bear, with charcoal dropped into the open wounds until the smooth brown young cheeks and forehead were scarred for ever into an indigo ferocity. And then the tohunga would begin on the man's rump.page 129
By what right did the English consider themselves so superior to a race which passes into manhood through such an initiation; whose chiefs-to-be must prove themselves in yet bitterer ways; whose every child-game is a gruelling test of courage and determination and strength? Our white skin, I suppose, thought Flower, shrugging and consulting a note-book.
The selling of tattooed enemy-heads to museums all over the world had been almost stopped, but there were still a few to be picked up and secretly got away. Te Mahia (said Flower's note-book) had several…. The missionaries, always so ready to believe, thought they had stopped the tattooing; but, in spite of that giant Bishop Selwyn walking all over the Island on his long legs, what did the whites know of the happenings in these deep forests?
What did those arrogant English gentlemen know, fussily planting English oaks and silver birches round their new houses, importing Chinese pheasants and peacocks to walk on their new lawns, importing brindled bulldogs to hunt the great droves of Captain Cook pigs back in the hills, importing blooded horses for their racing and silk bonnets for their ladies to walk abroad in? What did they know in their blind childish conceit of the dangers they were piling up for themselves by their insolence to the Maori, their crazy denunciation of their governors in the papers?
All the ignorance of civilization, thought Flower, strolling through the dimness to another fire, where a missionary-taught lad out of one of the Bishop's schools was slowly translating from a recent Chronicle. “With eyes turned to heaven and lips dropping unctuous rectitude our Pecksniffian Governor is robbing Peter to pay Paul and elegantly building schools for savages while consistently denying to white immigrants the use of their land….”
The jolly little group round the camp-fire understood enough of that to bellow their amusement. A young war- page 130 rior took the reader's head under his arm, pretending to punch it. “Hori Grey!” he shouted, and the men beat their heels on the ground in ecstasy. So that was where England's honour was going to. Yet the Maoris would have respected Grey if they had been allowed, for he surely was doing all that mortal man could do in the face of more confusions than any country had ever before been cursed with.
“Aue,” grunted Te Mahia at Flower's elbow. “This is not good. Should a Maori say half that of a chief he would be dead in two days. Why does not your white chief also kill?”
“He can't,” said Flower dryly. Te Mahia digested that slowly.
“All the Taranaki is saying that to be ruled by a chief whom his own warriors laugh at is an evil thing,” he remarked at last.
“Wanganui is saying it too. And the Waikato.” Flower looked sideways at the grim old face. Touch a Maori's pride and only blood will comfort him. Well, damn it, why not touch it? War had to come anyway. “Some day Maori warriors may learn to laugh at their own chiefs, Te Mahia.”
“The chiefs are thinking of that,” said Te Mahia, walking away.
Flower went down to Wellington with the tattooed heads in a carpetbag. He had paid through the nose for them, but they were worth their weight in gold now. Vienna Museum … that one in Budapest … considering their relative merits, Flower walked through the steep little Wellington streets (Wellington was already hanging like numerous swallows' nests on its high cliffs) and drank a modest brandy at a little table in the Prince Consort tavern. A young man with loose fair hair and a general elegance gone somehow astray sat alone at a distant table. Jermyn Lovel, egad, looking for once as though the world was not well with him. Flower went down the sanded page 131 floor, asking for Auckland news, but Jermyn, it seemed, had none to give.
Indeed, he gave so little of anything that Flower was immediately interested. Something biting this young buck, so smart in his sherry-colour coat and ruby pin catching the firelight, so sullen about the tired eyes and drooping well-cut mouth. Feeling his way, Flower talked idly of the commerce of crowns and countries, the feeding-bottle logic of the old men, the heady aspirations of the young.
“No mistaking your hand in the Chronicle now, Mr Lovel. It's a great thing to have an influence on men's minds. I have to content myself with influencing their fortunes.”
There are no great things, Jermyn wanted to say. How could there be when an honest man is reduced to making a virtue of prostituting his conscience? He said instead: “Have the ordinary men minds?”
“Precious few, I grant you. Nor fortunes either.” Another drink or so, and Jermyn would loosen up, thought Flower, instructing the waitress. What did this young fool know of the plums Flower could drop into that sulky mouth if he chose? The New Zealand Company (Flower could tell him) will shortly throw in the towel, handing over its debts to England and getting out as best it can. And England will undoubtedly push those debts back on the New Zealand Government—which is Auckland, More I.O.U.'s for Nick Flower then; fewer liqueurs for the gentlemen and not so many Paris bonnets for the ladies. Lord Almighty, what a scoop for young Lovel and the Chronicle to get in first with that news. Of the Maoris Flower could tell him; of the blind stupid mistakes made by every civilization in taking hold….
“Why have no white men the imagination to read history?” he asked.
But Jermyn was not here to be asked riddles. He gulped raw brandy, that began to glitter in his eyes, page 132 loosened up with a tirade against hell of all places. Hell, he said, very tragic and confidential, has been defined as the epitome of effort and failure. Did Flower know anything of failure?
“Perhaps I've never made enough effort to learn,” said Flower. This young buck, all on edge with his puny efforts, what could he guess of that great and terrible thing?
“Philosophers know,” declared Jermyn, pouring more brandy. “Their job to dissect the soul…. Where is the soul?”
“In most women and few men, I should imagine,” said Flower. What woman was young Lovel chasing with such smoky tempest in his eyes?
“A woman, sir,” said Jermyn, staring profoundly out of disordered waves of hair, “is an 'nigma.”
“She thinks she is,” amended Flower.
“And life in t-towns is jush a refined way o' going to pieces.”
“A very elegant way, I'm sure. I hope I'll never have to try it.” How many more platitudes was this fellow going to cast at him? “What did you see along the coast?” he asked.
“Sent tools ashore instead. P'raps they know how to behave. I don't. T-tryin' … self-restraint. Ever you try self-reshtraint with a woman?”
“Oh, take her, man. For the Lord's sake, take her if you want her. What else is a woman for? Don't you know yet how the pretty creatures despise us for self-restraint?”
“What's that?” Jermyn sat up with a glare. “Despise us? For-for not throwing their caps over windmills? Don't b'lieve it. No woman likes throwing——”
“Plenty of underground ways, ain't there?” asked the man who did all his important business underground. And went away, for there is no profit in conversation with a man besotted by love.