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Life of Sir George Grey: Governor, High commissioner, and Premier. An Historical Biography.

Chapter XXIV. — At Kawau

page 179

Chapter XXIV.
At Kawau.

It had long been the dream of Sir George Grey—which he used to say he shared with Mrs. Browning—to withdraw from the turmoil of public life to a solitary island and there live at peace with himself and the world. In one form or another it is a natural and common aspiration. If the days of the years of our pilgrimage are seventy years, should we not treat its last decade as a Sabbatic period and spend it in preparation for the final change? A Scottish legislator, belonging to the historic family of Baillie of Jerviswoode, deliberately forsook the world at sixty and then wore himself out by the intensity of his devotions. The great Dr. Chalmers also looked forward to a seventh decade of Sabbatic rest, but was doomed to spend it amid the turmoil of ecclesiastical strife. Carlyle too dreamt of a closing period of peaceful retirement, but worked on till he was close on seventy, when the œstrus of moral dyspepsia had bitten into his soul and poisoned his last years. Gladstone likewise made strenuous efforts to wrench himself from public life, in order to dedicate himself in seclusion to some lofty task befitting the gathering of the shadows, but was, once and again, rapt up and carried away by the genius of politics. Just so did Grey meditate a complete self-banishment from the world, though he was only approaching his sixtieth year and was still in the prime of his powers. Probably with a view to such a closing sabbath he had purchased an estate where he might be as retired as he pleased and yet not too far from such society as he cared to see.

Kawau, or Shag Island, is one of a group of emerald isles that gem the sapphire sea near the head of the Hauraki Gulf. It is a vision of beauty. Rounded page 180masses of low hills continually open up to the pedestrian wonderful new scenes, as every turn of the steamer on Loch Lomond discloses some enchanting new prospect. The shy deer could be seen flitting to and fro, and on the heights the bounding wallaby and kangaroo were descried. Trees, shrubs, and flowers from every quarter of the globe made it a garden of delights. In this earthly paradise did the disillusioned statesman find the peace that he sought? For one thing, there was never complete retirement. To a succession of visitors the colonial Lucullus extended a hospitality of mind as well as of hearth, and among crowds of excursionists he played the patriarch with unostentatious simplicity. Did he have a single visitor, of any education, he would devote himself to his guest, hardly ever leaving him to himself, planning excursions for him, walking with him, and above all talking with him. Upon this favoured individual he would pour forth all the treasures of his mind, all his reminiscences of the past, and all his hopes for the future. Many times over he must have thus talked through his whole past life. There was no incident in his past career that might not come up for narrative or discussion. Such visitors as Froude he completely subjugated, and the chapter in Oceana devoted to Sir George is a tribute to his fascination. Baron Hübner, reputed son of old Metternich, came to see the ex-Governor, and was no less eulogistic. Not of Circe's train assuredly were they, and yet cooler heads or more instructed minds would have judged him differently. Few New Zealanders of any importance visited him there, and he did not wish to see them. He desired to be left to himself.

Such visitors were for the beautiful summer or still finer autumn months, when Kawau looked its loveliest. During the rainy season, when for weeks or sometimes for months it was hardly possible to go out of doors, did he ever undertake the works of erudition we know he at one time contemplated? The materials for some of them had been deposited at the Cape, whereas the man page 181who could have used them best, now that Bleek was gone, was held at a distance of 7,000 miles remote from them; but with a splendid second collection at his elbows, he need not have lacked materials. The requisite gifts and somewhat of the necessary culture were there, but the equally indispensable stimulus was wanting. Though he could speak for three hours at a stretch, and tour the Colony for weeks when fired by a cause, he was incapable of continuous solitary application. Hence, the further translation of legends and myths, the elucidations he could have given (for he saw into the heart of them and severely condemned some of what he deemed John White's perversions of them), and the works of comparative mythology he might have composed, were never made and never written.

High thoughts doubtless visited the soaring spirit. A drama of his composition, probably produced in those years, has been found among his papers; it appears to bear traces of his lofty spirit. Light literary sketches show his humour. In those same years were nurtured the principles and springs of action that were to give him a fresh lease of both public and natural life. But darker humours were too often in the ascendant. Ghosts of the past came unbidden—memories of great things done, indeed, but also of insult, humiliation, and defeat. Hypochondria—not that of the wounded spirit or of the dreamer astray in an alien world, but begotten of thwarted ambition and outraged pride—laid her maddening fingers upon him in the hot, still sunshine or in the silent watches of the night. Children alone, always loved by the childless man, could scare away the evil spirit. From such vampire-moods he was happily rescued by a welcome summons to action.