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A South-Sea Siren

Chapter V

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Chapter V

There now, Alice! Place that gorgeous flower-vase in its old place at the far end of the table, and seat our friend Raleigh opposite you, then we shall be as before,’ exclaimed Mr Seymour, in his hearty manner, as he entered the dining-room. ‘Really, my dear boy, I am glad you have dropped in to lunch, if only to put the table straight; we have been all lop-sided since Mary left.’

‘Yes, indeed,’ remarked Alice, in her quiet way, ‘I have exercised my weak intellect ever so much about setting the table, and cannot arrange it to my satisfaction. First, I thought we should sit opposite one another, but then we seemed to be a mile apart, and the flowervase being in the centre quite hid papa from me, so that I had to bob my head from side to side to catch a glimpse of him. Then I tried the vase on one side, where Mary used to sit, but that was horribly unsymmetrical, and made the wretched void more conspicuous still; next I thought to put the vase away altogether, but I could not bear parting with an old friend, so I gave it up in despair, and now I leave the laying of the table to Jane; she manages it anyhow. It was so nice to be three!’

‘Notwithstanding the old saying, “Two's company, and three's none”,’ interjected Raleigh.

‘Oh! that proverb refers to quite another state of things,’ observed the old gentleman, laughingly, ‘where one person has something very particular to communicate to the other, and the third party is not in the secret. I have experienced that once, but have long since ripened to the gooseberry stage.’

‘Father!’ exclaimed Alice, with a reproachful look in her large dark eyes; then yielding to a sudden impulse, she threw her arms round his neck and kissed him lovingly.

‘For my part,’ continued Raleigh, ‘I never cared much for the tête-à-tête business; to converse pleasantly one needs an audience, and I have generally found the third party rather an advantage, if not a relief.’

‘It depends very much on the nature of the conversation, I should say,’ replied Mr Seymour, with a merry twinkle in his eye. ‘What about the whispering of soft nothings, which only admits to a very page 55 limited audience? But you ought to know all about that. Have you never been in love?’

‘Not that I know of—at any rate, not in the usual conventional style, with those harrowing signs of outward distress which we read about in novels. But judging from personal observation, I should not think that love acts as a stimulant to conversation; indeed, one of the symptoms of a man being in love is that he has nothing to say. I have noticed also that young people who keep company together, and indulge in long walks side by side, are distressingly silent. Out of pure curiosity once, I followed such a spoony couple, promenading in some public gardens. For two hours I dogged their steps, and can answer for it that during the whole of that time they never exchanged one solitary remark.’

‘Those lovers must have been very far gone,’ said Alice, slyly. ‘In the earlier stages I have generally thought lovers to be rather communicative—that is, on the lady's side. I did not know that gentlemen were affected the other way. But now I come to think of it, Mary and Bertie never had much to say to one another. I was always trying to find excuses for leaving them to themselves, but was invariably called back. I really believe that they must have felt my presence to be—as you say—a relief,’

‘By the by,’ inquired the other, ‘how is Miss Mary—I beg your pardon—Mrs Fitzroy, I mean. Have you heard from her lately?’

‘I get a letter, on an average, every other day. Oh, they are quite well, and very happy, of course. They have been travelling about, and at Auckland have been through no end of dissipation; parties, picnics, dances, theatricals—a round of gaiety! We expect them back in a fortnight, when they go to Ferngrove, to settle down in their new home. It is a pity that it is so far away.’

‘Now, there is another inconsistency in the ways of the world,’ remarked Raleigh, argumentatively. ‘Of course, personally, I know nothing about it, and therefore cannot venture an opinion, but I should like to know the why and wherefore of these senseless honeymoon trips. How can you account for it, that newly-married couples, instead of seeking quiet and comfort in their own homes, or in some pretty little nook, where they could be all-in-all to one another, and enjoy their happiness undisturbed, should prefer flitting away among gaping strangers, in all the wretched discomfort of hotels, and the bustle of foreign places. It must be a perfect infliction. Why, I have known them to go straight from the church to on board ship, and be sea-sick for a week at the start.’

‘I should certainly prefer the other way, myself,’ said Alice, with page 56 a slight blush, ‘but all these things are regulated by fashion.’

‘And not without reason either,’ added Mr Seymour. ‘Don't you know that the beginning of married life is reckoned a very trying ordeal for most people? There are very few bridal pairs who can afford to be all-in-all to one another at the start, and it takes time to acclimatise the young birds to their new existence. The change and animation of the honeymoon trips keep them occupied, and divert their thoughts from home sickness and previous habits. I am sure if our dear little Mary only feels our absence half as much as we do hers, she will have many a heartache. But we are not going to be downhearted,’ added the old gentleman, brightening up. ‘are we, Alice? When the happy pair return home we shall then take our holiday. I have long promised myself an excursion to the North Island, and I propose doing it with Alice in style. You will hear of our débût in the world of fashion; being trotted out, figuring at balls and parties, causing quite a sensation, and possibly even being interviewed. See if we don't; and then we have one great point in our favour—we are both of us eligible!

‘Oh, papa, how can you be so absurd?’

‘Why not combine business with pleasure, sir? Accept that nomination to the Legislative Council, which has been pressed upon you, and enjoy all this distinction in a patriotic spirit.’

‘And at the expense of the State,’ interjected Alice, eagerly. ‘Yes, papa, do! It would be so nice, and you ought really to take some interest in local politics, you know. Then, I am sure you could make a splendid speech; not one of those dry old pleadings, in a wig, which you used to perform before their lordships—they were rather dry—but an eloquent address, with high flights, you know, appropriate gestures, and a grand peroration. I can see it all—reporters scribbling, breathless excitement, then deafening applause! Oh, it would be grand!’ And the young lady clapped her hands, and went off into a burst of merriment.

‘And upon what great question should I make this impressive appeal,’ inquired the retired barrister, highly amused; ‘on the Early Closing Bill, the Scab Act, or the Bill for the Extermination of Wild Pigs?’

‘Oh, nothing so paltry as that!’ exclaimed his daughter. ‘There's the Native Question, upon which every member is expected to make at least one grand speech every year. I have never read one yet, but I notice that they occupy generally four to five columns each. Yours should be ten columns, papa! Then there are the stock subjects, you know, which come every session for discussion. You could choose page 57 one of these—female suffrage, for instance, not that I should care for a vote myself, but, of course, I take an interest in the emancipation of my sex.’

‘Or better still, the floating of a new loan; that fetches them,’ remarked Raleigh; ‘but, joking apart, I really think, sir, that your presence in Parliament might be agreeable to yourself, and advantageous to the public interest.’

‘Tut, tut, man! Why you have ever been the first to run down this game of local politics, and I must confess that I think it little better than a farce myself.’

‘That is because the thing has been ridiculously overdone,’ replied the other. ‘Popular government has been brought into contempt, and rendered ineffectual, if not prejudicial to our best interests by a sort of reductio ad absurdum process. The very name of Government has become hateful to me. It does not represent autocratic rule or oppression, as in former times—quite the reverse; but a paternal solicitude which is objectionable in principle and provoking in practice; a fussy interference in endless concerns and interests, which are altogether outside its legitimate functions, and all this combined with a servile cringing to the (so called) popular voice which is simply contemptible. The colonial system of government seems to me to embody the idea of a dry nurse, or perhaps it might be magnified into that of a major-domo; an important personage to show off, and expensive to keep, but not above being kicked. His duties are multifarious; indeed, there is scarcely any recognised limit to them; he is supposed to do everything and to be everywhere, to submit to be coaxed and bullied by turns and defrauded on every occasion. He is beadle, schoolmaster, scavenger, steward, mail conductor, medical attendant, recruiting sergeant, contractor for works, treasurer, chief magistrate, and knock-about-hand, to fetch and carry for the community at large.’

‘You are too severe, my friend, for you must remember that we are at the Antipodes, and that Old World notions are reversed nowadays. The Government, instead of being the master, is supposed to be the servant of the people. We used to be taught, “If you want a thing done do it yourself.” Here it is different, If you want a thing done, apply to the Government.’

‘Yes,’ pursued Raleigh, warming up to his subject, ‘the Government is supposed to initiate, to assist, to protect every description of enterprise—in fact, to hold the leading strings for the waddling colonist. But that is not the worst of it. It's the quantity as well as the quality page 58 that I complain of; we have government on the brain. It is government here, government there, government everywhere.

‘Apart from a central administration, which is required, we have all these provincial governments, which are simply ludicrous. Every petty state has its legislature, with all the pomp and circumstance of responsible government. Puppets of superintendents, strutting about with all the airs of a President of the United States; a speaker in a wig, with a sergeant-at-arms in a gown; responsible ministries hopping in and out of office on the merest pretence of what they are pleased to call “a policy”; a huge organisation of departments and civil servants, with secretaries and under-secretaries, and “heads” without number, and expense without stint. The thing is past a joke. It may be playing at government, but the little game is not at all amusing to those who have to pay for it.

‘When we consider that several of the secondary cities of England, managed—and well managed, too—by a mayor and a dozen aldermen, have more wealth and inhabitants than the whole of New Zealand put together, one can realise the folly of this popular government mania.’

‘The parallel is hardly a correct one,’ remarked Mr Seymour, ‘for the Old World corporations move in a fixed groove, whereas we are here in a new country, with everything to do.’

‘It could be done without government direction.’

‘No doubt it could be done, and probably would be done, for we have the example of America before us, but it is the unmistakable tendency of these colonial constitutions to adopt the existing method of administration, objectionable as it may be in many respects. Give every man a vote, and throw everything upon the Government. That is a practical method of effecting the rule of the majority, which is the true democratic ticket. It is a socialistic principle, which has taken deep root already, and which is not to be eradicated.’

‘Well, then, it should be the endeavour of every patriotic politician to run counter to this popular but erroneous idea, and to restrict the functions of government within proper limits.’

‘According to you, then,’ replied Mr Seymour, smiling, ‘if there is not much to be done, there is at least a great deal to be undone.’

‘That is about it,’ retorted the other. ‘Government is of itself an evil, which cannot entirely be done without in the present state of society, but which should be reduced to its lowest expression. The principal thing you have to teach the Government in these colonies is to mind its own business. If you got into parliament it page 59 would be useless to expect you to do any good, but you might prevent others from doing us more harm.’

‘Well, I declare,’ observed the elderly gentleman, good-humouredly, ‘that is a very negative sort of enthusiasm to instil into an aspiring public man burning for his country's weal. Under such conditions I really think that I must decline the honour.’

‘Oh! papa, don't mind what he says; he is only a philosopher, you know. People go to parliament to speak, don't they? and I am sure you could make a splendid speech; or to legislate and so on, and you know all about law; besides, now that our home has been partially broken up, a change would do us good.’

‘Well, my child, we will think about it. It is a matter requiring grave consideration. In the meantime I am going to leave you young people to finish your lunch and the discussion by yourselves, while I take a turn round the grounds to give some instructions to the gardener; I shall then take my coffee and smoke a pipe in the shade-house, where you will find me. Au revoir, darling.’ And Mr Seymour patted his daughter's cheek, gave a kindly nod to Raleigh, and sauntered forth into his beloved garden.

There they could see him from the parlour window, with smoking-cap on and pipe in hand, bending over the flower-beds or in deep consultation with the gardener; examining, criticising, and deciding upon future operations.

A fine old gentleman was Mr Seymour; an English gentleman of the old school, with a thorough English face of the old type. A plain face, rough grained, with no external polish on it, but expressive of innate refinement; clean shaved, all but the neatly trimmed side whiskers, which were nearly white; features pronounced and prominent, but not hard or rugged; an open forehead, with greyish curls brushed forward over each temple; kindly eyes; a large mouth, revealing amiability and genial humour;—a good face. A manly bearing also, without a swagger; manners courteous and cordial, but rather reserved, and without affectation of refinement; a voice grave and sympathetic, but not unctuous. He was a man of a thoughtful and retiring disposition, but not of sedentary habits; one who loved companionship but not company; a good talker and a better listener. His life had been sad, but his temper was cheerful; he had seen a great deal of the world and yet he was not worldly; he was a well-read man, but in no respects a pedant, and although he loved his library he delighted still more in nature.

Mr Seymour had sought in this new world for relief from Old World eares and tribulations; his former promising career as a page 60 barrister had been nipped in the bud by failing health and domestic bereavements; he had also suffered severely in his pecuniary affairs through the dishonesty of a trusted agent, and it was with a broken fortune and a shattered constitution that he had decided to sever definitely from old associations and to embark his declining fortune for the Antipodes. He was at the time a widower with two grown-up daughters, and the trial had been a severe one.

But it had been eminently successful. The entire change of scene and society—the new life—had restored his health and spirits beyond the most sanguine expectations. He had found in New Zealand, and in the bracing out-door pursuits of the pioneer colonist, the conditions most favourable for his homely tastes and placid temperament. The freedom of the bush delighted him. He was charmed with the new aspects of nature; the quietness, simplicity, and freshness of all things. With the social and political development of the community he was only interested as a spectator, but he became devotedly attached to his own charming homestead and indefatigable in his exertions to beautify its surroundings. When asked his opinion about the colony, he used invariably to reply, ‘I love New Zealand!’

Mr Seymour's hobby was horticulture. He had studied the art in Europe, but here he found ample scope to carry his favourite pursuit into practice. His garden occupied most of his attention, but it had well repaid him—in pleasure if not in coin—for his trouble. His flower borders were the admiration of the neighbourhood; his vegetables supplied his own table, and took the first prizes at the local shows; his fruit found its way in baskets to all his friends, and filled innumerable jampots. So the old gentleman planted and pruned, weeded and watered, and then smoked his pipe in blissful contemplation of his gay parterre and luscious crops, and he was a happy man.

It had taken several years to bring about these satisfactory results, for Glenmoor, when the Seymours had first settled there, partook largely of the desert character of the surrounding country. Much labour and considerable expense had been required to transform the barren spot into a blooming garden, and one serious objection might have been urged against this lavish expenditure in the undeniable fact that it did not pay.

But this circumstance, which would have weighed heavily with most people, was viewed by Mr Seymour with apparent indifference. He was one of those men who have considerable aptitude for making money, but none whatever for keeping it. He did not despise wealth, but he neglected economy, and he looked upon accounts as a page 61 nuisance. Through a fortunate circumstance his small capital had been well invested, and the Glenmoor estate was one which under thrifty and practical management would have yielded handsome returns, but under existing circumstances it could barely be made to cover expenses.

The neighbours, who for the most part were common-place people, with no ideas beyond money-making, used to shake their heads over Mr Seymour's system of ornamental farming, and were in no danger of following his example. Their homesteads, as a rule, were of the rudest description, with but scanty attempts at comfort and none at embellishment. A farm in those days generally consisted of a wooden house, standing bare and exposed, a few rough sheds with perhaps a stable adjoining, but destitute of yards or a dairy, pigs or poultry, and not even an attempt at a garden. To fence in as much land as possible, to run a plough over it and obtain a few wheat crops from it without manuring or systematic cultivation, then to sow with English grasses and to paddock sheep, was the only rule recognised by the pioneer settler, and the only practice which was admitted to pay. The idea of scientific farming was treated with derision.

Glenmoor resembled a little oasis in the desert; it was well sheltered and shaded, and from the midst of its glistening young plantations looked out upon a wide expanse of rolling downs and yellow plains, with a glimpse of the dark blue ocean in the distance. In the background rose Mount Pleasance, a beautiful and commanding object, tinted with pearly greys in the bright mornings and warm purples in the glowing sunsets, and during the winter months capped with snow. Round and about the country presented a bare and arid aspect, being almost entirely denuded of trees and of a uniform golden colour, unless where spotted with patches of cultivation.

Raleigh and Miss Seymour remained for a short time in the parlour, talking about indifferent subjects, when the young lady exclaimed, ‘I've a bone to pick with you, sir! You have been distinguishing yourself as usual—worse than usual—advancing most shocking paradoxes, and preaching doctrines which are really quite too awful; your friends are not only astonished but grieved, and don't know what to plead in extenuation, unless it is the old excuse that you don't mean it. It is rather a lame sort of apology, but what else can we say?’

‘Don't say anything. Adopt that graceful and expressive French fashion and shrug your shoulders;’ and Raleigh went through a grotesque pantomime and grimace, with head twisted sideways, one shoulder screwed up to his ear, arms contorted, hands upturned, and fingers extended wide.

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‘More suggestive than elegant!’ remarked Alice, with a smile; ‘but really, I am ashamed of you; no, that is not the word—I grieve for you.’

‘I rejoice to hear it, for I appreciate any kind of sympathy from your charming sex; indeed, every sentiment is more or less acceptable to me except one—indifference.’

‘That, I shall never feel,’ said Alice, quickly.

Raleigh made a low salaam.

‘Do stop your nonsense, and be sensible for once,’ she continued petulantly. ‘It is no joking matter. I ask you seriously if you do not think it is very foolish—very wrong of you to start such subjects of discussion—questioning and disparaging principles that we all love and venerate in our hearts, and which are are essential to all right action. Of course, you don't mind. You only argue for the sake of arguing—to show off! The more monstrous the proposition the better you like it. Papa, too, was quite entertained the other night over your palaver, as you call it, and returned home quite full of your discussion. He told me that he had accepted your brief, and supported you against all the room, for which, by the by, I gave him a good scolding. For my part, I see nothing entertaining about it, and what you say in jest others may take in earnest. Besides, there are some subjects much too sacred to be spoken lightly of, and Truth is one of them.’

‘What a homily! and so eloquently expressed. Really, Miss Seymour, I must congratulate myself that you are not a member of our debating society, otherwise I should fare badly there. As it is, I am outnumbered and outvoted. The other night I was set upon from all sides, and if it had not been for Mr Seymour, I should have succumbed. But now, to receive the coup-de-grâce from your fair hands—no, it is too much!’

And the young man threw himself back in his chair, despairingly, like one overwhelmed.

‘Take a cup of tea, and promise not to offend again,’ said Alice, with a smile. ‘But, really, I am very angry with you.’

‘Are you really, now? What about? Did you hear what arguments I advanced?’

‘No, I did not, and what is more, I have no wish to know. I should be sorry to have them repeated to me.’

‘So, then, you condemn me unheard?’

‘Of course I do. I have been brought up to love and reverence the truth, and to hate and avoid whatever is false, deceitful, or hypocritical. No argument would avail on that point. You might as well ask me to question my faith.’

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‘God forbid!’ exclaimed the other, seriously. ‘Don't do that, on any account. If what you understand by Truth is with you a matter of faith, then embrace it with all your heart and mind, and ask no questions. Avoid the Spirit of Inquiry, which affords but little satisfaction and occasions much mischief. But please bear in mind that the Truth which I discussed so irreverently, and the Truth you worship so blindly, are very different things.’

‘How can that be? There can only be one Truth.’

‘One Truth—yes; but a great many different conceptions of it, and we deal only with conceptions. You and I are really on the same side, although you do not perceive it. For you adopt certain ideas and principles as your rule of life, without inquiry or discussion, because you know them to be good, whereas I am pleading against an erroneous and pernicious notion that Truth is the supreme good, and that the knowledge of the actual reality of things is to be preferred to any other.’

‘And what, then, is your criterion of the Truth,’ asked Alice, rather doubtfully.

‘The heart,’ replied the philosopher, stoutly.

‘I don't know that I can quite follow you. I feel as if I was getting beyond my depth, but I am very glad to hear that we do not disagree so thoroughly after all. It is satisfactory to learn that you are sound at heart, for we don't want to lose you altogether.’

‘What do you mean with your altogether? Have I ever wavered in my loyalty to Glenmoor.’

‘Oh! we do not complain, as yet,’ replied Alice, with an arch look.

‘Only you have made yourself very scarce of late, and it has been said—not that we ever attach much importance to idle gossip—that you, too, have lately fallen under the influence.’

Raleigh winced considerably at this home-thrust, and tried to turn it off. ‘Oh! you allude to the Spiritualist influence,’ he said; ‘we did have a seance or two, I admit, and made fools of ourselves over some attempts at table-turning, but——’

‘No, no; nothing of that sort,’ exclaimed Alice with a malicious smile; ‘you know very well what I mean. I am alluding to The Influence. There now, don't blush so. I know that it is catching, and that you sentimental gentlemen are very liable to the contagion. Why, it is not three months ago that Arthur Irving was so hard hit that he has hardly recovered yet, poor fellow. But that you, also, should fall a ready victim——do tell me, what is the secret of this wonderful fascination?’

Raleigh tried to laugh, but the attempt did not sound very hearty.

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‘I cannot possibly enlighten you on the subject,’ he said, with affected indifference, ‘but I plead guilty to feeling a great deal of sympathy for Mrs Wylde, who is very unhappy, and much to be pitied.’

‘Oh! I see; it is pity, then. Well, for my part, I should not care to be so much pitied. But why should she be so unhappy? Is it because she does not receive sufficient admiration?’

‘How uncharitable you are!—a failing you are not often guilty of. Mrs Wylde has much to worry her; then her surroundings are not congenial; she suffers acutely in her susceptibilities; she has affinities——’

‘She has her husband,’ added Alice, bluntly.

‘Her husband! What a thoroughly conventional matter-of-fact remark. Her husband! That is so truly English. So long as a woman is not beaten or starved, and has a husband, she ought to be happy and contented. That is the idea. I suppose that the susceptibilities of a refined nature, the aspirations of an ardent and ambitious soul, unrequited affection—all that goes for nothing?’

Miss Seymour laughed outright. ‘When you come to the matter of hidden affinities,’ she exclaimed, ‘I give it up! No doubt it may mean a great deal, but any sensible and discreet married woman, with any self-respect, who suffers from these internal complaints, would endeavour to keep silent about them. The Wyldes may be an uncongenial couple, but judging from appearances the party most to be pitied is the commodore.’

Raleigh, who felt very uncomfortable under this cross-examination, tried hard to change the conversation, but Alice, who perceived her advantage, was not to be put off. She continued to tease her unfortunate victim, and, as a crowning joke, affected to sympathise with him.

‘I remember,’ she exclaimed, ‘that when we were in Italy, every reigning belle that we saw had at least three devoted followers, who were constantly in attendance. The first in favour was the Cavalier servant; the next one—I forget the name he went by; and the third, he was the soupirant! Le soupirant?’ she kept repeating to herself, with a quizzical look at her companion. ‘The Sighing One—how tender, how sentimental, how pitiful! a matter of unspoken affinities. Oh, dear me!’

Another sigh.

Raleigh remembered that he had a pressing engagement at the township with reference to the next board meeting, and he expressed his regret at having to depart so hurriedly.

Alice accompanied him to the front door to see him off, and shook page 65 hands most sympathetically; then, after he had mounted his horse and was just leaving, she called out to him for a parting message.

Raleigh reined in his steed, and came trotting back. Alice, standing inside the porch, beckoned to him to come nearer, then, drawing a long breath, she gave a loud, deep sigh, with a look of tragic woe, ending in a peal of laughter, as she ran back into the house.