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Ko Méri, or, A Cycle of Cathay: A Story of New Zealand Life

Chapter XI. A Personal Paragraph

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Chapter XI. A Personal Paragraph.

It was a fortnight after New Year's Day, and a few friends had gathered at Mrs. Dayton's house.

The night was close and sultry, with dark, ominous looking clouds obscuring the moon's rays and moving across the sky in detached masses. A soft wind blew from the east, that sighed among the great trees in the garden and around the house, with a sound that portended rain at no distant date.

Within all was bright and gay.

Around a small table sat Mr. and Mrs. Dayton, Dr. Brooke, and Ellie, playing cards, while at the open window Bertie and Miss Ellett were holding a most animated conversation about nothing in particular, though, judging from the frequent bursts of laughter, entertaining to themselves; the other guests, sitting in twos and threes, were engaged in desultory conversation.

The oppressiveness of the night communicated itself to all but Bertie—who was like a rubber ball, above all considerations of weather—inducing a general air of lassitude in the whole party.

Captain Deering had understood that Mary Balmain was to be present, and had been looking for her advent for at least fifteen minutes, every now and again glancing towards the door.

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How strange that she should be so late!

To pass the time, he crossed over to Amy Brooke, who was languidly leaning back in a big arm-chair. He rather liked her—when he could get no one better, silly though she was, but undeniably pretty. She had the most beautiful, silky, golden hair, that lay in fascinating rings on her forehead—she needed no fringe—and waved all over her head; her eyes were blue, and her face clear but colourless. Her figure was perfectly symmetrical, and had it not been for her self-consciousness and affectation she would have been very pleasant. Amy Brooke was not a beauty by any means—pretty is a word that applied to her very well. By the side of Mary Balmain's rich, grand beauty, or even Ellie Dayton's pure, dainty loveliness, she was almost commonplace; but it would be an impossibility to convince her of the fact; and she had made up her mind to make a conquest of Captain Deering with all her charms, if it lay in her power. It is strange, but true, that girls who are of little value in any other line of action, are almost invariably thrust—or thrust themselves—into the marriage market for the most onerous and difficult positions of wives and mothers.

He sat down on an ottoman near the arm-chair in which she reclined.

“How is it you are alone, Miss Brooke?” he began, in the caressing tone that always gained him the favour of women.

“Mr. Willerton was talking to me until a minute or two ago,” she said, in her weak, affected voice that was, after all, sweet to the ear. “Mary Balmain was to have been here to-night, but Lenore says she is not well,” she went on.

“I am sorry,” he said, politely.

“Don't you think she sings very well?”

“Yes,” he answered, briefly. He did not want to discuss Mary, but as Amy could not see his face, its expression failed to impress her.

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“She is pretty too—in her way,” she continued, “but half-castes have such straight, coarse hair, and many are so dark that they are almost swarthy.”

He felt wildly indignant at the disparaging tone of this baby-faced girl—the prettiness under the golden rings of hair now failed to please him—not fit to tie Mary Balmain's shoes. Because she happened to belong to a dominant race, with all her silliness she had the right to sit in judgment upon the half-caste with impunity. Mary's grand dark face and nobleness of soul seemed to pass out of consideration when it was remembered she was a Maori. He did not understand his companion's aim—did not regard it as pique. She forgot that speaking ill of another never advances our own claims to attention one iota.

“I admire dark beauty—or, indeed, beauty of any type,” he said, coldly. “You are a friend of Miss Balmain's, are you not?”

“Yes,” Amy answered, detecting the note of scorn in his voice, “but surely that does not prevent one giving an opinion?”

“It appears not,” he said suavely, and to his relief Bertie and Mabel Ellett came up and he escaped.

“Will you not favour us with some music, Miss Dayton?” asked Mr. Everard, as Captain Deering sauntered up to his cousin's chair.

“Yes, do, Lenore!” supplemented the soldier.

She rose at once and sat down to the piano.

Softly the opening chords of Liszt's beautiful transcriptions of Goethe's “Erlkönig” floated through the room, now soothing as the breeze on a summer's day, and then swelling into the crescendo of wind in a storm. Suddenly the whole picture rose before the minister's mental vision—the appearance of the Erl King to the child, the tender words of the father, the fading away of the little boy, the rush of the wraith to claim his own.

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It was quite late when Mr. Everard found himself at Lenore's side again.

“You played that transcription of Liszt's finely, Miss Dayton,” he said, warmly. “The whole scene seemed to rise before me, you gave such expression to the music.”

But she was in a mocking mood to-night.

“Scene! what scene?” she asked.

“Is it possible you do not know Goethe's poem of the Erl King?” he inquired in surprise.

“Would it reveal such a terrible abyss of ignorance if I said I did not know it?” she said, her eyes full of subtle mockery.

It was one of Mr. Everard's failings not to be able to see a joke, or the funny side of a question. There was a vein of sternness—sympathetic as he was—that prevented him from entering into the lighter side of life that to him was so serious. Lenore's inclination to turn his remarks into a laugh seemed to him approaching levity, but was really simple girlishness and high spirits. He controlled himself, however, and replied gently–

“No, I should not go quite so far, but it would surprise me very much.”

She was sorry now that she had been so wilful.

“I understand what you mean. The music gives the spirit of the poem as none but Liszt could.”

“Why is it that you wilfully misunderstand me so often?” he said, looking down at the pretty figure leaning back in the arm-chair.

“Do I—often? It seemed to me so droll for you to take it all so seriously,” she answered, flashing an amused look at him.

“Am I so serious to you, then?” he asked.

“Not always. But surely a little fun is not out of place!” she said, with a little ache at her heart.

“Do you think that I have no fun in me?” he asked again, conscious of the charm this girl held for him—the soft pink of her dress throwing up the page 133 fair clear skin and slender throat. What tender womanliness in the grave, truthful eyes, the musical voice, the graceful movements!

She was silent—at a loss.

“I see you do,” he cried, half-bitterly. “You think I take life too seriously. I'll tell you the reason, Miss Dayton—you can sympathize with it: whenever I go out into the open air in these lands, into the gladness and beauty that are as yet untainted with the smoke of furnaces, I think of the thousands in Great Britain pining for fresh air and sunshine, cooped up in dense cities, and miserable always.”

The strong, vibrating voice affected her strangely.

“But surely it is not well,” she said, after a pause, “to let the burden of others rest upon you, to take the pleasure out of your own life for a cause that you cannot help—only try to mitigate.”

“You are always thoughtful. I shall remember you when I am far away, perhaps in the densest slums of London. Who knows?”

The next morning was lovely—a typical January morning—dewdrops glittering like diamonds on the great full roses and dahlias, a delightful freshness in the air, and a warm breath from Aurora, long since risen above Rangitoto's bare cone. A delicate, pale blue haze lingered about the horizon, as if loth to fade before the glory of the day, and forming a delicate veil before the far distant hills.

Captain Deering had come out on the verandah with Mr. Dayton to enjoy the breeze that came from the southern ocean, across the everlasting snows and ice-fields of the Southern Alps, and to gaze upon the ever-beautiful panorama of hill and bay, forest and island, and the never-resting waves of the harbour, as blue as the vault of heaven above them.

Her cousin was suprised to see Lenore, dressed in a dark blue boating dress with an edging of white to the collar, and with a wide-brimmed sailor hat on page 134 the bronze hair, approaching from the gate. On her face was a dainty bloom, and about her forehead strayed rings of hair blown by the breeze, while the pure white throat rose like a column of marble, set off by the dark colour of the dress. Seldom had he seen her look so dainty, so enchanting.

“Where have you been, cousin mine?” he cried, as she approached the steps, and held up her face for her father's morning kiss.

“Not taking advantage of the drowsy god, like some other people, but getting as much benefit as I could from the morning air. I have been out boating since half-past six,” she answered.

“Yes,” Mr. Dayton broke in proudly, “she pulls as good a stroke as any girl in Parnell.”

“I have not been out much this season, but last year Mary and I went out ferning very often, and I took Mrs. Morgan and mamma sometimes; they dislike sailing.

“Why, Lenore,” cried Ellie, coming out in a fresh white dress as pure as herself, “you might have told me you were going out in the boat, I would have gone with you,”

“I really did not think you would care to come, dear. But we can go to-morrow—it will be fine. It was lovely out this morning,” she said, turning to her cousin, “so fresh and cool, and with such a delicious feeling in the air.”

“You had better go in and get ready for breakfast, Lenore,” exclaimed Ellie. “It is ready.” But that young lady was half-way upstairs before her sister's remark was finished.

They were all seated at the table before Lenore came down, with the exception of Will, who was spending his holidays with friends in the country.

“What are you going to do to-day?” Mr. Dayton said to Captain Deering.

“I am going shooting with the Major,” he answered.

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“Did he say where?”

“Yes, I think he means to go out by the train to Otahuhu. But, of course, I know so little of the country, I may be mistaken in the place.”

“Wish I were going,” cried Bertie. “Splendid sport out in that direction.”

“It is astonishing that you could afford to say even that much,” admonished Ellie. “Pray, Bertie, be so good as to put the Observer away until after breakfast.”

It must be known that this said paper was published weekly in Auckland, giving personal items about well-known people, fashion notes, society news, as a rule well-written leading articles, and general news. The personal gossip was supplied by the public, and caused many heart-burnings and even quarrels amongst those foolish enough to notice any remarks about themselves. The paper was more interesting to the younger members of society, as the elders were above—or beyond—much of the matter that filled the columns of the Observer.

But Bertie paid no attention to Ellie's admonition, contenting himself with replying–

“How do you know there is not something in it about your ladyship?”

“I am very certain there is nothing. More likely to be about an erratic personage like yourself.”

“Thank you, that is what I am looking for,” and he read on, making running comments for the benefit of the company in general, such as “Miss A.–who's she? Ah! Willerton is in this week; serve him right!” and so on, until he came to a small paragraph that seemed to require a great amount of attention.

“Ah!” he burst out, “they have got you in this week, Lenore. I know it's you.”

“Indeed,” she replied, tranquilly, “I suppose that new dress of mine is considered worthy of notice.”

“Dress!” he said, scornfully. “Do you suppose I read the column all about girls' trumpery? Not if page 136 I know it! Do you want to hear what it is all about?”

By this time all eyes were turned curiously upon Bertie, while a strange nervousness—she knew not why—made Lenore turn a little pale.

“As you wish,” she said, quietly.

“Here goes! ‘Miss L. D., of—Road, seems to have made a conquest of a certain minister, who shall be nameless.’”

As the import of the words impressed itself on her brain, the blood mounted to Lenore's forehead in a mad, rushing stream, and then receded, leaving it white as chiselled marble. She sat perfectly still with a strained look in her eyes, but her lips made no sound; and all sense of feeling, of seeing seemed to have left her except an intolerable singing in her ears.

Bertie felt sorry for his indiscretion as he saw the expression on Lenore's face. He would not wilfully pain her for the world, and had thought she would take it as a joke, as she had done many times before; but this way of taking it looked serious. He was about to speak, which would have made matters worse, but Ellie pressed his foot under the table as a sign to keep still.

“What's that for?” he said, looking at her, more to hide his own vexation than to annoy.

She bestowed a withering glance of contempt upon him, and plunged desperately into conversation with her cousin, while her father and mother also volunteered a few remarks to break the oppressive silence that had fallen upon them, thus leaving Lenore—who had recovered herself almost at once—the trouble of answering. It had all happened in a few minutes, but to Lenore it seemed hours.

Mr. Dayton and Bertie usually started for business twenty minutes or half an hour after breakfast; but to-day, to everyone's relief, they went almost immediately, having some important work to attend page 137 to. Lenore went upstairs to her own room, and Captain Deering started for the rendezvous of the shooting party. He found the mornings rather dull sometimes, as most of his friends and acquaintances were occupied in the town all day, and his cousins were also busy in the house in some way or other. Had it not been for Mr. Dayton's horse and Mr. Morgan's yacht, and now and again expeditions with a few military acquaintances he had made, time would have hung rather heavily upon his hands. But as it was he was sorry to think that his pleasant visit must soon have an end.

Ellie and her mother were thus left alone.

“Bertie is stupid—there's no mistake. The idea of reading out aloud that ‘personal’ about Lenore!” cried the sister, indignantly.

“I think it is extremely impertinent for anyone to make such a statement with so slight a foundation. If it had happened to some of those girls who run after Mr. Everard so, I should not have been surprised. But Lenore!” said the mother.

“I don't know—somehow I fancy she has not been herself lately. Maybe she does care for him—but no. She is sometimes almost rude, or as much so as Lenore would permit herself to be. I don't understand it at all. The paragraph is absolutely vulgar.”

“I am sure you are mistaken, Ellie, my dear,” said Mrs. Dayton, almost sharply. “Another thing, I don't want my second daughter engaged” (Ellie was engaged to a young banker in Sydney) “for some time yet, and Lenore is quite young,”

Ellie did not say that she was not much older than her sister was now when her lover sought her.

“But, mamma, I never imagined Lenore would show so much emotion, or act so strangely over anything unimportant.”

“That is natural to a girl of her high spirit. She is annoyed at other people making themselves so page 138 officious in her affairs. That is easily explained,” said Mrs. Dayton, calmly.

“I hope you are right, mamma. But I feel sure that there is something that Lenore does not tell. You know she has peculiar ideas about things she regards as sacred.”

“You are fanciful, Ellie. Mine is a common-sense view of the matter; but if I were you, I should not mention the circumstances to her at all. Silence is always better in these matters, I find,” and Mrs. Dayton left the room to attend to her household duties. Ellie sat dreamily at the table, scarcely heeding the servant, who was busily engaged in clearing away the breakfast things. In spite of the easy way in which her mother took the matter, Ellie still held to her own impressions, formed from little things she had noticed with regard to her sister, small in themselves, but, like straws, showing in which direction the wind blew.

Meanwhile Lenore had gone to her own room, her mind a tumult of conflicting emotions. She was very proud, and the shot had gone home, wounding her in the tenderest part. She knelt for awhile at the open window—her favourite position—and gazed with unseeing eyes at the loveliness and brightness before her; which, at last, hurt her by its very gladness.

She went back to the beginning of her acquaintance with Mr. Everard—from the day in which Mr. Dayton had brought him to dinner, a stranger in Auckland—to the last evening he had visited at the house, and knew that neither in word nor in action had she given the slightest cause for gossip. It is not always those who give most cause for evil tongues to let loose their venom that suffer, but often those whose very purity and blamelessness of life provoke the carping of idle persons. But Lenore was not one to hide from herself the real facts of the case, and she felt that in her heart she had allowed herself page 139 to dwell far too much on the pleasant intercourse with Mr. Everard. In the very truth of a remark often lies the sting; and it was so in this case. She saw it all now—all that had made the past few months sweet to look back upon; but it was not yet too late to force back the love that had already gained a strong hold upon her. It was bitter to her that she—Lenore Dayton—above all others, had given her most precious possession without the asking, and hot, slow tears came into her eyes.

But one thing was in her favour, Bertie had been the first to tell her, not a stranger, who might have regarded her strange expression unfavourably. It was bad enough, but not so bad as it might be. To have people laugh at or pity her would be past all bearing, she thought. The tender consideration of her own family would not be difficult to bear, and she could, by her manner, convince them all that everything was well with her; but with outsiders it would be different, were she not prepared.

There was no anger, no annoyance, at the writer of the paragraph—she was thankful it had come in time to open her eyes and save her greater pain. It did not enter into her calculations at all that the minister should desire to marry her, for, somehow, he seemed to be on a plane above the general order of men by the earnestness and self-a bnegation of his life, and for such marriage was not to be. All that remained to be done was for her to banish from her thoughts the sweet fancies in which she had indulged for the past few months, and to come down to stern realities.

Not that Lenore did not suffer from the strange self-effacement of her own personal longings and hopes, which she seemed to count upon so little. It was a bitter struggle in a two-fold sense—her pride was sorely hurt by the thought that others had noticed her regard for the minister, or his friendship for her—it mattered little which—in such a way; page 140 and then again she found how far this same regard had gone on in her own heart. After all it was outwardly a very quiet taste of sorrow—just what would have been expected from a self-contained nature like Lenore's—a few scalding tears and much inward thought.

She resolved to bear up bravely in this first experience of the crosses that women bear before they enter into their kingdom. Her greatest difficulty lay in the fact that she would meet the minister constantly; though, perhaps after the consciousness wore off it might not affect her so much. It is so easy to resolve, so hard to act up to the resolution!

She knelt down at the little iron bedstead with the warm sunshine all around her, and prayed in a few simple words that came so often into her heart, “O Lord, help thy servant.” Hearing Ellie's footsteps approaching, she rose and prepared to go downstairs. Here lay her first difficulty.

The elder sister knocked at the closed door gently, and at Lenore's “Come in,” she entered the room.

“Is there anything the matter, dear Lenore? Are you not well?” she said, going up to her and kissing the soft cheek with a sisterly fondness.

“Quite well; I came up here to think a little while,” she replied, with the light of a new-born resolve upon her face.

“But I am sure something troubles you—you have not been like yourself lately. I have noticed it in many ways,” said Ellie, kindly.

“What trouble could I have that would hurt me, Ellie? I know I should have your sympathy if I had.” For the life of her, Lenore could not summon her old brightness to her aid to hide the pain she felt.

“Well, well, I will not tease you. But come downstairs with me. One would think you were the half-sister in the fairy tale, forced to spend your time in lonesomeness from the cruel treatment you received.”

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Lenore smiled.

“Let us say, rather, that you are the good fairy come to brighten me.”

And Ellie was forced to be content, though by no means convinced. As by common consent neither alluded to the event of the morning—Lenore because her throat swelled at the thought of the paragraph, so that words were impossible, and Ellie from delicacy at the thought of intruding the fact upon her sister. Besides, Lenore was never one to give confidences, so dear to the heart of many girls of her age, and, therefore, the elder sister felt diffident.

* * * * *

Mr. Everard had also been informed, though in a very roundabout way, that there was a personal remark with regard to himself in that Friday's Observer, but to what it referred he was ignorant. He, therefore, from a new-born curiosity, on his way home bought a copy, and read every column until he came to the objectionable paragraph. But its effect upon him was vastly different to the bitterness of Lenore's awakening. At first a scornful smile appeared on the mobile face, giving place to a gravity in which lurked a little disappointment as his thoughts moved to the consequences.

“It is nothing—a poor attempt at a joke. But she will feel it. I am sorry for it, because it puts her farther from me, and my time is short here now—only a few months at the very most.”

He sat down in a chair at the open window letting the cool air blow in upon him—the sun had just set behind Rangitoto, and the twilight, so dear to British hearts, and so often regretted, is not known under the Southern Cross—and allowed himself to indulge in sweet lover-like dreams. A vision of the dainty, sonsie face of Lenore rose before him, as true and fair a Britain's daughter as though born in the snug little isle instead of on an alien soil. The voluptuousness page 142 and richness of Mary Balmain's beauty he could not but admire, but there was something about her personality that repelled him; not so the chastened, delicate type of Lenore's womanhood.

“However,” he thought on, all the sternness and care fading from his face, “I shall act as if unaware of it. Of course she will be more on her guard; but in the end, with patience, all will come out well, and I shall win this flower for myself—if God will,” he added, reverently.

He had all a man's optimistic view of the future where he loves, which proves in so many cases correct; whereas under the same circumstances Lenore arrived at a very different conclusion. And it is well that it is so. A man—when he is a good man—relies upon his own brave, impetuous wooing, or upon tact and perseverance; and this latter was Mr. Everard's case. He had come very slowly to love Lenore Dayton, and now even it partook more of the head than the heart; but on that account it was the more likely to be enduring—to sweep away all obstacles before it, leaving only the pure flame to lighten their path through life. The love which pleases only the senses is as sure to fade as the dew on the grass before the heat of the day, but that which is founded upon mutual respect is built upon a rock, and will endure through all ages.