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

Chapter XII. A Moonlight Ride

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Chapter XII. A Moonlight Ride.

The moonlight riding party of which Mary Balmain and Mabel Ellett had spoken came off on the Wednesday after the Observer episode. It had been decided that the Daytons and Miss Balmain should pick up the other members of the party on the road.

Bertie had been lent a horse by a friend; Lenore riding her father's mare, rather fresh from little exercise; while Captain Deering had been offered one of Mr. Morgan's horses; Mary riding her own.

Ellie never joined anything of the kind, as she could never overcome her fear of a mettlesome horse; and if she did attempt a little riding, it was always on an old, jog-trot animal that could go little faster than a walk, and provoked the laughter of her companions.

Lenore was a very fine rider, as might be expected she would be, and loved the exercise little less than Queen Mary herself.

Captain Deering called for Mary while his cousins were getting ready, as had been agreed upon.

“Miss Mary is not ready, sir,” said the maid, who had been many years in Mrs. Morgan's service. “Please come in and wait.”

“No, thanks, I'll wait here—it is lovely in this page 144 cool air after the heat of the day,” and he leaned negligently against the post of the verandah.

While he stood there Mr. Morgan came out.

“Good evening, Captain Deering. You have a fine night for your ride,” he said.

“Very fine. The moon will be up in another hour, will it no?”

“About half-past eight, I think; and, Captain Deering, I wish my niece to go in your charge. Bertie is not unlike Mary herself—inclined to dash along at all risks; and accidents often happen to such riders.”

“I shall be most happy to act as Miss Balmain's escort,” answered Captain Deering, eagerly. “I suppose the road is perfectly safe? I have never been along the shore of the Manukau Harbour.”

“There is no danger if people take ordinary care; but you will need to cross a swamp—or rather a sort of quicksand—and, as the road thereabouts is only a track, you might stumble upon it. Mary knows there is such a thing, but not its exact location.”

“I am ready now, Captain Deering, at your service,” said Mary's soft voice in the doorway; and at the sound both men turned, the soldier holding out his hand.

The half-caste was arrayed in a dark blue habit that set off the curves of a figure finely proportioned, but too voluptuous for a girl of nineteen. On the dark, straight hair was placed a small, low hat with a piece of white gossamer wound round it.

“The horses will be here in a few minutes,” said Mr. Morgan. “I shall walk over with you to Mr. Dayton's, and see you fairly off. Ah! here they are—James is always prompt,” as Mary's chestnut mare and a dark bay for Captain Deering were brought round.

“I think we had better start at once, Miss Balmain; the others are waiting,” said the soldier.

Mr. Morgan helped his niece to her saddle with page 145 his usual tenderness, while her escort sprang to his horse with the ease of one accustomed to the exercise from boyhood; and all three slowly proceeded up the drive and across the green to where their friends were gathered.

“All ready, Mary?” cried Lenore. “We are late.”

“Your horse is very fresh,” said Mr. Morgan, in answer, “but I should like to see the one that will throw you!”

Lenore, though she showed to less advantage than Mary on horseback, was by far the more daring rider of the two, and more sure of her seat. Mary was apt to lose her presence of mind in an emergency.

“Now, Lenore, do be careful, dear. Don't be foolhardy, even if you are a good rider,” admonished Mr. Dayton.

“I won't come home if I get thrown—of that you may be certain,” she cried, gaily.

“Are you not one of the party, Mr. Everard?” said Mr. Morgan, turning to the minister, who had been dining at Mr. Dayton's house that evening.

“Not to-night. I have a lecture to deliver at the Young Men's Rooms,” answered the minister, gravely.

“Ah! I forgot. You would enjoy the ride—but duty before pleasure with you,” answered Mr. Morgan, grimly.

“Good-bye all,” called out Bertie, who was the last to acknowledge himself ready, though the first to begin.

The girls smiled and waved their hands, and away they cantered up the road to Mr. Ellett's residence, where they found Mabel and her father impatiently awaiting them.

“We thought you were never coming,” cried she.

“We have been waiting at least twenty minutes.”

“Better late than never,” answered Bertie, easily.

“Which road are we to take, Mr. Ellett?” asked Captain Deering.

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“Straight along through Newmarket and Epsom, as we have to meet Miss Holbrook and her brother.”

Away they went in pairs—Captain Deering and Mary last—through Parnell and Newmarket on to the level road; past residences set in most beautifully laid out grounds, from which every now and again was wafted the mingled odours of flowers. Not a cloud appeared in the sky, and scarcely a breath of wind stirred the leaves of the tall, shadowy trees; while far away in the west, in the path of the sun just sunk to rest, like a ray of light on a troubled world, flashed the planet Venus, the only star in the vast blue vault of heaven so intensely clear and immeasurably distant.

“Do you know, Miss Balmain, that Mr. Morgan has placed you in my charge?” said the Captain.

“Indeed? You will have a most difficult task, I assure you. I am not one of those good, obedient young women, that always do the right thing at the right time.”

Mary's remark was literally correct—obedience came very hard to one with a self-indulgent nature like hers.

“I am willing to risk it, at any rate,” he answered; and after a pause, “Just think, I have been here two whole months—only two more, and I shall have to make up my mind to turn my face homewards.”

“Are you obliged to limit your visit to four months?” she said, in so low a voice that he could scarcely catch the words, near her as he was.

“Yes, I am only on leave, I must not linger here long after the four months are up. I am a soldier, you know.”

“Perhaps you will not be sorry to go?” she queried, turning the brilliant eyes upon him.

“Why should you say that? I shall be very sorry to say good-bye to the friends I have made here, who have made my visit so pleasant, though I am a perfect stranger amongst them. I shall remember page 147 the scenes and people, perhaps more vividly, when I am far away from them,” he said, with real feeling in his voice that prevented him from expressing himself as he wished.

“Maybe it will be so with you. But I fancy strangers come here, enjoy themselves thoroughly, and make just such protestations as you have; but they forget us all the same—new faces and scenes come before them, and, without intending it, the old are effaced from their memories except on rare occasions,” said the half-caste.

“I should be ungrateful, indeed, if all the kindness I have received should be forgotten. When I am under the burning skies of India I shall surely recall the coolness and freshness of Auckland and the hospitality of its people; and—I will not forget you.”

“Why me above all others?” she asked.

“Because you are so different from all other women whom I have ever met, that it would be impossible for anyone that had once known you to forget. You must know yourself, Miss Balmain, that you are as beautiful as you are fascinating,”

She laughed a little low, musical laugh, whether of mockery or of content he could not tell; he never understood her vagaries and little indifferent ways—therein lay half her charm.

“That does not argue that I shall not be forgotten. Beauty and fascination do not live long—they are the contemporaries only of youth.”

They now paused at the junction of four roads, on one of which they could see Miss Holbrook and her brother riding slowly towards them. The brother and sister had grown tired of waiting, and had been walking their horses up and down the Onchunga road to keep themselves occupied.

The whole party now turned off the main road into what was merely a track—or two or three parallel tracks—the road following pretty closely the line of the shore. It was extremely uneven—now page 148 holding its course along the breezy cliffs; now taking the party into deep hollows, which gradually swelled again into great sweeps of fern-covered land, that rose and fell like the waves of the sea, and from which they could dimly discern the dark moving mass of waters below.

The houses grew further and further apart, their tiny gleams of light only serving to emphasize the sombre veil that covered the earth, and silence reigned supreme except for the gay talk and loud laughter of the party, the clatter of hoofs, and the tinkle of bells hung to the necks of cows allowed to feed in the bush, which was gradually growing greater in extent.

Unconsciously to themselves, Mary and Captain Deering had placed a considerable distance between themselves and their friends, and were now descending the slope of a hill that rose from a deep indentation of the Manukau, meeting a creek that traced its way beneath the magnificent forest that clothed the hills around.

Forgetful of Mr. Morgan's warning, they rode on, occupied only with one another, when all at once Mary, who was a little ahead, felt her horse staggering and plunging beneath her with an ominous sound.

“The swamp!” she cried in her clear, penetrating voice that was echoed back from the forest.

Captain Deering, who was on the side nearest the road, awakened in an instant to a consciousness of their position.

“Great heaven! Miss Balmain, we have wandered into the swamp. Keep your horse as still as you can and all will be well,” he cried, in strong, vibrating tones.

He had no fear for himself, as he knew they were too near the road to be in great danger, but it was an awkward position for Mary, who showed more presence of mind than he would have given her credit for possessing.

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She did not speak, but gathering up her habit in one hand, with the other she patted her horse's neck to encourage it; while the Captain led his horse, floundering and throwing up the mud upon Mary and his rider at every move, until he came alongside of her mare. Catching hold of the bridle, he led both horses on to the track again, which was plainly visible by the light of the moon just risen above the hills.

He breathed freely again as he felt the solid earth. The sinking, sinking sensation experienced by those unfortunate enough to stumble upon quicksands, is the most deadly sense of utter helplessness it is possible to conceive. He felt a shudder creep over him as he thought that either—or perhaps both—might be sucked into the cruel, choking waters, and perhaps their cries unheard by the party, now so far ahead.

For once Captain Deering felt thoroughly serious, as even the most frivolous do in the presence of danger; and a feeling of thankfulness forced itself uppermost in his mind at their escape from a worse accident. He said little, however.

“How thankful I am, Miss Balmain!” he cried, his voice full of emotion. “If we had gone much farther, I dare not think what the consequences would have been, and Mr. Morgan warned me of it.”

“You are very quick,” she said, with a strange quietness that astonished him. “I am grateful—but please let us hurry, or else the others will be alarmed at our absence.”

When they came again within the sound of the voices of their companions, they found that the party were about to turn their faces homeward again.

Riding a little in the shadow, Mary and Captain Deering managed to allow the others to pass them, thus the state of their horses was not observed.

For a while they rode onward in silence, the thoughts of both busy on many things.

The moon had now risen high in the heavens, page 150 brilliant with innumerable rays of flashing light, and shed its gentle, dreamy radiance upon the great harbour spread out before them, which was almost landlocked by high, bold cliffs, fretted with almost impassable ravines, gradually forming themselves into rolling bluffs at the upper end of the harbour.

Nowhere, except perhaps in Italy, does the eye of man gaze upon as fair a scene as a moonlight night under the flashing rays of the Southern Cross.

Such transparent, pure, light ether! Such diversity and beauty of scene! Such calmness and silence! broken only by the soft lapping of the water on the shore, or the gentle murmur of the never absent streams.

All the earth seemed to be one mass of silver and black, relieved by the starry dome above, and the ever-moving, glistening waters beneath. The very trees were lulled into a temporary stillness before the soft influence of the Queen of Night, and stood up like giant forms carved into an infinite variety of shapes, casting huge shadows on to the grass beneath; while high up on the sides of the hills loomed the virgin forest, almost impenetrable and always lovely.

At last, following out the line of her thoughts, Mary turned to her escort.

“Please say nothing to the others about our mishap. It will only cause remark, and that I dislike. I do not care either to appear ridiculous; and to some people our mishap might seem amusing.”

“It shall be as you wish,” he answered, “but with such brilliant moonlight as this our friends will hardly fail to see the state of our horses. Your habit is not so bad as it might be, as you drew it up.”

“It was not noticed when we turned, and in the hurry of parting no one will have time,” explained Mary.

“You are not easily alarmed, Miss Balmain,” he said, as she had recurred to the subject of her own free will. “Many would have been seriously frightened at page 151 such a mishap, especially as the neighbourhood is so lonely.”

“No, I have never known fear since I can remember. Besides, I knew we should not have much difficulty in getting out. Several have had the same misfortune as ourselves, though none have come off so well to my knowledge.” She could speak of it easily, now that all danger was of the past; and to his ear there was a subtle change in her voice. On the Manukau it was full of feeling, now it was quiet and passionless.

“There is a very sad story connected with that swamp,” she went on after a long silence. “It happened many years ago; and it is from that circumstance the place has a bad name. A settler living near here was obliged, one dark night, to go up to the village for medicine for someone that was sick in the house, and took his son with him. When he was in the boat and ready to start, he found he had to go back to the house for something, and cautioning the boy on no account to leave the boat, he hurried up the slope. When he came back his son had disappeared, and to his loud cries there was no answer. The distracted father rushed to a neighbouring family in which were several young men, and all with lanterns searched along the shore; and at last in that swamp we were in to-night, they saw his head above the surface very near the dry land. He was quite dead, and the wind had no doubt carried away his cries, when he realized his position.”

“What a terrible blow to the father!” commented the Captain, as the pathetic voice ceased.

“And to think it was the son's disobedience that was the cause of it. I often think of the grief of that family when I come here; it must have been sad for them.”

“And again silence fell upon them until they reached Mr. Dayton's gate, where Lenore and Bertie dismounted, while Captain Deering took Mary home.

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As the horses' feet sounded on the gravel, Mr. Morgan opened the hall door, letting a flood of light upon the travellers.

“So you have come back?” he cried, coming forward to help Mary from her horse. None performed that office while he was present but himself; and in doing so he noticed the mud—now caked and light in colour—on the horse's legs.

“You must have been through a creek, surely. All the roads are dry at this time of year,” he said, in undisguised wonder.

“We managed to prove for ourselves what the swamp was like,” cried Mary, before the other could speak, “and it is extremely disagreeable.”

“It was very careless of me not to remember, after your warning, Mr. Morgan. I really have no excuse whatever, and can only say how thankful I am we escaped from what might have been a serious matter,” said Captain Deering, earnestly.

“It was my fault,” exclaimed Mary, “because I know the road and Captain Deering does not. If he had not been an experienced rider, we might have fared worse. Please say no more about the matter. Good-night, and I hope we shall have better fortune on our next moonlight ride.”

“Good-night, Miss Balmain—I sincerely hope we shall.”

The two men stood together talking after Mary's disappearance, and the horses had been taken away.

“I cannot tell you how sorry I am, Mr. Morgan, that this accident should have happened while Miss Balmain was in my charge—I would give a great deal that it had not occurred,” cried the younger man, fearing, from the grave manner of the elder, that he was not pleased. But other thoughts were crowding thick and fast upon Mr. Morgan's brain at that moment, with which the young man could have no sympathy.

“Say no more,” he answered, gravely but kindly.

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“I am quite aware that the whole circumstance was one of those over which you could have no control, and it would ill become me to blame you in anyway.”

“Thank you; good-night, Mr. Morgan,” and the two men shook hands warmly and parted.

When the master of the house entered the drawing-room again, he found Mary, in a white dressing-gown, standing by the mantelpiece awaiting him to say good-night, a custom she had observed for years.

“How serious you look, Uncle Leonard,” she cried, gaily, forcing him into an arm-chair, and leaning over the back with her face close to his. “You must not think I have had a real adventure, and been rescued from a watery—nay, a swampy—grave, because I haven't—nothing so thrilling. I have not been able to emulate my namesake, Mary of the Sands of Dee.”

He smiled at her indulgently.

“It just gives me an idea of how little you are to be trusted—even on a road that you know. I shall have to find you a more reliable escort next time,” he said, adopting the same tone.

“There—I knew you would say that. You won't let me go riding once more—not until the next time,” and bending down she kissed him. “Goodnight, Uncle Leonard, I am tired.”

He sighed heavily as the door closed behind her, and the lines of care deepened on the rugged face. He sat so absorbed in thought that he scarcely noticed his wife's entrance into the room, and who, surprised at his silence, imagined that something must be wrong. They were a model couple, these two. There was not a movement, a look, a sign of her husband that Mrs. Morgan failed to understand; and in a less degree his tenderness and loving care ever followed her path. Their married life of over page 154 a quarter of a century had, indeed, been happy, except that they had no children, and Mary had taken the place of what might have been their own daughter.

“What is it, Leonard?” she said, after a pause. “Anything the matter?”

“I hardly know,” he answered, heavily. “Did Mary tell you that Captain Deering and herself blundered into the swamp in their ride to-night?”

“Yes; what of it? Several people have done that before this with much worse consequences.”

“Well, does it not strike you as peculiar that, after I had warned them, they should deliberately do the very thing?” he asked.

Struck by her husband's strange tone, she looked up–

“I don't understand; they did not do it on purpose?”

“No; but they were so occupied one with the other, that swamps, and, in fact, all such mundane matters, were not in their minds,” he said, bitterly.

Silence, in which the ticking of the clock was the only sound to be heard in the room.

“I see now what you mean,” she said, in her gentle tones. “You have no objection to the young man, Leonard? He is all that could be desired.”

“None for anyone but Mary. I had hoped she would marry a Colonial—someone, if possible, in Auckland. That gay, debonnaire temper of Captain Deering is not what I desired for Mary.”

“But surely he is a gentleman—of good birth and fortune; and in both these Mary is his equal. Hundreds of Colonial girls have married Englishmen and titled men in many cases, and you know she is quite as cultured as any,” cried Mrs. Morgan, in warm defence of her darling.

“All that is true. But the women of whom you speak were not half-castes; and, gloss it over to ourselves page 155 as we may, Mary's mother is a stern fact, and not to be got over in any way,” said he, the words, as it were, dragged out of him.

Mrs. Morgan was struck by her husband's serious tone, and also by his arguments; but she would not allow herself to look on the dark side, especially in a matter that concerned Mary.

“There is no sense in borrowing trouble, and particularly with so little grounds. There may be nothing come of all this—and he leaves Auckland in less than two months.”

“Don't deceive yourself, Annie—in one month, not to speak of two, a multitude of things may happen, and, if I am not sadly mistaken—which I hope I am—the mischief has been done. Captain Deering will not leave here without asking my niece for his wife; whether she is willing or not is another thing.”

“So long as she is happy, I shall be satisfied; and, for my part, I think it an excellent match for Mary,” answered Mrs. Morgan, with conviction.

Mr. Morgan said no more. He felt that things were drifting in a direction in which he was powerless; and, like the wise man he was, he waited for further developments. But his heart was heavy with the knowledge—which he felt was certain—that his niece was going from him, that another was to possess a better right than he to be her protector. He felt it bitterly, perhaps more than most fathers feel under the same circumstances, for the half-caste had now become almost a necessity to his life—a something that would leave a terrible blank in his home.

And her life would be passed in England, far from his ken, unless he himself made his residence—like so many wealthy Colonials—in the mother country.

After going over every circumstance, he pulled himself together with a jerk, calling his wife to page 156 witness that he was getting as bad as any old woman match-maker in the city, which she was only too glad to hear. Anything better than his former heaviness of spirit!

But the wound rankled; and to his fancy every day brought fresh confirmation of his theory.