Ko Méri, or, A Cycle of Cathay: A Story of New Zealand Life
Chapter XVI. Mr. Everard Talks
Chapter XVI. Mr. Everard Talks.
It was a sultry morning, a few days before the 29th of January. The sun poured down with unusual splendour, there was no wind to mitigate his burning rays, and the sea lay like a sheet of glass, its surface scarcely disturbed by a ripple. Away on the horizon lingered a gentle haze, caused, however, by the heat of the day.
At Mrs. Dayton's house there was no sign of life whatever. The Venetian blinds were all down, and closed, the windows were open as wide as possible, and the hall and glass doors opening on to the verandah admitted all the air there was from the water; and still it was difficult to find a cool place.
Ellie had gone to Remuera to spend the day with an old school friend, and Will—the schools in Auckland do not begin the term until after the 29th of January—had gone fishing; so that Mrs. Dayton and her second daughter were alone.
Lenore was idle, a most unusual thing for her, and Mrs. Dayton busily sewing.
“Lenore, you had better go and sit under the trees in the garden. You will be in the fresh air at any rate, and if coolness can be found anywhere today, it will be there,” said the mother, noticing the page 201 girl's listlessness. “These warm summer days seem to take all the life out of you.”
“It is warm everywhere, I think, mamma. It would be pleasant if we could be transported to the banks of a running stream in the heart of the bush, say at Tikitapu or Te Aroha.”
“Yes, but we cannot,” answered matter-of-fact Mrs. Dayton, “and the next best thing to do is to find a shady corner of the garden; by the ferns, I should think, would be a pleasant seat. Take a book with you, and rest till it is time for lunch,” and the mother left the room in search of a particular pattern that had been mislaid.
Lenore did not immediately make any attempt at following her mother's advice, but sat for some time without moving her position in any way, until, hearing footsteps, she rose slowly, and picking up a London magazine to which her father subscribed, and her hat from the hall as she passed out, made her way to a corner of the garden, planted with tall, graceful New Zealand tree-ferns, which were protected by puriris and cypresses from the sun's rays. On a rustic seat, placed immediately beneath the crown of a punga (tree-fern), Lenore placed herself, and, taking her hat off, allowed the air to blow upon her head.
She made no attempt to read, but sat with the periodical in her lap, and her eyes closed to shut out the brightness of the sunshine that lay within a few feet of her. But though her attitude was listless, and her hands idle, her mind was busy—thoughts that were not exactly happy—with the certainty that she had hardly lived up to the resolve made a few weeks before. It had not been so simple as she fancied to appear exactly the same bright-spirited Lenore as of yore, when a heavy weight lay around her heart that, struggle as she would, seemed never to lighten. An honest pride and her strong will had helped her to make the decision by which she had page 202 meant to rule her conduct; but she had not counted upon the effort required to meet the exigencies of every day—the moral tension of weeks before had been impossible to keep up. It is almost beyond the limits of human endurance to live up to a lofty ideal in the thousand and one occurrences of every-day existence; the higher instincts of the soul may be strong, but the intensely human qualities assert themselves loudly, and will not be stilled. And it is well that it is so, or else sympathy and love that bind mankind together with golden fetters would turn into icy repression and austerity incompatible with man's highest ideals. It is by and through the thoroughly human side of our nature that the grandest and noblest results are often consummated.
It so chanced that on this particular morning Mr. Everard had been making a call at Mr. Morgan's house to conclude arrangements for the contemplated trip to the Hot Lake District, which was to be undertaken by the three gentlemen in a week's time. As he issued from Mr. Morgan's gate, and approached the entrance to Mr. Dayton's residence, he caught the flutter of Lenore's pink print dress amongst the masses of foliage—at least he hoped it was Lenore, and not Ellie—and leaning over the gate saw that he had not been mistaken.
The listless attitude and weary droop of the eyelids struck him painfully, when he remembered the restless energy and brightness—characteristic of the people of these Colonies—which had first attracted him to Lenore Dayton. Was she really ill, he wondered. It looked like it, now that the face and figure were in repose, the pale cheeks and sharpness of outline unrelieved by the fictitious brightness of the past few weeks.
He hesitated a moment as to whether he should disturb her; but, he reflected, his chances for seeing her alone were very few and far between—and this was an opportunity that might not occur again.page 203
At the sound of the open gate Lenore opened her eyes languidly, and a quick wave of colour rose to her face, as she saw the identity of her visitor, Rising quickly, and letting the magazine drop unheeded to the ground, she advanced a step or two, and held out her hand.
“How do you do, Mr. Everard? It is warm today, is it not?” she said, as he picked up her book from the ground, and laid it on the seat beside her hat.
“Yes, more than warm,” he answered, in his strong, earnest voice, looking at her kindly the while. “It seems to disagree with you—pardon me, but you are not looking at all well.”
“I am quite well, or as well as the heat will allow me,” she said, smiling a little. “The autumn is coming on with its cool evenings and mornings; and you know it is the pleasantest season here. We had better go to the house. Mamma is at home,” Lenore added, a little abruptly. She did not want her health discussed, and least of all by Mr. Everard.
“No; I came to see you—you know it is my duty to visit the sick of this parish,” he cried, eagerly, “and you are one of them. I had no intention of making a call this morning; but I saw your dress amongst the trees, and I wished to see you, at any rate, about a lady, who is very poor, and, from what her husband says, ill. You came out here to stay some time, so why should you run in now? To my mind this shady nook is preferable to any part of the house on a day like this.”
She sat down again, though inwardly chafing at her own weakness, but this feeling soon vanished in the charm of Mr. Everard's presence and conversation. The minister leaned with his arms over the back of the seat, so that he could see every change of the speaking face before him.
“Mr. Morgan says that he has not seen you for a page 204 whole week. Have you been busy lately? I suppose you are engaged on a picture to compete for the medal of the Society of Arts. I believe several are working for the same object, so that competition will be strong this year.”
“No, I have done very little painting of late,” she answered, briefly; and without more words the minister felt that was not a pleasant subject—one that had better be ignored. “You said you wished to consult me about a particular case of poverty in the parish—a lady was it not?” she asked, turning the large blue eyes upon him.
“Yes, but not in Mr. Willoughby's parish. The husband has letters of introduction to prominent people here, but his pride will not allow him to appeal to them, even though he is almost starving—that is better than the bitterness of charity to an honourable man of his sensitive organization.”
“Does this lady know I am coming?” queried Lenore again.
“Oh, yes. I explained exactly who you were, and that there was nothing of the tract distributor air, or anything of that sort to be expected. Of course it must be with Mrs. Dayton's approval.”
And then a silence fell upon them, broken only by the air wandering amongst the branches of the trees, the sound of a falling leaf of the karaka, and the song of a lark soaring heavenward intoxicated with happiness and the gladness of nature.
“You have not been to see us for some time now,” said Lenore, at last. “Has the parish work been heavy?”
As the words left her lips she smiled at the similarity of this remark with that Mr. Everard had used with reference to herself.
“No, not very—but I come too often, as to me your mother's house has a fascination that all happy homes possess to those who have never had the page 205 experience of a home with a mother as the centre,” answered the minister, gently.
“Mamma has never considered your visits anything but a pleasure; we are all glad to see you at any time. Your mother—was she called away before you knew her?” said Lenore, with that ready sympathy intuitive with her.
“Yes; but let us speak of something brighter. The incidents of one's life, I think, are rarely interesting to any except those connected with us—at least I always feel that way, and act up to it,” cried Mr. Everard, almost brusquely.
He felt himself being led into a conversation in which the tenderest memories of his life were being brought into the light of day; and though this girl was, no doubt, refined and sympathetic, his love had not yet reached that stage that he could bare his innermost heart to her. But either his love was more potent than he allowed himself to believe, or else fate was against him, working out his ultimate destiny.
Lenore turned her face around so that the blue eyes rested upon him with wonder at the tone of his voice, and before that glance he was weak as a child—all his love for her asserted itself with a force that he had never felt before.
“Surely you do not regard us as strangers!” she cried, in her clear, even voice that was so truly indicative of her character, ignoring her own personality and taking refuge in the generalization. “It seems to me that one loses a world of sympathy by keeping a rigid silence on memories that are dear to us, and when one gives—as you do—it is not too much to expect to receive. Sympathy is not pity—no one dislikes and fears pity more than I do—but sympathy—ah! that is not to be explained, it is to be felt,” her face full of animation, of intelligence, of feeling that evoked from him more admiration than the ripeness and richness of Mary Balmain's beauty ever page 206 did. He leaned a little forward, with eagerness in his attitude.
“Will you permit me to call you a friend, then? I should value a friendship such as yours very highly.”
“I have always considered myself as a friend, or, at least, for some time, so that I remain as I have been,” she said, with a little colour in her face, and a sweet dignity in her tone.
The simplicity of her answer pleased him—no protestations of any kind; it was as he would have it. All his scruples fled to the winds in the presence of Lenore. To look at her, to be within range of her influence was to be assured of her womanliness and intelligent sympathy.
He touched lightly the hand that clasped the book at her side as a sign of the bond of friendship; and to her the action, in its subtlety and gentleness, awoke more emotion than one more demonstrative could have done. To her the expressions of love—or love making—as exemplified by some of her acquaintances, always appeared bordering on the absurd; and she was glad when Ellie's lover took his departure for Sydney, so that her amusement might not provoke the elder sister. Only the subtleties of the divine passion could ever be appreciated by her, the very depth of her feeling forbidding extravagant expression that is fitted only for those whose so-called love scarcely outlasts the honeymoon.
“I often wonder,” said the minister, thoughtfully, “how I came to make such a prolonged stay in Auckland, not having relatives like your cousin, Captain Deering. But I often think there is a motive power working behind our simplest actions, which all tend to some end, so that we cannot do as we would, but as we must.”
“You came first to Christchurch, did you not, Mr. Everard?” remarked Lenore.page 207
“Yes, I came from ‘home’ with my brother; he died in Christchurch of consumption, brought on by lack of care, and study; and he was always delicate. The doctors gave it as their opinion, that a trip to New Zealand was his only chance of life; but he was too far gone for that. He and I were the only two left of the family, and his weakness went to my heart. He was not a Church member, his religion being something after the tenets of Mr. Morgan's belief; but I think his reading and study of the subject were more extensive than your friend's. His life was as pure and unselfish and his end as calm and peaceful as if he had lived up to the teachings of the Church all his life. I think constant association and frequent reading to him from his favourite authors have, no doubt, influenced my own views to a considerable extent.”
“You will be sorry to leave him behind—so far away from England,” said Lenore, gently.
“No; I have his memory always with me. People are a little inclined to think too much of the outward forms of grief, and too little of that which is imperishable; it is a relic of barbarism. His grave will always be kept fresh and green, though here on an almost alien soil; but wherever I am, there will be his memory. I do not need to live near his tomb to keep myself from forgetting him.”
“Was he at all like you?” she asked again.
“Not at all. He was much taller and slighter, and about his face there always seemed to linger a shadow as of my mother's early death, or else presentiment of his own; and the sadness and lonesomeness of our home oppressed him much more than it did me. My mother died when my brother was a month old, and my father never recovered from the shock of her death; so that you see our home life was not an ideal one. My brother's temperament was much more impressionable than page 208 mine, and these things affected him sadly. Some day I will show you his photograph. I have also a fine oil-painting of him, but it is in my home in England.”
“Only your two selves—no sister—no mother!” commented Lenore. “How sad!”
“Now you know why it is that happy homes impress me so much; and though there are many in Auckland, none please me so much as your father's house.”
“That is because mamma and papa are so united, But surely in England you must have many friends, and have seen many happy homes. England is the country for good wives and happy married life, is it not?”
“Not more so than the Colonies; but I suppose that is because they are settled with British subjects, who hold fast to the traditions of their fathers. Society here is a reproduction of society in England,” and then, with a change of tone, he said: “But let me now show my sympathy with some of your interests—that is your definition of a friend's duty, I believe,” smiling at the graceful figure in the fresh, print gown, so suitable to the summer's day. He admired the small, well-set head, and the graceful contour of the neck and shoulder; the curly, bronze hair, now shot with gold, as the sun struggled through the foliage; the broad white brow, and large, expressive blue eyes—all these points of beauty Lenore possessed, perhaps superior to her more beautiful sister; and though they did not make their owner a beauty, combined with her intelligence and brightness, they made her, probably, more admired than Ellie. At least, this picture of a Colonial lassie pleased Mr Everard, who had more regard for the soul shining through Lenore's blue eyes than for all the mere physical beauty in the world.
“How is your painting getting on?” he went on.page 209
“Not very well; and I have just two more months to finish it That is not long when one does not keep steadily at work. I am sorry, Mr. Everard, but that sketch of the harbour I promised to give you I felt obliged to give to my cousin. He happened to say that he would like a painting of the harbour from St. Stephen's Church; and, knowing that your stay here will be longer than his, I gave him the preference.”
“Quite right. I do not mind so long as you paint me another just like it,” he said.
Lenore now rose. She felt that her mother would not be pleased to know that she lingered with the minister—it had been long enough as it was—and she was not one to do an action not perfectly honest and upright.
“Will you not come up to the house, Mr. Everard? It is lunch time, and mamma and I are alone. Ellie has gone to Remuera.”
“Why should you hurry?” he said, looking at the slight figure as straight as a dart, and so free and graceful in its action.
“I have not hurried at all,” she answered, smiling. “But will you come with me to lunch, or will you not?
“Not to-day, I think, thank you,” holding out his hand.
“Good-bye!” drawing her fingers away, which he held in a long, close clasp.
He stood looking after her for a moment with a smile of peace and contentment on his face; and then, opening the gate, he walked quickly up the road with more spring in his step than had been usual with him for some time.
As for Lenore, all the listlessness and languor of the morning had fled. There was a smile on her face and a happy light in her eyes; but she was not conscious that the feeling of brightness about her heart was reflected in her face.page 210
“Why, Lenore!” cried Mrs. Dayton, “you are looking better than I have seen you for days—the breeze from the sea has done you good.”
There happened that day to be no wind worth speaking about, but Mrs. Dayton did not know it.
“Mr. Everard was here this morning, mamma.” That explained a great deal to the mother, but she made no sign.
“Why did you not invite him to lunch?”
“I did, but he says he comes too often,” answered Lenore.
“How absurd! I wonder how Leslie is enjoying himself at Mr. Morgan's?” went on the mother.
“He is sure to enjoy himself there. We shall see him to-morrow evening at the dinner party. I wonder who will be the guests?”
“I don't know, but I heard Mrs. Davis say she was invited, and I fancy it will be a larger dinner party than Mrs. Morgan usually gives.”
“Mr. McCleod is also going, so we may prepare ourselves for amusement. Mr. McCleod and Mrs. Davis are like Mr. and Mrs. Chick, of Dombey fame—they never agree, but never actually quarrel. He would argue with the wind.'