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

Chapter XXI. Mr. Morgan Bows to Necessity

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Chapter XXI. Mr. Morgan Bows to Necessity.

Mr. Morgan retired to the library immediately after dinner, and wearily threw himself into an armchair in front of the empty grate. Prepared as he was for the outcome of Captain Deering's visit, it struck him keenly that Mary should so lightly give her heart to this frank, soldierly stranger, who could not give her a tithe of the love and tenderness that he had lavished upon her since the day she had crossed his threshold as a forlorn little stranger nine years before. But youth does not regard these things in the same light—has to gain the experience and sorrows of years before the inestimable treasure of a devotion like Mr. Morgan's can be appreciated at its true value. The very fact that the half-caste had been so carefully shielded and beloved precluded her from realizing her position bereft of such solicitude, and her guardian knew this full well.

It was all natural, he knew; thousands of parents had suffered the same pain before him; but his affection for Mary Balmain had in it all the elements of a father's love, combined with a vague, protective instinct, the growth of his knowledge of General Balmain's pathetic history, and the half-caste's Maori birth. He had a feeling something akin to that of a man whose wife dies insane, leaving a page 263 motherless daughter. How anxiously he watches her growth from childhood to girlhood, from girlhood to womanhood, and how painful his position when her hand is sought in marriage. Mayhap there is not the faintest taint of insanity, but how wearing is the dread!

Something of this feeling affected Mr. Morgan, but his fear was ill-defined—a vague phantom that he dared not express in words, nor allow to shape itself into a positive thought. It had not disturbed him until the advent of this stranger, because Mary had shown no favour to any particular suitor. But now it was far different.

So absorbed was he in his thoughts that, on hearing a knock at the door, he answered mechanically, “Come in,” without in the least disturbing the tenor of his ideas, and it surprised him not a little to see Captain Deering enter the room.

“Ah! is it you, Captain?” the host said courteously. “Sit down. I half expected Mr. Everard this evening, but he may come later on—it is quite early as yet.”

“I have come to speak to you on a most important matter,” began the Captain, wishing to have the interview over as quickly as possible, and feeling all his old hesitation returning as strong as ever. It is always thus—the superior power of one man, imperceptibly, perhaps, to the consciousness of either, impresses its dignity and individuality on a mind of a lower order—it is the involuntary homage of the lesser to the greater. “I have come to ask you for the hand of your niece?”

The abruptness of the announcement startled Mr. Morgan. He shaded his face with his hand for a moment to collect himself. His hour had come!

“Then, I presume, you have spoken to my niece?” he said, with a voice he scarcely recognized as his own; but the other, absorbed in his own plans, heeded it not.

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“Yes, I asked her this morning, and she is willing. Mrs. Morgan also knows, but I asked her to say nothing until my interview with you,” answered the young man simply.

“Quite right; but have you fully considered the immense importance of the step you are about to take, Captain Deering? You have known Miss Balmain such a short time. Marriages are too often lightly entered into, young people not seeming to realize that it is a tie that death only can sever,” said the elder man, so gravely and quietly that it gave no offence. At least he would make an effort to turn the tide that was hopelessly turning against him.

“I have thought it well over, Mr. Morgan, and I love your niece, and she is willing to trust herself to me,” he answered, and the modesty of the avowal pleased his listener, though disposed to be critical.

“Love!” he repeated, with a touch of irony. “Do you think it is the love that will be a proof against the worries and sorrows of a lifetime? It is all so fair and sweet before the knot is tied; but think you that after twenty-five years of married life you will speak the same word in all the purity and sincerity of its signification? I can do so, and most certainly Mr. and Mrs. Dayton can do the same. Can your love bear up against the thousand and one incidents that will most assuredly rise in your paths, rich and well born as you may be? You must not think that I am too cautious; my niece, as you know, is very dear to me, her happiness is in my keeping—as yet.”

“I understand your motive perfectly well, Mr. Morgan, but it is a sheer impossibility for me to tell the future. I can only say that I shall, to the utmost of my ability, cherish Mary and shield her from every care with my tenderest love. More I cannot promise with the certainty of its fulfilment. It will be hard, indeed, for me to provide her with page 265 any luxury or attention that she has not enjoyed under your roof.”

“It is well. I hold you in high esteem, Captain Deering, as an honourable man; but, you must pardon me, I do not think you are the husband for my niece, and this for many reasons; don't misunderstand me, I speak from my knowledge of Mary's character, and her birth.”

The last words came with an effort. Necessary as he deemed the information, there was something painful to Mr. Morgan in thus bringing to the light Mary's ignoble birth, at least on her mother's side.

“I am quite aware of that circumstance, but Mary is General Balmain's daughter and your niece; the other, well—we can afford to ignore it,” the young man cried, eagerly

“Perhaps not,” Mr. Morgan answered, with an ironical smile; “but will you always look upon it in the same light? It is a fact that will die only with Mary, herself; and men's manner of looking at a question often changes.”

Captain Deering rose abruptly, and walked up and down the room for a few minutes, while the other watched him with a sadness unspeakable. At last he paused.

“You do not trust me—you have no confidence in me—you think I shall not be a good husband for your niece. In all this you are unjust.”

“No; but it is my duty as an honourable man to explain the exact position of my niece; and there is one circumstance with regard to her with which, I think, you are unacquainted. Mary's mother is living in the northern part of this province, and she is not unlike the Maori woman you saw at Mangare a fortnight ago,” said Mr. Morgan, remorselessly.

The Captain winced. It was not a pleasant picture that rose before his mind's eye, of Polly standing in the doorway of the Maori hut.

“I was not aware of it,” he said, slowly.

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“Captain Deering,” cried the elder man, suddenly, and leaning forward eagerly, “forget my niece entirely! leave here unfettered, and I shall consider it a happy circumstance. Mary will get over it at her age, and so will you. You fancy you love her—I quite believe in your sincerity—she is beautiful and fascinating, of a type quite new to you, and you admire her. Possibly ten years from now you will be thankful for this offer of mine, callous as it may seem to you now.”

An indignant flush rose to the soldier's cheek, and the rugged, harsh outlines of Mr. Morgan's face appeared to him for the moment repulsive—a Mephistopheles tempting Faust.

“You will not understand that I am in earnest—that I have well considered the step I am about to take. You say that to me, personally, you have no objection; so I presume all that you have to urge against the match is the fact that Mary is a half-caste” (Mr. Morgan nodded), “and that her home will be in England. I tell you, I do not now, nor ever will, think one iota the less of Mary because she has Maori blood in her veins, and she says herself that she does not dislike the idea of going ‘home’ to live. You know, Mr. Morgan, it is absolutely impossible for me to live in Auckland.”

“I see that you are going to have your way, and I know when I am beaten. I sincerely hope for my niece's sake, and also for yours, Captain Deering, that the future may be bright. I say candidly that to no one could I trust Mary more implicitly than to yourself, if she were not a half-caste. I wish you were a Colonial,” he said, holding out his hand, which was warmly grasped by the other.

“Thank you, sir; you will have no cause to regret your decision.”

“We can decide business matters and our future movements at some other time. Mary is an heiress in her own right—much wealthier than people page 267 imagine. I suppose we shall have to take our ‘home’ trip this coming winter in spite of ourselves. Oh! by the way, we had better defer our visit to the ‘Lakes’ until Friday. I can write and send a note to Mr. Everard this evening, if he does not come.”

This thoughtfulness and kindness of the man, under what he knew was a sorrow, affected Captain Deering strangely, making him feel some compunction for his strictures.

“I am much obliged, if you think it will not incommode yourself and Mr. Everard;” and Mr. Morgan is left alone.

He could not read or concentrate his mind upon any one thing, but after he had sent Mr. Everard's note, sat meditating in his chair, while from the drawing-room came the sound of Mary's voice singing at the piano. Closing the door to shut out the sweet music that hurt him in his present mood, he moved to the window and gazed out into the night. Opening it, the heavy perfume from a magnolia in full blossom was wafted into the room; not a breath of air was stirring, while, from their position in space, a thousand worlds, perhaps as full of sorrow as ours, scintillated in the boundless vault of heaven.

Mrs. Morgan came in to give him his coffee, but he prayed to be left alone; and she, knowing his ways, complied, as was her wont.

And at bed time Mary came in the fulness of her happiness, her large, dark eyes luminous and soft, and putting her arms round his neck she laid her smooth cheek next to his.

“Are you tired, Uncle Leonard?” she asked, gently. “You have not been in the drawing-room once this evening. What is it?”

“I feel out of spirits to-night, Mary, and I thought you could do without me this evening,” he answered, half bitterly.

But she did not notice, for Mary was not quick page 268 in observing little subtleties of voice and manner. Drawing a small stool close to his chair, she sat down beside him with her head resting against his knee, a favourite position of hers.

“Are you perfectly happy, dear?” he went on, tenderly, smoothing her hair with his hand, and scarcely noticing his wife, who had just come in and sat down opposite to them. “You will not need me now—the prince has come to claim his own.”

“How can I be anything else than happy? It seems too much happiness for one person—it may not last. But you are Uncle Leonard—no one can be that but you—you, who have been so good, so loving to me. But this love is different, is it not?” she asked, with a vague trouble in her eyes. Had she been careless of this dear friend, she wondered.

“Yes, darling, it is different—you are right—it is quite different,” he said, heavily.

“But you are pleased, Uncle Leonard?” she cried, wistfully, struck by his silence and weariness. “I would not do anything contrary to your wishes for the world, but surely Leslie,” she hesitated at the name for a second, “is worthy in your estimation. You always liked him, I remember.”

“Yes, yes, Mary; he is worthy of you in every sense—you have done well; but I feel lonely at the prospect of losing my little girl; she is anything but little now,” he added, fondly.

Truly Mr. Everard was justified in his wonder at the affection that existed between these two, so marvellously unlike were they. The ruggedness and massiveness of the man assumed greater proportions when contrasted with the softness and grace of outline peculiar to the half-caste, whose beauty had received a new delicacy and gentleness from this new-born love.

“But we shall not be parted for a long time yet—I am only nineteen now; but–” and for the first time it dawned upon her that as Captain Deering's page 269 wife she would be far removed from her old guardian–“I cannot live away from you! Oh, auntie, must I go away?” she burst out.

“You must not look upon it like that, Mary,” said Mr. Morgan, decidedly. “You have promised Captain Deering to be his wife; therefore, where his home is, there yours must be. But we shall see; perhaps we can all live in England. Will that suit you, Queen Mary?”

“Oh, how good you are! So unselfish! There is none like you! But I won't have you give up this dear old home for me, it is too much!” she cried, patting his hand softly.

“We have always talked of going ‘home’ for a trip, but now we shall go to stay for good. I am glad that you are so happy,” he said, slowly.

“Is it so very cold and damp in England?” she asked. “Everyone speaks of this climate being so fine, so that it must be dreary in their native land.”

“It is all use, Mary,” answered Mrs. Morgan. “Of course it is much colder and damper at ‘home’ than here, but people exaggerate its defects to a ridiculous extent.”

And then she rose, and the sight of her brought all the sense of loss, that was like a weight upon his heart, vividly before him. But he kept his passionate regret to himself, neither by word nor look intruding it upon the girl, who put her arms round his neck, patting his cheek with her hand as she had done when a little child, and pressing her own dainty face against his rougher cheek.

“Good-night, dear Uncle Leonard,” she said, softly. “You will always be first—I love Leslie in a different way entirely,” repeating the words she had said earlier in the evening. And then she kissed Mrs. Morgan, who was always more demonstrative in her affection than her husband, and the two were alone.

“It has come, Annie, you see. I saw it from the page 270 beginning. This stranger has done more in a month than we did in a year,” and it pained Mrs. Morgan to see how haggard and worn her husband looked.

“Really, Leonard, dear, you are looking upon it in a most doleful light. One would think that Captain Deering was a fortune hunter or a man with dangerous vices,” she cried, vexed at his attitude on the question.

He smiled grimly.

“Perhaps you are right in your view of the match; merely looking at it in a superficial way, it does seem favourable, but I cannot shake off a presentiment of evil.”

“And then, Leonard, Mary will not be married for at least two years, and after her marriage we shall, perhaps, have more interests than now.”

She, poor woman, in her mind's eye saw her niece with dark-eyed children like herself, that would lighten and cheer her home with their childish voices and laughter, and in whom her childless wifehood might be lost. In her eyes Captain Deering was a very good husband for Mary; in fact, she could not desire a better; and her husband's vague presentiments were inexplicable to her. For the time she was happy, unlike her husband, who, unfortunately for himself in this instance, seemed to see clearer—not that the end came as he fancied—indeed, he did not own to himself what his fears were—and he was full of forebodings. Sometimes those whose perceptions are blunter come better off in the end than those whose view is keener.

“There is no question that Mary loves Captain Deering; you see that, Leonard?” said Mrs. Morgan, after a long silence.

“I acknowledge that, but I doubt if that young man knows the meaning of love; but, like the rest of them, he thinks he does, and Mary believes it; she knows no better. I should like to see a little of that genuine respect that Mr. Everard and Lenore page 271 Dayton have for one another, and without which love is a delusion and a snare. Captain Deering admires Mary very much, but I doubt me if that sort of thing wears well.”

His wife was silent, she did not believe it.

“We shall not go to-morrow, Annie,” lie said, at last rising from his chair, and leaning against the mantlepiece.

“Indeed! How will Mr. Everard know?” she asked.

“I sent him a letter; and, Annie, we shall have to go to England to live—there is no help for it. I cannot make arrangements to go with Captain Deering, but we shall have to go early in our winter so as to enable Mary to be acclimatized at ‘home’ before the northern winter comes on.”

“You do not care for the idea, Leonard?” she commented.

“No; after delaying so long it will be hard to break up the habits of years, but for Mary's sake it must be done,” he answered, wearily.

“Do you think Mary's friends will do anything for her?–I mean socially. Of course, we shall not need their influence, but it would certainly be no more than their duty.”

“Don't flatter yourself. General Balmain's family will not receive Mary, nor will I make advances of any kind. They are not people that we should care to meet.”

And again a vision was before Mrs. Morgan's eyes of the stir Mary's beauty would create in London; no expense should be spared, of that she would take care. Was not the half-caste wealthy? and was not also her husband rich in this world's goods? An heiress, cultured, beautiful, and with powerful friends, why should not her niece make a sensation? Why, indeed?