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

Chapter XXIV. Captain Deering's Last Evening

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Chapter XXIV. Captain Deering's Last Evening.

Sunday evening after church the Morgans and their guest spent in Mr. Dayton's house, where also came Mr. Everard. It was the last Sunday that Captain Deering spent in New Zealand, and there seemed to be something peculiarly fitting in his presence in his aunt's home that night. Viewed in the light of the events that followed only too soon, that one evening stood out brightly in the memories of both families, the last time they all met; for before that Sunday next year had rolled over their heads, three only of that family gathering assembled under Mr. Dayton's roof.

There is a pathetic significance about the last days amongst those whom probably we shall never see again, and who have been endeared to us in any special way—a sense of the vastness of time and the shortness of man's life—it is as death in life. All the tenderness of our nature comes to the surface, and we feel an accession of regard for those we shall soon leave behind.

None of the elders had attended the evening service, but had sat quietly talking on the wide verandah, until the young people returned from church, when there was a general move in the direction of the drawing-room. The stillness of the house was now page 292 changed for the stir, talk, and subdued laughter incident to family life, the harmony of which always appealed to Mr. Morgan and the minister, and formed an interesting study of the beauty of home life under happy auspices.

“What was the text, Lenore?” asked Mrs. Dayton when the stir had somewhat subsided.

It was a question the mother never failed to ask when she was absent from church herself, and generally Lenore, whose memory was excellent, remembered it more accurately than her careless brother and slower sister.

“Text?” answered she, at a loss; “really I forgot what it was, mamma. What was it, Bertie, do you remember?” a flush rising to her face. “I must surely have been dreaming about something else, and missed the text altogether.”

“I don't know—let's see, I was looking for it in the Bible after Mr. Willoughby gave out the book and chapter, and could not find it, and by the time I came to that conclusion the sermon was begun,” said Bertie, with a most ingenious attempt at an excuse that sent a smile round the room.

“Mary, do you remember?” asked Mrs. Morgan. “I am afraid Mr. Willoughby had anything but an attentive audience, to judge from results. You must all have been dreaming, like Lenore.”

“Not the exact words,” answered Mary, quite at her ease as usual. It required something very astonishing to place the half-caste at a disadvantage, and forgetting a text seemed to her of very slight consequence indeed. “But it was something about reaping and fainting, I know,” at which another smile went round.

“Come now, that won't do,” cried Bertie; “you had better confess at once that you forget, as to give such a lame attempt at remembering as that. Oh, here's Ellie, see if she knows it,” turning a perfectly serious face to his sister, who had just entered the page 293 room. “Now, Ellie, was not the sermon to-night about the Egyptians crossing the Red Sea?”

“Ye—es—I am not sure—I think so,” answered Ellie, dubiously.

“It wasn't then!” cried her brother, in triumph, and amidst such exclamations as “You horrid boy!”

“Oh, Bertie! You ought to be ashamed!” this last from Lenore.

“I can give you the full text, Aunt Marion,” said Captain Deering, quietly; “so Mr. Willoughby had one attentive listener, namely, myself, please remember–‘And let us not be weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.’ ”

“Perhaps the text is all you remember,” remarked Bertie, calmly. “How do you know I can't give the whole sermon verbatim?

“It is bad enough for us all to forget the text, Bertie, without making such absurd remarks to exonerate ourselves,” said Ellie severely. “We know perfectly well that you can't repeat one sentence, let alone the whole sermon.”

“I was not far out,” cried Mary, gaily; “I remember the ideas at all events, and that is the main thing in a sermon, or in a book.”

“I think you and Bertie are like the children that make irrelevant excuses when they have done wrong. They think a poor excuse is better than none at all,” said Lenore.

Mr. Morgan had listened to the whole with a scornful smile on his face, and turning to Mr. Dayton, said, almost harshly–

“This incident reminds me of a line from Milton, ‘The hungry sheep look up and are not fed;’ the time and the place are changed, not the principle. None of these young people have derived any benefit from going to church—have carried away with them no comforting thought, no lesson that will help them in the forthcoming week; the preacher's words have fallen upon water. Milton's words are as applicable page 294 to-day as they were in the years that preceded the Puritan Revolution.”

Mr. Dayton, good man, vaguely assented. No two men could form a greater contrast, physically and mentally, Mr. Dayton having little sympathy with his friend's theories and pursuits. Probably he might have known something of the great Puritan Bard in his school days, but the acquaintance had not ripened into friendship; therefore he failed to grasp the full import of Mr. Morgan's meaning. He had long given up any attempt at arguing the points upon which they differed, as he was apt to be silenced by the other's superior learning and greater breadth of argument. Not that he was ever convinced; he was simply not able to prove his case. To him the circumstance was not as it should be, but neither was there any great harm in it; they were all young, and guiltless of any wrong intention. It was just a little amusing.

But to a man like Mr. Morgan, who looked deeply into things, the incident, small as it was, opened up a whole vista of thought, and served only as an impetus to his mind, like a stone, thrown into a lake by a careless hand, is followed by ever-widening circles until the whole surface of the water has felt its influence.

It seemed to him that the subjects which, if believed in at all, ought to be considered sacred, were undergoing a cheapening process, when treated with such apathy and almost levity. Not that he blamed the attitude of his niece and Mr. Dayton's family, but the taper must, indeed, be burning dim, when the votaries at its shrine can barely see its rays.

“Let us have some music, Lenore,” said Mrs. Dayton to her second daughter, who was the accompanist of the family.

“You still keep up the family concert, then, Mrs. Dayton?” said Mr. Morgan. “I remember Mary page 295 used to beg permission to come over here as regularly as Sunday came round. I doubt if the finest performance in St. Paul's Cathedral could exert the same influence over her now as your music did upon her childish imagination in those days.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Dayton, who could not remember when Mr. Morgan had honoured her house with his presence on a Sunday evening, it was so long ago, “I have given up all share in directing or helping, but we all hold the old institution in affection, and it has now become a more finished performance than with me at the piano.”

It was a sort of institution in the Dayton household, that Sunday evening, after church, should be devoted to a family concert—hymns and sacred airs sung in parts. The practice had been originated by the mother, when her children were mere babies, and had been continued under new forms as the girls grew up. Of late years Mrs. Dayton had ceased to take any active part in the music, except as critic and listener, her capabilities having fallen far short of the rising generation, who yet clung affectionately to the old habit endeared to them by long usage.

Mr. Everard did not sing, but Captain Deering possessed a pleasant tenor voice, it was true of light quality, but nevertheless acceptable to the trio—soprano, alto, bass—of Ellie, Mary, Bertie, Will assisting his cousin with the tenor. They all gathered round the piano, Lenore presiding, and sang airs—no solos were permitted on Sunday evening—from the church hymnal and collections of sacred songs, not too difficult in their arrangement.

It was one of those pleasant home scenes, the memory of which, in later years, brings moisture to the eye, is a softening to the features grown set with the weight of years and experience—may be called up, perhaps, by the perfume of some flower, some chance resemblance, some passing look, a trick of will or manner, and the whole picture is before us with all the intervening years forgotten.

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All these young people were in the spring of their days, in the heyday of youth, with their apprenticeship to the great Master just begun, and under the fairest auspices. Who of them will faint by the wayside? Who of them will receive the merited reward–“Well done, good and faithful servant?”

“Sing the hymn for those at sea,” commanded Mrs. Dayton. “I like it, and it will be a sort of prayer for Leslie.”

“From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them wheresoe'er they go.”

Far away under the burning sun of India, his lips parched with burning thirst, and fever in his veins, the words of the hymn, and every detail of the room and its occupants were recalled by the soldier with a longing and sadness experienced only by those ill and sick at heart, and far away from the tender care of those dear to them.

After singing the hymn, the group at the piano scattered, Lenore, as usual, taking her place near her father, when suddenly on the still air of the night came the sound of a drum and several musical instruments, accompanied by singing.

“What is it?” asked Mary.

“It is the Salvation Army parading through St. George's Bay,” cried Bertie, scornfully. “You might know by the noise; they call it music, I suppose.”

“It is a pity,” said Mr. Morgan, turning to Mr. Everard. “I always feel sorry for those engaged in exhibitions of that kind, working, perhaps, in the most earnest spirit, and scorn and laughter their only reward, oftentimes.”

“They do very little good,” said Mr. Dayton, who disliked anything of the kind extremely;” and their tomfooleries disgust many who would, perhaps, otherwise enter the church.”

“I think, Mr. Dayton,” answered the minister, gently,” that individual members belonging to the page 297 Salvation Army have done a great deal of good to those of a certain class, who are out of the reach of the general run of ministers, and to whom their peculiar methods appeal.”

“It is a sad commentary upon our advanced civilization that such juggleries and artifices should still be the vehicle to attract men to a purer and better life—that we, as a people, have not yet got beyond such childish, vulgar devices to lead us to the simplicity and grandeur of the Man,” said Mr. Morgan, thoughtfully.

“And it is strange that so many belong to the order that are really well educated and accustomed to refined surroundings,” remarked Mr. Everard. “It only serves to show that fanatical, puritanical, intolerant ideas of religion are not consigned to that oblivion to which they by rights belong.”

“Lenore, how should we do as volunteers for the Salvation Army?” cried Mary, mockingly, “dressed in those curious hats and dresses? You would look the character and act it, too, better than I should. I am afraid they would not take me seriously.”

“Mary, don't make light of serious subjects, even if they appear absurd to us,” said Mrs. Morgan, with gentle disapproval, as she caught sight of Mr. Everard's scornful face at what he considered the half-caste's levity.

“We might do worse, and do less good, Queen Mary,” answered Lenore dreamily. “As for the dress that is of little consequence.”

“Please don't let us discuss the Salvation Army on Leslie's last Sunday in New Zealand—let us talk of something pleasanter,” said Ellie to the family in general.

“What shall we talk about, then—the weather?” answered Captain Deering, quizzically. “I can scarcely realize that I shall leave here on Tuesday, and,” with a new gravity in his tone, “probably never see the place again.”

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“I think a feeling of that kind gives one a faint idea of what eternity must be,” said Lenore; “to look forward and think we shall never visit a certain spot, nor ever again meet the people with whom we have been constantly associated.”

“It won't he as bad as that, Lenore. I shall see some of the friends I have made here, I hope,” slightly smiling. “The world has grown small with the increased and rapid facilities for travelling of the present day—why, even you, Lenore, I may meet, who knows? and of course, Mr. Everard, you will live for a part of the year, at least, in London?”

“It is wonderful, often, how a person with whom one has once been acquainted turns up in after years, and sometimes in the most unlikely places,” commented Mr. Dayton.

“Yes, I have observed that often. There seems to be an elastic chain binding the destinies of certain people, that, however widely it may be distended, returns to its normal condition again,” said Mr. Everard.

The workings of the Divine will, of fate, of chance, which ever you will, are so involved, and move so imperceptibly, that the agencies that must tend to produce these results are often designated by names that are as vague as the ideas they attempt to bring before the mind. Possibly all the parts of the vast machinery that moves the world may, in time, be explained by scientific research; and it may happen that as the mechanism of life is explained, the one awful fact of sin, unconquerable except in a modified form by the individual, may lose its terrible power, which is so much more potent than its austerer adversary—good.

“Did you mean what you said a little while ago, Miss Dayton, with reference to the Salvation Army? You were in earnest; Miss Balmain was not,” said the minister, as he leaned over Lenore's chair.

“I don't quite understand what you mean, Mr. page 299 Everard. I don't remember that I said anything very particular,” she answered, a little surprised.

“Yes; you seemed to regard it as something quite within the range of your sympathy—am I right?” he cried, eagerly looking down on the sweet, serious face.

“Not quite. I could never enter heartily into the principles and methods of the Salvationists—they repel me; but their motives and aims I admire and respect. I presume they are as pure as those that are clothed in a more refined form,” she said, thoughtfully, and with her eyes bent on the carpet.

“Then you comprehend the grand principle that impels those who enter a life of that kind?” he asked, half questioning, and yet taking it partly for granted, “always supposing their motives are disinterested—that of almost complete self-abnegation—the quality most reverenced, and that which is most seldom practised.”

I understand,” she said, simply, and raising the clear, serious eyes, she looked at him for a second, but long enough to send the blood coursing quickly through his veins with an emotion now growing familiar to him.

“And you feel that you could enter such a life? Ah! but I know you could; with your reserve, strength of character, and rare sympathy, you seem peculiarly fitted for such a noble work. It is women of your mould that devote themselves to the good of their kind,” cried the minister, with suppressed eagerness.

Lenore flushed a little as she noticed the warmth of manner and the peculiar vibration in the minister's voice. It stirred her strangely; but she remained silent until once more the conversation became general.