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

Chapter XXVII. At the Theatre

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Chapter XXVII. At the Theatre.

The Morgans had left New Zealand three months after Captain Deering's departure for India, about the latter part of June, having thus been in England nearly five months. Part of this time had been spent at the country residences of Captain Deering's two sisters, but the house which Mr. Morgan had leased being ready for occupation, they had come to London to live until Captain Deering's return from India, some time in the July of the following year, when preparations for Mary's marriage were to be commenced.

They had already formed a large circle of acquaintances, many of whom were known to Mr. Morgan in former years, and some of whom had received his hospitality when visiting Auckland, as well as those to whom they had introductions from New Zealand friends, including Lady St. Clair and her set. Mary had made an exceedingly favourable impression, as had been expected she would; but, if Mrs. Morgan had really believed that General Balmain's family would recognize the half-caste, she was disappointed. Though knowing the fact of their relative's arrival in England, no effort was made to make her acquaintance; her existence was completely ignored.

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On this particular evening, Mr. Mordaunt and his nephew had been invited by Mrs. Morgan to her box at the theatre. The play was Hamlet, with Ellen Terry and Irving in the title rôles. The two ladies arrived some time before the gentlemen of their party, and were just becoming alarmed at their delay when they made their appearance.

The house was crowded with the fashion and beauty of London. Looking out from their boxes were fair, sweet British women, with that delicate, rose petal tint on the cheek to be seen nowhere else in the world, and about whose personality lingered that air of repose and refinement so distinctive of Englishwomen, and for which they are so deservedly famed. Amongst this blonde loveliness, the dark, magnificent beauty of the Colonial stood out like a damask rose set in a garden of white lilies, as she sat with a careless, indolent grace, slowly waving a huge fan in a manner supposed to belong exclusively to the daughters of Spain. She was attired in a creamy-white lace dress, with bright scarlet blossoms in her hair, and amongst the lace of the corsage, and around the full statuesque throat a string of pearls—Mrs. Morgan had too much good taste to deck her niece out in a vulgar display of jewels—the whole bringing out with startling distinctiveness the dark head and shadowy eyes. Her whole appearance possessed the effect of a rich coloured tropical flower transplanted into an old-fashioned English garden.

As Mr. Mordaunt entered the box with Mr. Morgan—his nephew she knew quite well—the half-closed eyes of the girl opened wide with interest, and real pleasure glowed on her face as the old Colonial was presented to her. Was he not an old friend of her father's? and she knew so very few—indeed, now none of the white race—who had been acquainted with General Balmain, about whom she had weaved a sweet, tender romance, as daughter page 318 are apt to do, who know of their parents only by hearsay.

“Mr. Mordaunt is an old friend of your father's, Mary,” said Mrs. Morgan in her gentle voice, “one of the few your father made in Waitoa, though you have never seen him; you always happened to be away when he called at the house.”

How much emotion, how many thoughts, can be compressed into the few seconds of an introduction! While Mr. Mordaunt was murmuring a few words of acknowledgment, the London theatre, the sea of faces, the glitter of jewels, the brilliant lights faded from his mind's eye, and he was again thousands of miles distant, to the very antipodes of the city he was visiting, to where he had first seen Mary Balmain, away far in the north of New Zealand, under blue skies, and a warm, life-giving sun. He saw her dressed fantastically in the gorgeous colours, barbarously mixed, that all native races love, with a face that seemed all eyes, big, brown, liquid, that gazed at him curiously and speculatively—not shyly—with an unchildlikeness that fairly staggered him. He saw the Maori servants performing the work of the estate in their own languid, peculiar methods, and above all, the tall, soldierly figure of the General, with his face prematurely aged with sorrow and his own fierce passions.

But all this picture was a thing of the past, buried in the grave of his soldier friend; and, as he dreamily listened, without hearing a word of the nonsense his nephew was telling-the two ladies of the difficulty it had been to come at all that evening, he gazed calmly and critically at his old friend's child. Half unwillingly he admitted to himself that she had grown into a beautiful woman—rather too voluptuous to please his taste—and what he valued greatly, betrayed all the evidences of culture and refinement; so what he had been told regarding her had not been exaggerated in any one particular. But what was the page 319 something that made him shrink from her, even while he admired? Was it because she was the daughter of Tapera, a woman who possessed all the worst features of a degenerate race, and whose marriage with General Balmain had dissolved the friendship of years? No doubt a trace of this did influence his mind to some extent; but others had felt this vague shrinking that knew nothing of Mary's previous history, without acknowledging to themselves that it was so, or why. It was like gazing at a quiescent volcano, whose sides are covered with the loveliest and most delicate forms of a tropical vegetation, but in whose caverns lurk terrible, devastating forces immeasurable, which may break out at any moment. Was there a something, an inherited weakness in the half-caste, at present covered over by the flowers of civilization, that, when the occasion came, would burst its silken bands, and bend this girl's form to what would be a mockery of its present splendour? Who shall tell the mysteries of the book of fate?

These thoughts—or something like them—flitted through the brain of the Colonial in far less time than it takes to write them, without changing the expression of his face, which he had now turned towards the stage; and, as the play progressed, he secretly noted its effect upon Mary. All the poetry, the passion, the melancholy so highly developed in the Maori race, and engendered by the beautiful, awe-inspiring scenery of their native land, were aroused in her as Shakespeare's grand, but gloomy tragedy was portrayed by the leading artistes of the day. The indolent air deserted her figure, the dark eyes filled with tears, and, as the curtain fell, a low sigh escaped her.

“We cannot yet command such genius in New Zealand, Miss Balmain. We are obliged to come ‘home’ to enjoy dramatic art at its best,” said Mr. Mordaunt.

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“Not yet,” she answered, in that musical, pathetic voice she inherited from her pagan ancestors, “because we have not the inducements. But, if not, we possess in New Zealand the noblest of panoramas that can be seen by all without payment,” and sudden passion came into the voice that surprised and moved the old Colonial into a momentary admiration; “the blue sky and the sparkling water, the hills and vast forests, the lovely terraces and wonderfully-coloured lakes, the–”

“She broke off suddenly, recollecting herself, and smiled a-sweet, slow smile.

“You finished too soon, Miss Balmain; but though you gave us a beautiful picture—very fine and poetical too—and nature is all that you say” (as it happened Mary had said nothing about it; the young man was out of his depth), “after all we want to see the lights and shades of life, and who can portray them as Shakespeare can? You told me yourself that you loved Ellen Terry's ‘Ophelia,’ ” said young Mr. Mordaunt.

“Yes, I did; and I meant it. She is so sweet, so lovable, and her story is so sad, all for no fault of her own—all brought upon her through the wrong-doing of others. Don't you think,” she went on, turning to Mr. Morgan (she had not a very high opinion of the young man's intellectual gifts, though she liked him, much as she liked Bertie Dayton, the two youths being of the same type—good-natured, honest, generous—but she would not discuss abstruse questions with him), “that that gentle madness was a happy thing for Ophelia? She did not feel the weight of her sorrow—everything was lost to her, until she was laid at rest. It is the only Lethe in this world—there is no other so complete.”

“No, Mary; surely you are not serious?” said Mr. Morgan, gravely, while the Colonial looked at her curiously. “Lethe is a very pretty poetic sentiment, but in reality anything that induces complete forget page 321 fulness in man's life has an evil effect upon him, mentally and physically. Madness, of whatever kind, is a terrible price to pay for forgetfulness, to my thinking, and one that few would care to try.”

“My niece is very devoted to New Zealand,” broke in Mrs. Morgan, to change the subject, which she saw was drifting into deep waters, “though, of course, the life here is all new and delightful to one accustomed to the Colonies.”

“If that is the case,” answered Mr. Mordaunt, “I shall be most happy to take any messages or gifts she might desire to send to her old friends, as I am going out in a few weeks.”

“You are most kind. I shall be only too thankful to avail myself of your kind offer,” said Mary. “Most people returning to the Colonies have made such extensive purchases in this country that they have really no room for anything belonging to friends.”

“So you have really made up your mind, Mordaunt, to return?” remarked Mr. Morgan. “I had hoped you might be induced to alter your mind.”

“The fogs and the winds have decided for me, as I am too old to be climatized again. I shall soon be enjoying a sight, free of charge, of the ‘panorama’ of which you spoke so glowingly a few minutes ago,” said the Australian to Mary, with a twinkle in his eye.

She laughed in the subdued way peculiar to her at this sally; and the man afterwards remembered that this was the only time he ever heard John Balmain's child laugh.

“Your nieces have not the art of persuasion!” she cried, mockingly, and slowly waving her fan; “I should make it my business to make you believe that this is the most desirable country in the world to live in; and you would believe it, too.”

“That's right,” said young Mr. Mordaunt, appreciatively, “though I am afraid it is useless to try page 322 any more persuasion. You have become a thorough English, worn an already, I see, Miss Balmain,” he went on, “even though you think so highly of your old home.”

“Englishwoman?” she asked, scornfully, and turning her eyes upon him; “that I have always been, and a more loyal subject by far of her Majesty the Queen than many of the male sex I have met since I have been in England—or of the female sex, for that matter, either. You always speak of those born and bred in India as English, so why not those born in Australia?”

“That is perfectly true, eh, Morgan?” said Mr. Mordaunt. “Loyalty is made of the right stuff in the Colonies.”

“I do not think of these things so much as Lenore Dayton—that is Lady Clair's cousin, you know, and my particular friend; loyalty is almost a passion with her,” went on Mary. “It is from her I got my ideas on loyalty.”

“Ah, I have heard of her from my uncle—she must be very clever. Lady St. Clair showed, me several of her sketches. Her name is pretty, and in her pictures she looks worthy of her name.”

The young man scarcely knew whether to take the half-caste seriously or not.

“Is that Dayton's second daughter that you are speaking about? “asked Mr. Mordaunt. “She is a fine girl, and clever too, and does not frighten you with her knowledge about Latin and mathematics, like some of the girls that are called clever, I like to talk to her—she amuses me.”

After their return from the theatre Mr. Morgan and Mary—Mrs. Morgan retired at once, saying she was tired—sat for awhile in the library, so-called by courtesy, for nearly all the books had been left in Auckland, only a few favourites coming with the family—until definite arrangements were made as to their future home. It was a large room, and elegantly page 323 furnished, though lacking in that home-like artistic finish distinctive of Mr. Morgan's sanctum in Auckland, and which is only attained in a room constantly used and highly appreciated by its owner.

The lights had not been lit, but these two wanted none, as a good fire burned in the grate, throwing up the darkness and gloom of the lower end of the room, which were now and again accentuated as the fire flared up into momentary brilliance. Mary sat dreamily in front of the fire in her rich evening dress, which had not yet been changed, in the depths of a crimson arm-chair—a most beautiful figure, yet almost overpowering to the senses in the fitful firelight, which now lighted up the sombre depths of her eyes, now brought into relief the contour of her form, now the delicate oval of her face. She sat indolently, as was her wont, with her hands loosely clasped in front of her, and her eyes fixed on the fire.

“Where are your thoughts, Queen Mary?” said Mr. Morgan, tenderly, from his side of the fireplace, and leaning back in his chair in an attitude peculiar to him. “I hardly think Lenore would know you in that grand gown.”

“Oh, the dress,” she answered, looking down at it carelessly. “Lenore? Do you miss Lenore much?” with a slight touch of sharpness in her voice that struck him.

“A little,” he said, truthfully. “Surely you would not like me to forget Lenore! Do you really desire all my love for your own, Queen Mary? Do you value it so much as that?”

There was a wistfulness in his tone, as if he wished to believe that the half-caste appreciated his love to that extent; and which seemed passing strange coming from a man that, from his appearance, one would judge was made of iron.

“You know that I do, Uncle Leonard—you seem sometimes as if you thought I was not grateful for page 324 all your goodness to me for so many years; is it not so?” she asked, leaning forward with a certain unstudied grace that distinguished all her movements.

“Nay, Mary, I do not want gratitude–I want nothing forced, dear. All I long for is your affection,” he said, with infinite tenderness.

“And do you think I do not look upon you with more affection than anyone else, except Mr. Wilson? You only say these things to try me. Somehow to-night I feel your great goodness to me more than I ever did before. I wonder why it is? But it is getting very late. Do you feel tired, Uncle Leonard?” said the half-caste.

“No; I enjoy sitting here in front of the fire in this semi-darkness. Would you care to take a trip to Paris, Mary? I meant to ask you this morning.”

“To Paris?” she repeated, vaguely, and looking at him in surprise.

“Yes; I received a letter from a very old friend, who is dying of consumption in the south of France. He wants to see me very badly, and so I promised I would start at once. You do not know him. He left Auckland before you remember much. There is a very sad story in his life, which is little talked of now. If you would like the visit, I can take you with me. Your aunt does not care about the trip at all.”

“Would you like me to go?” she asked, softly.

“Not unless you wish it. Of course, I would not ask you if I did not want your company,” he answered, smiling a little.

“I think not, then; I do not care about Paris. When are you going, and how long will you be away? It is strange, Uncle Leonard, but I feel as if I did not want you to go either. But that is nonsense.

“I shall leave early next week, and will be gone a fortnight; not very long, you see. If you came with me I should stay longer,” said Mr. Morgan.

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“How strange it will seem in this big London without you. Oh! I promised to spend to-morrow and the next day with Lady St. Clair. Do you mind? She is to give a reception. You are invited, you know; and I will come home with you and auntie after it.”

“Now, that is all right, dear; I like you to enjoy yourself.”

“Then she rose in all the dignity of her womanhood, her rich lace gown falling all about her, and came close to him.

“Good-night, dear Uncle Leonard. I have kept you late,” and after kissing him she passed slowly from the room.

When she reached the door, however, she paused, and came back again and put her arms round Mr. Morgan's neck.

“I love you, dear Uncle Leonard, I love you better than all beside. I don't know why I say it, but I feel it, every word of it. You are my guardian spirit. Good-night, again. I know you will be pleased that I have said this to you. I so seldom can put into words all that I wish, but I have been able to-night.”

And she was gone, leaving only the odour from her gown, and the tones, pregnant with intense feeling, of the sweet voice ringing in his ears, with all the delightful sensations we fancy must have been felt by the hearers of Orpheus as they listened to his wonderful music.

He lingered long by the fire, sunk in a pleasant reverie, with no foreshadowing of the doom approaching with giant strides. It came like a clap of thunder from a clear sky!