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

Chapter I. The Missionary's Sacrifice

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Chapter I. The Missionary's Sacrifice.

It was midday in Auckland. A blazing sun shone high in the heavens, his course blue and unflecked with clouds, and his golden radiance flooding the restless waters of the Waitamata and the gently swelling hills and valleys of the isthmus upon which the town is built.

Auckland rises gradually from its wave-indented shore, in Nature's attempt at terraces, possessing many features of an English country town in summer—trim white houses nestling in bowers of vivid green, brightened, on this day, with the rays of an almost tropical sun; and suburbs stretching for miles into the country, and along the shore of the river, the glimpses of white growing less frequent, and the masses of living green of greater extent and beauty.

“Hills, knolls, mounds” relieve the landscape on all sides, some crowned with plantations of sombre pines, others adorned with villas set in gardens whose prodigal wealth of flowers clothe with a rich garment the earth which in a long-forgotten age panted beneath the force of heaving earthquakes and page 2 scorching streams of lava; while a few stand grimly forth, bare of the evidences of mighty labour, and unchanged from the day their fiery forces left them—bluish grey with their numerous boulders of rock, and overrun with coarse fern and tufts of various grasses; away to the pure line of the horizon swell ranges of hills, blue in the distance, the tint deepening in their wild ravines, and their undulating outline plainly marked against the delicate hue of the heavens.

The shores of the Waitamata present a more or less bold front; the frowning cliffs, when not adorned with fresh white houses or those of duller concrete, whose grounds slope to the water's edge, are clothed with the sea-loving pohutukawas or virgin forest, not yet destroyed by the wasteful hand of the Colonial accustomed to plenty. The line of cliffs is broken here and there with enchanting little bays, worthy of the island home of Calypso, and invaluable as anchorage for the yachts and boats of every kind that are the delight of all Colonials.

The side of the river opposite the town gradually tapers until, after making a sudden dip into the land, it abruptly swells again, terminating in a round hill, called the North Head, whose rocky base is fretted into deep caverns and grotesque outlines by the tremendous waves that dash against it. Above, the edge of the cliff is the home of a luxuriant vegetation, and beneath the trees nestle delicate ferns and mosses within sound of the thundering breakers that are slowly wearing away the solid stone of the base. The dip in the land is only a few miles in length, and scarcely that much from the harbour on one side to the channel round the North Head, and is called the North Shore, which, from its proximity to the city, is a great holiday resort, and a favourite suburb of the business men of Auckland.

Across from “The Shore” is Rangitoto, the page 3 extinct volcano island, that stands grim and bare as a natural guardian of the harbour, towering in disdainful austerity above the well-wooded or rich grassy hills of the gulf, destitute of vegetation, its gently sloping sides of sober Quakerish hues.

What a bountiful, genial mood possessed Nature in the execution of this masterpiece of her handiwork! All her treasures are lavished upon it—the bluest and clearest of skies; the purest and lightest of air; island and lake; hill and dale; wood and creek—and, as if the sweetness had gone from her mood too soon, stands the dark, lonely, mysterious mountain, whose very name to the native recalls its black history.

Between two headlands, some distance from the heart of the town, nestles a small, old-fashioned house, gabled, with latticed windows, and a very wide verandah—one of the relics of pioneer missionary days. In the background, to the crown of the slope, stretches a neglected garden in which Nature has it all her own way, and amongst the trees of which peeps the gable of an old house. To the right, on the brow of the cliff, stands a church that recalls to memory the mellowed, time-worn places of worship in English villages—the latticed windows, gray, sloping roof, the cemetery running wild—prim walks and triumphs of the gardener's skill here give place to graces Nature's own—and the dead are lulled to their eternal rest by that anthem of the sea which shall never cease until man is no more. The church, however, is never used except for burial services; and a winding path, hidden by the trees until one is close upon it, leads to the cottage of which we are speaking.

To the left, on the opposite cliff, rises a handsome residence, with grounds laid out in elegant taste, with the gardens extending to the water's edge. A gentle curve of the river winds in between the two headlands to a pebbly beach immediately in front of page 4 the cottage, the bay being the anchorage for a very fine yacht and several smaller boats.

At the door of the small house on this particular day appeared a man, well stricken in years, and leaning on a stick as if from weakness or illness, seemingly doubtful as to the advisability of venturing into the warmth and sunshine of the outer air. But from a glass door further along the verandah emerged a little girl of about nine or ten years of age, who had no doubts at all about the matter.

“Oh, Papa Wilson, do come and sit out here! It is so warm and sunny,” she cried, in a plaintive, lingering voice full of music, and at the same time running to put his chair in what she considered the right position.

As he slowly moved forward with the help of his stick, and sank wearily into a long cane chair, it could be plainly seen that age and disease had made many ravages in what had once been a strong, powerful man. After he had settled himself comfortably, the little girl moved a low stool nearer him; and, with a grace very striking in one so young, sat down with her head resting against his knee.

“It is pleasanter, little Mary, in this pure, fresh air; and the breeze is not too strong to-day,” as a whiff blew upon them from the glancing waters of the bay. “But I am getting old and feeble now, and exertion seems to tire me,” said the old man, smoothing the child's dark hair fondly.

“Will you not try and walk a little round the garden, or out on the beach?” she cried, coaxingly. “You know the doctor said you were to go out all you could.”

“No, no, not to-day, Mary.”

“Well, if you won't go into the garden, let me get you that dark red rose-bud—you always like roses;” and without waiting for a reply, she ran down the slope, and returned with her prize in triumph. “Now let me fasten it in your coat,” cried page 5 the musical, childish voice, laughing as she did it, with soft, subdued laughter.

“Thank you, my darling. It is sweet—too sweet for this old coat,” and he patted the brown hand fondly with his wrinkled one in silence.

After a long pause, Mr. Wilson began in a quavering voice that was new to the little girl–

“Do you remember the lady who came here last week, and was so kind and pleasant to you?–Mrs. Morgan is her name. She lives in that beautiful house on the point yonder,” pointing to the cliff on the right.

“Yes,” assented the child.

“How would you like to live with her always?–to be a little daughter to her?”

“Live with her?” she repeated, the dark eyes looking up vaguely into his face. It was plain she did not understand the drift of his remarks.

“Mary, I must speak plainly. It is impossible for me to give you all the care and attention that a young girl like you requires, and Mr. and Mrs. Morgan, who have no children of their own, want me to give you to them.”

The simple, direct manner in which he laid the matter before her at last penetrated the brain of the child. With a plaintive cry, not loud, but infinitely pitiful, she flung herself upon his breast, incoherently desiring him to prevent it—that she did not want to go—she loved only him, and no one should take her from him.

“You hurt me, darling,” he said, with a voice broken with emotion. “It breaks my heart to part with you—my only comfort—and so soon after the other. But it would be selfish in me to stand in your light.”

With a sob, more painful than tears or cries, the clinging arms fell from his neck, and the little girl sunk down again with an old womanish look of patient sorrow on her face.

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“I feel tired now, Mary, but it is so much pleasanter out here than in the house, that we had better stay a little longer,” and he leaned back, half in weariness, half in enjoyment of the fragrant summer breeze. “You had better take a run on the beach, darling; it is not natural for such a very little girl to remain for any length of time so steady and quiet,” he said, fondly.

“I like to be near you, Papa Wilson—I do not want to run about on the beach.”

“Always faithful, always true,” he murmured softly to himself, not pressing his request upon her, which was more for her sake than his, and a long silence fell upon them, until the child, on looking up, saw that he had fallen asleep.

The soft, languorous air, combined with his weakness of body, now frequently induced a drowsiness, that, to an experienced eye, foreshadowed the beginning of the end.

With pathetic fidelity the child sat at his feet gazing seaward, while the sun, which was now beginning his magnificent downward course to the west, touched lovingly the grey head of the old missionary, and the dark-haired little girl.

The air was full of the opulence of a southern summer—a summer that knows no parsimony, that revels in her superabundance and loveliness, intoxicating to men accustomed to the rigour and austerity of northern regions. Locusts were singing, bees humming, and birds, native to the woods of England, filling the air with their glad hymn of praise to the Creator's goodness, and, above it all, borne on the perfumed air, the soft lapping of the waves as they kissed the sandy beach. As a relief to the great masses of intense green that rose behind, and on either side, the brilliant hues of the garden delighted the eye with all the tints of the prism—red, yellow, and pink roses, sweet-scented pinks, great white lilies, and all kinds of pelargoniums vied page 7 with one another amongst the commoner scarlet geraniums and wallflowers.

In sharp contrast to this glad, teeming life and gorgeous colouring, the figures of youth and age stood out in bold relief—a study in neutral tints. The black dress, black hair, dark shadowy eyes, and brown skin of the child, the white beard and hair and evident weakness of age formed the essentials of a picture so sombre that even Phœbus himself could not brighten it. Nature is full of such contrasts, and possibly there is a charm in their very soberness, the vein of sadness in the very happiest and brightest temperament harmonizing with its counterpart in Nature.

Slowly the sun sank to the cone of Rangitoto, the trees beginning to cast long shadows, and still the two figures retained the same position, when the hall door softly opened and a portly figure appeared in the doorway. The sound, gentle as it was, awoke the sleeper, and the new-comer spoke.

“Asleep were you, sir? I am real glad to see you out in the air a bright day like this; it will do you a world of good.”

“Yes; I think I feel better for the airing. We stay in the house too much,” answered the missionary.

“Well,” said the woman, whose face was an index of her good-nature, “I don't wonder at you so much, but the little girl ought to run about more. It isn't natural for her to sit so quiet and still-like.”

“The very words I said to her about an hour ago; but she does not seem to desire to play like other children. She prefers to be with me—you know it will not be for long, Mrs. Jones,” he added, pathetically.

Tears rose to the good woman's eyes at the manifest truth of the remark, but she said nothing.

“I suppose you want us to come in to tea; it must be nearly ready,” he said, after a pause.

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“Yes, sir, it is all ready,” and she disappeared.

He rose with difficulty with the assistance of his stick, and, taking Mary's hand, he walked feebly into the house by the way he came out.

It was a strange, pathetic sight to see this ten years' old child pouring out tea like a woman twice her years—putting in the lumps of sugar, then the milk, lifting the tea-pot that was almost too heavy for her—and all with as little sound and display as if she had done it for a life-time. Mr. Wilson loved to see her do it—indeed, was proud of all her little old-fashioned ways—and from anybody else's hand, the tea would not taste half so sweet as from that of this dark-haired, dark-eyed child of a barbarian race, whose subdued, silent, affectionate ways were after a kind utterly impossible to the product of this stirring civilization of the nineteenth century.

The little girl mentioned above was Mary Balmain, the only child of General Balmain and Tapera, the daughter of a Maori chief. It was reported that the former had emigrated to New Zealand in a fit of rage from baffled hopes—the woman he loved had jilted him—but no one knew his story with any certainty except the missionary, Mr. Wilson, and he heard it for the first time on the general's death-bed.

Whatever his history, or whatever the circumstances might have been that led to his taking such a drastic step, certain it was that he never again set his foot in his native land. He never made friendly advances—with but one exception—to any of the neighbouring landowners, or ever willingly received visitors at his house. All his servants were Maoris, and after some years he married a chief's daughter, probably in the spirit of the philosopher of Locksley Hall.

On his death-bed General Balmain appointed Mr. Wilson, with whom he had a slight acquaintance, as his daughter's guardian, a charge which was thankfully received by the childless missionary and page 9 his wife. Mary was at that time about four years of age, until then allowed to run wild, and make the acquaintance of all the Maoris—who adored her, but stood in mortal dread of her father—about the premises.

Mrs. Wilson brought up her little ward as carefully as if she had been her own child, and in a short time the aged couple loved her as if she belonged to them by ties of blood. The sweet, confiding nature that had gained the good-will of her father's servants, involuntarily attracted the love of people of finer mould. But try as she would, Mrs. Wilson could never induce Mary to say father and mother, it was always Mamma Wilson and Papa Wilson, as if to distinguish between the parents she had lost, and those who took their place.

Of course, Mary was taught to read, to sew, and to write. But it grieved the good lady that she was slow to learn. Tractable and anxious as she was to please her teacher, there was no questioning the fact that to Mary the three R's and hemming pocket handkerchiefs were drudgery. But, as Mrs. Wilson said, the little girl could learn taking little songs and imitate anything she noted as peculiar, but come down to the practical, and she was far behind. Her husband only laughed, saying it would come right in time.

After his wife's death, and a general break down of his own health, Mr. Wilson came to Auckland, and settled in Parnell, so well known to himself and his fellow missionaries.

It was now that the little child he had taken from her father's death-bed became his solace and joy. She might not be quick at learning the three R's, but she was intuitive where any little action could be performed for his comfort.

Friends, however, represented to Mr. Wilson that it was impossible for him to keep his ward, situated as he was—ill and suffering, and so near the other page 10 world; and when Mr. Morgan, a wealthy gentleman and childless, had offered to adopt Mary, even the missionary himself felt that a better home nor kinder friends could not be found. Mr. Wilson, however, stipulated that the child should retain her father's name, a condition to which little objection could be made, and one that showed the missionary's acquaintance with the workings of the Maori mind. Mary was peculiarly tenacious of any circumstance concerning her past life.

The last day came all too quickly.

“Mary,” said her guardian, as they sat in the little sitting-room facing the sea, “you must not forget your father in this new life.”

“Nor my mother?” she asked, a hard sound to his sensitive ear in her voice.

“Yes, yes,” he answered, hurriedly, “Truly, the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children every day before our eyes.”

“What did you say, Papa Wilson?” she asked, but he made no answer.

“Tell me of my father and of my mother,” she said, eagerly. “No one will tell me anything of them.”

“Some time, Mary, but not now. Sing to me, I am so tired.”

There was something solemn and holy about the whole scene. As the soft, sweet little voice rose and fell, it seemed as the singing of a mass for those who pass away from the world, and which was doubly pathetic from the fact that the young and the old would so soon part.

Mary sang on until she saw that the missionary was asleep, and then she fled to her own room to give free vent to her grief, that was strangely womanly in its expression. Deep sobs convulsed the little frame, but no tears came to the relief of the burning eyes. There was something terrible in the repressed nature of her sorrow; the very page 11 fountain of her grief seemed to have dried up from its own intensity. She might have been a woman thrice her age, and reserved and self-contained at that.

“Why must I go?” she cried, under her breath. “I don't want to leave Papa Wilson—I love him so. God is kind. Why does He let me do it? I can't go—I can't!” and burying her face in the pillow for fear she might be heard, a passion of grief swept over her none the less real and bitter because of her extreme youth.

Quick as the outburst had come upon her, it faded as suddenly, like a thunder shower on a summer's day. Moving over to the window, she stood still, gazing with her dark, melancholy eyes seaward.

She was a true child of her mother, else how should she retain that one position for such a length of time—the offspring of civilization are not wont to practise perfect stillness as a virtue—but nerves are unknown to the denizens of the New Zealand bush.

Suddenly a sob shook her from head to foot, for up the garden path came Mrs. Morgan. Before the knock sounded at the door, Mary was at the missionary's side.

He was awake and quite calm.

“The time has come now, my darling,” as she nestled close to him.

“How do you do, Mr. Wilson?” said the musical voice belonging to this lady. “I hope this bright, sunny weather has made some improvement in your health.”

“I think I do feel better, Mrs. Morgan, perhaps as well as I shall ever feel this side of the grave.”

“And how is little Mary?” she said, drawing the little girl to her fondly, and kissing the dark face.

“Quite well, thank you,” the half-caste answered, primly, and submitting passively to Mrs. Morgan's clasp.

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“I presume you have come to take her from me?” said Mr. Wilson, anxious to have the scene over.

“Well, hardly that. I don't want to deprive you altogether of the pleasure of the society of your little girl. She is to come and see you whenever she feels inclined. Will that suit you, little Mary?” said Mrs. Morgan, gently.

“Can I come when I like to see Papa Wilson?” the eagerness in her voice almost painful to hear.

The lady smiled indulgently.

“Yes, dear, just when you like.”

“You are very good, Mrs. Morgan, I shall deem it a boon to see Mary as often as possible for the time I a here,” said Mr. Wilson, pathetically.

“Mr. Morgan and I understand your feeling perfectly, and sympathize with your very natural desire to see your little girl—she shall always be yours, Mr. Wilson; none have a better right than you to claim her. But I sincerely hope you will be among us longer than you imagine.”

He shook his head sadly, and then almost abruptly requested the little girl to gather him a bunch of roses to put in the vase that stood on a small table near him. As she moved away, always pleased to pay him any little attention, the missionary turned to his visitor.

“I neglected telling your husband one important matter when giving him the details relating to Mary's birth and fortune—she does not know that her mother belongs to the Maori race, and that she is living. Tapera went back to her own people when Mary was about two years old, so that she does not remember her mother in the slightest degree; and we have never had any occasion to let the child know the circumstances of her birth. She already—perhaps it is my fancy—thinks it peculiar that her mother's name is never mentioned by any chance—always her father. It remains for you to tell her the story.”

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“I am sorry for that, Mr. Wilson. Need she ever know?” answered Mrs. Morgan.

“Let me give you a friend's advice, Mrs. Morgan, from my long experience with half-castes and Maoris: tell her before someone else relieves you of the duty—someone, perhaps, that will not spare her feelings as you will. There are always spiteful, long-tongued people that seem to take a sort of delight in giving a stab to another—and especially among giddy, thoughtless school girls,” he added, bitterly.

“If I thought such a thing would happen at school, we could get a governess for her, though Mr. Morgan is very much against educating girls at home—he believes in the discipline of school life,” said Mrs. Morgan, thoughtfully.

“He is quite right there—I agree with him. Mary has not had companionship enough of her own age, and school life will supply that want. But do not flatter yourself that she will not be told of her birth; these things, you know, Mrs. Morgan, cannot be hidden, and especially when the evidence of Maori blood is in her face.

“I will take your advice, Mr. Wilson, but it will be an unpleasant task to tell her.”

“Better that, a thousand times, than to be pained by her sorrow when some officious, sarcastic individual cuts her with it, then you will be obliged to tell her the whole story. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.”

Quietly, Mary entered the room again, and set the flowers in water on the little table, sitting down in her old position at the missionary's side. Instinctively she knew that it was of her Mr. Wilson wished to speak, and, with rare delicacy in one so young, had purposely delayed her return much longer than was absolutely necessary.

“I think we had better go now,” said Mrs. Morgan, gently, and rising as she spoke.

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With a pitiful low cry, Mary threw herself on the missionary's breast, and clung to him wildly, though she spoke no word, while he kissed over and over again the little dark face so dearly loved by himself and his dead wife.

“Good-bye, my darling, good-bye, and God send His blessing with you,” he said, brokenly.

Tears rose to Mrs. Morgan's eye as she saw the emotion in the face of the aged servant of God before her.

“Better take her away,” he said at last. There was no need; at the sound of his voice, quietly—too quietly—she slipped from his embrace, and stood by Mrs. Morgan's side as if ready to go.

“Good-bye, Mr. Wilson, you may depend that Mary will come here very often,” and they were gone, taking with them the sunlight and comfort of his home. In his old age and weakness he was indeed forsaken; but not willingly. Mary's departure left no sting behind, and for that he was grateful. The fragrance and sweetness of her presence would still hover over him, and his memory, enshrined in her heart, will live on when all other emotions have passed away in the true, tenaciously loyal, but limited love of Mary Balmain.

Mrs. Jones stood in the hall to receive them and to say good-bye, kissing Mary effusively.

“You'll have no trouble with that child; she's the best I ever saw,” said the good woman to Mrs. Morgan. “But it'll be hard on Mr. Wilson, I'm thinking—very hard.”

Mrs. Morgan felt some compunction as to the advisability of her action as she walked away holding Mary's cold little hand, and resolved that every attention and kindness should be paid to Mr. Wilson that lay in her power; as if all the treasures of the world could pay him for the loss of his ward. It is often well that the full significance of our deeds does not strike us until we are half-way through them, or until they are accomplished.