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

Chapter X. The Last Night of the Old Year

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Chapter X. The Last Night of the Old Year.

Late on the last night of the old year—it must have been approaching eleven o'clock—Lenore, who had been extremely busy all day, remembered that she had promised Mr. Morgan that she would call for Mary on her way to church. Bertie, however, was nowhere to be found, and Will had gone to bed.

Captain Deering, who was calmly smoking a cigar on the verandah, at last noticed Lenore was waiting impatiently for someone by the number of times she came to the door.

“What is it?” he asked, at last.

“Mary wants to go to the midnight service, and if we want to be in time we must get ready at once. Where can Bertie be?”

“Will she not come over herself?” he asked again.

“No, because I promised one of us should call for her.”

“I will go with pleasure, if that will do,” said the Captain.

“Very well. You had better go at once, and don't wait for us; walk slowly on. We shall catch you up before you reach the church door.

It was the first time he had undertaken a service of this kind for Miss Balmain, and it brought with page 121 it an odd kind of pleasure, a sense of responsibility with regard to her.

He began to acknowledge to himself that his interest in the half-caste was very real, but, in his careless, easy fashion, he allowed things to drift onward, never troubling himself where they led. For the time being he was happy; the days seemed to fly on wings, and what was the use of borrowing trouble, argued he; or possibly he did not consider the question at all, except in a dim, hazy fashion that admitted of no direct answer.

“Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof” was a favourite saying of his, and he lived up to it.

Mary was all ready dressed, and, as the steps sounded on the gravelled walk, she emerged from the glass door of the drawing-room on to the verandah.

“Is it you?” she said, with a shyness new to herself.

“Yes; I came to escort you to the church, as they are not ready over at the house, but I daresay I will do,” he cried, in his easy tones.

“Good soldiers, I am told, make the best of a situation; so probably you will make a fair substitute,” answered Mary, mockingly.

“I will do my best, Miss Balmain,” he cried, with assumed modesty. “Lenore told me to walk on slowly, and the others would overtake us.”

“Uncle Leonard and auntie are out. I was afraid I should have to stay at home, until I heard all of your people were going,” said Mary.

“Why, would it be such a disappointment to you to lose the service? I fancied on Christmas Day that your attention was directed to dreamland, rather than to a practical sermon,” he said, quizzically.

It was the poetry, the half-melancholy aspect of this farewell to the old, and greeting to the new year, that was fast approaching so joyfully, that page 122 appealed to the romantic side of Mary's character. All that was fanciful, poetical, melancholy, possessed strong attractions for her—the product of paganism grafted on to the tree of civilisation.

“I don't pay very much attention to sermons as a usual thing,” she said, in her soft, slow voice, that always brought a soothing influence to the man beside her, and seemed especially harmonious on this balmy, delicious night. “The ministers preach that one must do this and that—they don't do it themselves—but I don't find that I am any the worse for going my own way.”

“Oh, what heresy! I often wonder with such environments as yours that you fail to enter into philosophical problems; like Lenore, for instance,” said the Captain.

“What is the use of it all? I enjoy myself, nothing troubles me; and I don't seem to be more wicked than my neighbours,” she went on, with an aggressive ring in her voice. “You do not trouble about such things, do you? You are not good?” she finished, half-pleadingly.

“Thank you; I feel complimented, I do assure you,” he said, thinking how simple and childlike she was in spite of the maturity of her appearance. Mr. Morgan's educational methods had but made picturesque what would have been childish incapacity to understand anything out of the common-place.

“You are quite right,” he went on, after a pause; “I am quite satisfied with the existing order of things, and have no desire to investigate mysteries that are beyond me.”

“I am glad. I can talk to you on all manner of subjects without considering; but with Mr. Everard I always feel a constraint—that he thinks me a butterfly—a person that lives a useless life, and with whom he has nothing in common,” said Mary.

“I think you wrong Mr. Everard there, Miss Balmain,” page 123 said the Captain, generously, though he was flattered at the frank tone and appreciation of himself from one who moved through life with a mantle of repose, and with whom free expressions of opinion were not characteristic. “I don't think I ever met a man of his profession so sympathetic and tolerant, no matter what the belief or the character of those with whom he comes in contact; and surely he could never entertain the opinion of you that you imagine—you, who seem to me a very part of the richness and beauty of your country.”

She felt the warm tone and the admiration in it, but her face rarely betrayed emotion of any kind; the repression so noticeable in the child still swayed the woman.

“Perhaps,” she said, in answer to the first part of his remark. “Now Lenore, clever and energetic as she is, never dictates to me what I shall do, and what I shall not do; she likes me as I am, and doesn't want me altered. But Ellie and Mrs. Willoughby—that is the minister's wife—think that I am the idlest person in Auckland, simply because I will not help with parish work that I hate, and that benefits nobody that I can see.”

He laughed out at her tone.

“I forget you don't know anything about these things. Mrs. Willoughby blames Uncle Leonard for my want of interest, because he laughs at some of the charitable enterprises she organizes in the parish.”

“I think we had better wait here until the others come up,” said Captain Deering, halting at the corner of the road that led to St. Mark's.

“Here they are,” said Mary, as Lenore, walking very rapidly, came up with them.

“How warm you have made yourself, Lenore!” cried the half-caste. “I would rather be late than get so heated.”

“Queen Mary can do what her subjects dare not,” page 124 answered Lenore, whose attitude towards the half-caste bore a strong resemblance to Mr. Morgan's own protective manner. The nobler nature felt only the fine qualities, and glossed over Mary's shortcomings, that were as much a part of her as the dark, rich beauty that delighted the eye.

The church was well filled when they arrived, and a constant stream poured in until time for service, which was to be conducted by Mr. Everard and Mr. Willoughby, the latter a man well stricken in years, and with the sweetest and most benign expression on his face it is possible to conceive. A constant smile lurked about the kindly mouth, and sympathy and love to all beamed from the dark grey eyes, which were both well known to the needy and forsaken of all creeds in his part of the town.

The two men formed a striking contrast as they slowly walked up the church to the subdued strains of the organ in the voluntary—the one in the full vigour of his manhood, a trifle stern, dignified, of handsome presence; the other bowed with the weight of years, and the hardships of early days, his face irradiated with the peace of a pure spirit and with the light of a soul unshadowed by doubt.

As Mr. Everard stood up with a small Bible in his hand—he had no notes—Captain Deering, who had not heard the minister preach before, noticed that slight movement in a congregation indicative of preparing to hear something out of the common.

Whenever Mr. Everard was advertised to preach, a large audience invariably awaited him, attracted by the singular charm of the minister's personality and strong magnetic influence, as well as by the singular position of the man himself. An independent line of action, when accompanied by intellect and wealth, always commands the deference of the crowd.

From the moment he gave out his text to the end of the address he held his audience under the spell page 125 of his earnestness, his eager flow of words, his passionate appeals to the higher instincts of his hearers. His voice, too, contributed in no small degree to his influence, so full and sonorous was it, penetrating without effort to the most distant nook of the building, now persuasive and tender, and then swelling into passionate entreaty until the whole man appeared clothed in a new dignity, a new power, with the glow of a divine mission upon his face.

But Mr. Everard was not a preacher whose golden eloquence delighted his hearers at the expense of the homely, practical lessons he wished to impress upon the minds of all present. With rare pathos he described the exit of the old year with its pain, its struggles, its hopes, its failures, and the advent of the new, now so near, which he prayed would usher in a gladder, brighter era for the world, and peace and happiness to each and every individual heart before him.

He spoke of the shortness of life, and the slender thread by which many hold on to it, and gravely advised each and everyone to enter into the fulness of the knowledge of the “Man of sorrows,” as only in Him and through Him can the true spirit of godliness be attained.

At its conclusion the congregation breathed a sigh half of relief, half of disappointment. After a journey to the heights, an abrupt descent to the commonplace produces an unpleasant reaction.

Mary turned to Captain Deering, with a soft light upon the dark face, and whispered, “It was fine, was it not, Captain Deering? I could not help listening to a sermon like that.”

He smiled. It was only the extraordinary effects of clerical eloquence that impressed her.

They all walked home in what was now the early morning; and, after seeing Mary home, the family page 126 sat in the verandah to watch the effect of the fireworks that were sent up from the decks of steamers loaded with excursionists to welcome the stranger to this odd, confused world.

It was most brilliant to see the rockets shooting up into the air from two or three different places at once, for a brief instant illuminating the darkness around, and then fading into nothingness again.

“You were not at church, were you, Bert?” asked the Captain.

“No; that sort of thing does well enough for girls and for ‘new chums’–soldiers, for instance—but Colonials of the enlightened type are about done with such heathenish customs,” said Bertie, quite unabashed.

Lenore now rose, saying she was tired; and, after bidding them all good-night, she withdrew to her own room.

Her movement was the signal for a general uprising of all the others, who, half reluctantly, left the cool air of the verandah for the closeness of their own bedrooms.

Lenore lighted a small lamp, and then, drawing down the blind, settled herself in a small rocking-chair, though it was by this time nearly two o'clock in the morning.

Her hands lay loosely clasped before her, and a rapt, intense expression illuminated the sweet, mobile face for the moment, making it beautiful. Her thoughts dwelt on the year that had just passed into the abyss of time.

“Another year gone—where?” she mused. “I wonder where I shall be next year—if I shall be more at rest and with some great interest to keep my energies going.”

It is well we mortals are not allowed to draw aside the veil that has been placed before the future which we so long to explore; for, otherwise, the burden of page 127 sorrow in this world would be sadly increased. If Lenore had known what this new year, only two hours old, would bring to her and hers, her heart would not have been so full of happiness, nor the clear, truthful eyes so full of a tender light.

“Painting is all very well, and so is music,” she went on, “but they do no one any good—any substantial good—only give pleasure; but if Mr. Everard allows me to help with his work amongst the poor, I shall be satisfied.”

Lenore was not aware of it, but the thought that she and the minister would have so much in common was pleasant for its own sake, not altogether for the result of this communion. Not that Lenore would not do as much, and more if necessary, for sweet charity's sake; but, unconsciously, a glamour was thrown over the whole idea because Mr. Everard was the central figure round which her thoughts revolved—so few of our actions are entirely without alloy—and she allowed herself to indulge in the happy dream.

She picked up Augustine's “City of God,” of which she was particularly fond; but, somehow, tonight its genius and profound thought impressed her less than usual, while the narrowness and want of charity, in its broadest sense, of the pages she turned irritated her.

“How is it,” she thought, “that the Church is moulded so greatly upon the spirit and reading of the early fathers, instead of being founded upon the rock of Christ's own pure, loving precepts and doctrine?”

Why indeed! But the sophistries and hair-splitting differences of these times are, if subtler, as little allied to the fundamental truths that underlie all religions as the paltry distinctions—or so they seem now—of the Puritans in the time of the early Stuarts. The earnest and serious regard paid by page 128 our generation to the unchangeable laws that the soul of man from the earliest times has instinctively recognized, seems to be followed by a period when controversies of a refined and subtle kind are given such prominence that the aim of all this reasoning—truth—is lost in a maze of obscurity.