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

Chapter XVII. Mrs. Morgan's Dinner Party

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Chapter XVII. Mrs. Morgan's Dinner Party.

Several of Mrs. Morgan's guests were gathered together in the brilliantly lighted drawing-room when Captain Deering made his appearance. He had been out all day with some military friends, and had come home much later than he had anticipated.

When he had shaken hands with the Daytons and Mr. McCleod, he seated himself near Mary Balmain, who reclined in a low chair a little apart, joining but little in the conversation going on around her.

Never before had Captain Deering seen the richness and maturity of the half-caste's beauty so plainly as on this evening, the deep crimson of the chair in which she sat, throwing up the dark head with wonderful effect. She was attired in a gown of the silkiest and softest of black lace, destitute of colour from throat to foot, save at the hollow of her neck, where rested the diamond star found among her father's valuables, its brilliance only rivalled by the splendour of her dark, unfathomable eyes.

Mary always dressed her hair in the same style—brushed straight back from her forehead and twisted loosely at the back of her head. Amongst the coils nestled a lovely tea-rose bud with flecks of pink on page 212 its half-opened petals, its creamy outline defined against the dark olive-green, reddish-edged foliage, and dusky head.

“You are late this evening, Captain Deering,” she said, smiling. “Did you have much sport?”

“Very little; but I enjoyed myself, the day was so fine. How well Lenore looks to-night,” he went on, as he saw his cousin approaching them, in a gown of mull, with a cluster of pink roses at her throat.

“I went over to see you this morning, Lenore,” said Mary, in her soft, languid tones, “but Will said you were out for the morning.”

“Yes; I was visiting a lady in Grafton Road. Did you want me particularly?”

“Not very. I want you to design the pattern for a table cover for this bazaar, in which auntie is taking such an interest. You said, you know, that you would like to help in one way or another,” said Mary.

“I shall be pleased to do anything of that kind, as I have no time to work upon anything on my own account. Bring the material over to-morrow,” answered Lenore.

“You have not gone in for painting, then, Miss Balmain?” said the Captain. “I should imagine you possessed great artistic gifts.”

“No, I have none,” simply answered Mary. “But Lenore designs so beautifully, and so much better than any of us, that her good nature is often imposed upon. I have not the application necessary to an artist.”

“I wonder if Mrs. Davis is coming?” said Lenore, after a pause. “Mr. McCleod will be quite disconsolate should anything occur to prevent her.”

“She is the only guest not present,” remarked Mary, looking round. “Auntie will not be pleased if she comes late.”

“There will be no need—here she is at last,” page 213 returned Lenore, as a tall, matronly woman entered the room with an air of decision in her movements, and with a face irregular in features, but attractive in expression.

Captain Deering was allotted to Lenore, while Mr. Everard took Mary; though had the positions been reversed it would have pleased all the parties concerned better.

From his position at the table the Captain could see the half-caste sitting opposite, graceful and perfectly polite in her manner to the minister as one of her uncle's guests; but the constraint Mary always felt in Mr. Everard's society, which prevented any brilliance on her part, took possession of her on this occasion. Captain Deering felt pleased to think that Mary would be brighter and happier in his company—it was quite a pardonable conceit on his part.

“How cool and refreshing the decorations look,” said the Captain to his cousin. “I suppose they are Miss Balmain's taste. I know she is enthusiastic about ferns.”

“I don't know whether Mary or Mrs. Morgan decorated the table. They are both great admirers of ferns, and grow them in all kinds of crystal and china ornaments in nearly every room in the house. You know ferns grow very easily so long as they have plenty of moisture and good air,” explained Lenore.

Certainly under the soft mellow light of wax candles, Mrs. Morgan's dinner table appeared worthy of Captain Deering's admiration.

In the centre of the table stood a large crystal ornament with a small fountain arranged at the top, from which issued a thin line of pure water, which dropped, glittering with a hundred lights, on to delicate trailing maiden-hair, both Samoan and New Zealand, that grew luxuriantly in the mosses and earth placed within the arms of the ornaments. At page 214 intervals rested crystal boats on trestles, filled with lace ferns, kidney ferns, and aspleniums, all growing amongst rare mosses and rich loam of the forest. The effect of these treasures of the bush amongst the silver and glass ware of the table was very happy, and to Captain Deering a revelation of the variety and beauty of the New Zealand ferns.

“Mrs. Davis seems of a very quiet nature, not at all belligerent as you gave me to understand,” said the Captain, smiling.

“People do not usually fight until they have something to fight about, whether in argument or actual warfare,” said Lenore, sententiously. “Nothing as yet has been said that displeases her. She has lived in Auckland nearly as long as Mr. McCleod himself, and that is no short time. The two dislike one another cordially with their way of it, but all the same they are friendly on occasion. Mrs. Davis has a firm impression that she is an excellent business woman—no one else believes it—but her methods are decidedly uncommon. For instance, she will buy a cow one day and sell it a month after for half the price she gave for it; the same way with property and like investments.”

“I should think her husband might object to such business methods,” commented the Captain.

“Perhaps he did; but she was always the better man of the two. He was a major in the army, but he has been dead many years, and as all Mrs. Davis' daughters are married she can do what she pleases without comment.”

“She has been successful in the matrimonial business at any rate,” laughed the Captain.

Lenore shrugged her shoulders.

“They were pleasant, good girls—Ah! Mr. McCleod has begun. It is more fun to listen to him than to me.”

“Women's rights!” he was saying, scornfully, having heard a guest refer to the subject. “I believe page 215 there are some fools in the world that have gone clean daft on the question, when they know as much about it as the majority of Home Rulers do about the real condition of Ireland. Now there was Mr. Brown—a canny man until he lost his head on women folk—you remember him?” turning to the host, who nodded grimly enough, “who just made a fool of himself and became the laughing stock of the place by bringing up this Women's Rights question in Parliament. After all I don't think the women were grateful to him for all his exertions on their behalf—and it just killed him politically.”

“Mr. Brown was a fine man,” objected Mrs. Davis, in a voice that did not harmonize with her strong features; “and all true women admired him for the breadth of his views, and for the able manner in which he defended the movement. All the male sex that have justice and manliness in their composition are awakening to the claims of the female sex to representation.”

This last was a sarcastic shaft at Mr. McCleod.

“Hah!” snorted Mr. McCleod; “then they keep their light modestly hidden, as I doubt not Mr. Brown can testify.”

“Modesty is a virtue few of our New Zealand politicians neglect to cultivate,” said the host. “It seems to pay even better than effrontery, to judge by results.”

“In my opinion,” went on Mr. McCleod, “women have all the rights they want—trust them not getting all they make up their minds to. Did you ever,” with a face of mock gravity, “find yourself at a disadvantage from lack of the suffrage, or oppressed in any way by the male sex?”

An inward smile went round the company at this pertinent question, as it was well known that Major Davis of the two had the better right to cry oppression.

“No,” she answered, loftily, and Captain Deering page 216 could see that Lenore was shaking with laughter, which she had to repress, “I have not; but there are millions in the world who do suffer, and it is the duty of all women to fight against the injustice done them every day in the year.”

“I have never met any of these women ‘who do suffer,’” said Mr. McCleod, who had great difficulty in speaking in other than the heartiest and jolliest of voices. “Have you, Mrs. Morgan?”

“I cannot say that I have met anyone who has lost by inability to vote,” said Mrs. Morgan, to whom the whole subject was distasteful, and one with which she had no sympathy whatever. But Mr. McCleod was one of those people totally deficient in tact, therefore any subject which he chose to discuss must be perforce interesting to others.

“Ah, I knew it!” he cried, triumphantly, while Mrs. Davis looked at her hostess with pity and a sort of mild contempt at her want of spirit; “but the politicians of this country are glad to tackle any subject that will keep the real issues from the minds of the people, and withhold the gaze of their constituents from their actions.”

The disgraceful mismanagement, to his mind, of the affairs of the country were a never-ending theme of discussion with Mr McCleod; and generally his flow of rhetorical eloquence far surpassed the lucidity of his arguments.

“Come now, Mr. McCleod,” said the host, in his harsh tones, “leave the politicians alone. “If they—or at least, to be just, some of them—manage to retire from Parliament rich men after a few years' service to their country, consider the amount of abuse they receive for their unselfish exertions for the benefit of their countrymen. Let them go on. Thank heaven, under a sound, tried Constitution like the British they can't do much harm, and so long as they permit us to rest in peace—for instance, with my books and you with the ‘Mountain’–we page 217 ought to give them our good word for saving us the trouble of helping to govern this country, and for not taking unto themselves more of the funds than they have done.”

Mr. McCleod, at this sarcastic outburst, looked at his host with a sort of benevolent pity, not unmixed with a little perplexity, scarcely comprehending the drift of the remark. So long as Mr. Morgan confined his remarks to the merits and demerits of Queensland plants and common everyday subjects, all went well, but his host's sarcasm was utterly beyond Mr. McCleod, because he could never tell which way to take it. Most truly no two men could form a greater contrast! The one profoundly read, with large and liberal views, and conversant with the drift of modern thought; the other confined by his own pleasure to a narrow, selfish existence, untouched by the great problems of life and the beyond—the very essence of a rigid, unsympathetic doctrine.

“It is quite true,” said Mr. Everard, quietly, “that many actions of Members of Parliament are open to grave question, and that individuals are enriched at the cost of the State.”

“Certainly it is true,” said Mr. McCleod, with a higher opinion of the minister's good sense than he had had before. “Of all the fools and adventurers that ever cursed a country with their presence this one has the largest share.” (Lenore smiled at this outburst, as she had a lively remembrance of certain passages at arms between the irascible Scot and some of the said politicians.) “They are such reckless, careless, selfish good-for-nothings, that if it is only the representing of the country in a foreign land it is done with the same want of foresight and ignorance that signalizes them at home. Why, to the Paris Exhibition, sir, New Zealand, a country that is not surpassed for climate and soil, was only able to send a bale of flax and the prow of a Maori canoe.”

“That was many years ago,” objected Mr. Dayton. page 218 “New Zealand at this late Melbourne Exhibition compared favourably with all comers, and I don't doubt will do the same at this forthcoming Paris Exhibition, wiping away the old score.”

“Yes, yes,” answered Mr McCleod, “they are going to perform great things, and it was always the same story. Why don't they do those wonderful deeds? I, for one, will give them all the credit due to them. When commissioners, representatives, and such like are to be chosen to be sent ‘home,’ gentlemen, authorities on science or geology, or anything else that nobody knows much about or wants to learn any more, are sent turn about with those whose exertions tend to their own interest, instead of sending practical business men who know exactly what they want, and mean to get it.”

“But, Mr. McCleod!” cried Lenore, slyly, “why don't gentlemen like you and Mr. Morgan offer yourselves as candidates when you have been requested so often, and so change the order of things entirely?”

“Not I; make a fool of myself!” he answered, with a hundred exclamations in his voice, to the amusement of all the party. “This country won't get sensible men to represent them in Parliament, or anywhere else, until all the nonsense is taken out of the people. Bless you! the mothers—and the fathers too—want their sons to be gentlemen” (with scornful emphasis on the word), “and what is required in a new colony like this is the man that will work—not empty-headed fools—on three or four pounds a week.”

“There is a great deal of truth, unhappily, in what you say,” said Mr. Everard, gravely, “but it will all come right with time. There is a habit amongst Colonials even more reprehensible than this absurd notion of gentility, and that is the way the people of one city or colony have of underrating the climate or enterprise of some other city or colony.”

page 219

“Quite right,” answered Mr. McCleod. “For instance, Auckland people say Wellington is windy, and that Dunedin is cold and dreary. Actually a lassie from Dunedin had the audacity to tell me to my face up at the Mountain that she could not breathe in Auckland it was so warm.”

“I think I remember,” began Lenore, in a tone that attracted the attention of the whole table, “a gentleman, not a hundred miles from here, saying to me after a visit to Dunedin that it was the most God-forsaken hole he had ever been in.”

Shouts of laughter greeted this sally, in which Mr. McCleod himself joined.

“You'll have to look to it,” laughed the host.

“Indeed I will,” cried the Scotchman, as distinctly as possible from laughter. “It will never do to allow the lassie to get the better of me in that way.”

“I am ready,” cried Lenore, in merry defiance, as her curly head and white dress disappeared in the doorway in the wake of the other ladies of the party.

When the gentlemen, later on, found their way to the drawing-room, Captain Deering at once looked round for Mary Balmain, but she was not to be seen, nor was Mabel Ellett, nor Ellie, and Lenore was deep in a discussion with Mrs. Davis about the relative merits of a new rose, as in the cultivation of roses both were enthusiastic. He could not, therefore, ask his cousin as to the whereabouts of the missing ones, so he stepped out on the verandah to see if they had wandered into the gardens, and, on looking down, the pale blue of Ellie's dress attracted his eye amongst the shadowy trees, Mary's and Mabel's dresses both being dark. As they came nearer he could hear their girlish talk and laughter. They had sauntered down to the beach to enjoy the cool breeze that came from the Pacific, the evening being rather close and warm.

Captain Deering made no attempt to return to the drawing-room, but, from where he stood, watched page 220 for the entrance of the half-caste, who, seeing that all Mrs. Morgan's guests were occupied with one another, sauntered slowly to the shadows of the deep bay window, a favourite nook of hers in long summer evenings.

For a moment or two she was not aware of the soldier's presence, and stood in an indolent, graceful, but unstudied pose leaning against the window. So still was the night that he could almost hear her breathe, and from her dress was wafted a delicate, subtle odour he had begun to associate with the half-caste's presence.

“Were you at the beach, Miss Balmain?” he said, gently, and without moving his position.

“I beg your pardon, Captain Deering,” she remarked, a little coldly, and starting slightly. “I was not aware that anyone was here but myself.”

“If I frightened you I am sorry; but you have only just come, so that I could not speak sooner.”

“True,” she answered, smiling. “Yes, we took a run to the beach; it was delightful. Did you see us?”

“Yes, I saw you from the verandah here—or, more properly speaking, I saw Ellie—your dress is so dark I could not distinguish your figure. You are like a vision of night in that black gown—no character could become you so well.”

“Thank you—and Lenore is the morning. We shall have no trouble in selecting our costumes for the next fancy dress ball.”

To his ear there was a sound of mockery in the rich musical voice; but he could not be certain, so slight was the change of tone.

“You are fond of tea roses, are you not, Miss Balmain? I notice you wear them frequently.”

“Yes, they are my favourite flower, and Uncle Leonard has them cultivated under glass to produce more perfect blossoms. This bud is one of the finest I have yet seen from our hot-house,” she page 221 said, leaning slightly forward to display it nestling amongst the curls of hair; at the same time the action brought into relief the dusky head and oval face.

“It is beautiful. Do you know the signification of the tea rose?” he asked, softly.

“Always lovely,” she answered.

“It suits you admirably—both the flower and its meaning. Will you give it to me, Miss Balmain? I should value it more highly than any other gift you could make me,” he cried, eagerly.

She drew back further into the shadow.

“Why should you care for this bud particularly?” she said, with a hard ring in her voice. “It has lost its freshness. I can give you half-a-dozen as beautiful as this one, and perfectly fresh.”

The half-caste did not wish to give the rose, but a direct refusal was difficult, and almost impossible.

“But such roses would not be so precious to me as that bud you are wearing in your hair. It is a little thing—will you not give it to me?” he said again, knowing Mary would not argue.

Slowly and reluctantly she released the bud from its resting-place, and laid it in his hand without a word. He raised it to his lips and kissed it, and drawing a small book from his pocket, laid the precious rose tenderly between the leaves, replacing the book again with evident satisfaction.

Silently Mary drew aside the curtain, and, moving slowly up the room to where Mrs. Morgan and Mrs. Davis were sitting, immediately plunged into, what was for her, an animated discussion.

Captain Deering regarded this as a hint that the half-caste wished him to know that her duty lay with all the guests—not exclusively to one. So, following her example, he strolled up to Lenore, who was patiently listening to one of Mr. Ellett's tales of his adventures tiger-hunting in India. She had heard them before, and others like them from page 222 her cousin, but Lenore had been trained to be patient with the forgetfulness and prosiness of age, and to her it came easy.

The Captain sat down near his cousin, dreamily listening to the voice of the banker, but his thoughts busy with other things, until, with a start, he came to a realization of his surroundings by finding that Mr. Ellett had disappeared, and that Mr. Everard sat in his place.

“How did you succeed, Miss Dayton? You saw the lady, of course? It is almost superfluous to ask,” the minister was saying, his eyes lingering on the girlish figure beside him.

“Very well indeed—much better than I anticipated.”

“Visiting the poor, Lenore?” remarked the Captain, by way of conversation. “I should have thought poverty was an unknown factor in society here.”

“So it is as far as the poverty of which we have acquaintance is concerned, Captain Deering,” answered the minister. “The poverty of Auckland is the most difficult to deal with that I have ever known.”

“Indeed! How is that?”

“Because there are so many in Auckland who, at ‘home,’ were well-to-do, or, perhaps, well-born, and through their own ignorance and want of precautions have come to grief. I have met so many instances of people coming out to these Colonies with ideas as wild as those at the time of the South Sea Bubble; and I really often wonder if Britons are possessed of that sound sense with which they are credited, or whether it is that all the visionary element honour these colonies with their presence. A gentleman, not long ago, came out with his wife, a most accomplished and refined lady; and, with a fellow-passenger, of all things in the world, started a chicken-farm, for that purpose buying about the page 223 bleakest spot they could find. These said chickens were to be fed on some wonderful food that was warranted; but whether from the exposed situation, or the nature of the food, the chickens died very quickly, until the partners gave up in disgust. They tried several other wonderful speculations as long as their money lasted, and after struggling at work for which they were totally unfitted, they went home again.”

“Mr. McCleod wants you to give us some Scotch music, Lenore—none of this Italian and German high-flown music, but good, sweet, Scotch music, if you please,” cried Mary, coming up to them, and imitating the Scotchman's manner.

Lenore got up at once, though she would have preferred remaining where she was, and Mr. Everard led her to the piano, where she sat down, and played in brilliant style the “Blue Bells of Scotland,” “Ye Banks and Braes,” and several others of Mr. McCleod's favourites, which he declared no one could interpret half so well as she could—though not a Scotch lassie.

Lenore sat at the piano, after she had been warmly thanked, to play the accompaniment for Mary's song, a simple little air from the German—Heine's “Lorlei.” It suited the half-caste's full, rich voice admirably, and she sang it with a tender pathos unusual with her.

“Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeten
Dass ich so traurig bin.”

The words lingered in the Captain's ears all the evening, and, standing at the window of his room, they seemed to be repeated by a wind that was slowly rising. Surely Mary was no siren! He shuddered at the thought; but even as the fancy framed itself it melted away again, as the man acknowledged in his heart that the half-caste's rare simplicity, and perfect freedom from affectation page 224 allowed of no such interpretation whatever. The subtle mockery, the languor of manner, the glowing, splendid dark beauty, the charm of the soft voice, were all nature's gifts that fascinated without any wiles on their owner's part—indeed, the half-caste's nature was so noble, so simple, that the ordinary airs and arts of society were impossible to her.

He took the rose from his pocket, thinking that the flower was not more pure and lovely than this daughter of a barbarian race.