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

Chapter XVIII. Captain Deering Makes a Mistake

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Chapter XVIII. Captain Deering Makes a Mistake.

The 29th of January, New Zealand's natal day, cannot be depended upon in the matter of fine weather, but on this particular anniversary it was all that could be desired. There was a fresh, northerly breeze blowing, admirable for the sailing events of the regatta, and not too heavy to interfere with the rowing races, or the pleasure of excursionists and sightseers.

The evening before, Mary had telegraphed for Lenore—that is, had waved a handkerchief from her window in a way that both girls understood—and Lenore had returned home in such high spirits that the family guessed the news she had to tell must be pleasant.

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” she began, in a declamatory style.

“Come to the point,” said Bertie, lazily.

“Antony did not mention slaves—his oration was not intended for such as they,” answered Lenore, superbly.

“Thank you; when I want a candid opinion of myself, I know where to go.”

“I have always maintained that sisters are a merciful dispensation of Providence to keep brothers page 226 in their proper place,” said Lenore, sitting down beside her father.

“And brothers vice versâ,” remarked Bertie, calmly.

“As you please—but let me put the proposition to the house. Mr. Morgan and two or three more gentlemen have chartered a small steamer for tomorrow to make a trip to Rangitoto, so that Leslie and Mr. Everard can have an opportunity of climbing it, and we are all invited. I think it will be much pleasanter than spending the day on the flagship. Will you go?” said Lenore.

“I am ready, but not to climb the mountain; too much like hard work,” commented Bertie.

“I mean to do it, then,” cried Lenore. “I have always longed to ascend Rangitoto; and to-morrow the harbour will be especially beautiful on account of the regatta.”

“I think it will be very pleasant,” said Mrs. Dayton. “It is very kind of Mr. Morgan.”

“There is one satisfaction about this trip,” drawled Bertie: “there are no ferns on the island worth looking at.”

“Why is that a matter for congratulation?” asked his cousin—who had accompanied Lenore home—in surprise. “Wherever there are ferns, there are sure to be water and shade—surely two very desirable things on an excursion.”

“Because Mary and Lenore—Ellie is not so bad—just drive you wild with their antics in those watery, shady spots you speak about. First they grow enthusiastic over the beauty and rarity of the ferns; then they borrow your pen-knife—they won't allow any but themselves to dig the roots, because they alone know the precise way—generally ruining it before they have finished; then they fill their arms with specimens that are constantly tickling your face—if you are unfortunate enough to sit near them– page 227 on the road home, and that's the last of them so far as I know,” said Bertie.

“That is not true, Bertie, you ought to be ashamed of yourself,” cried Ellie, indignantly. “Lenore has pots of maiden-hair and some of the rarest ferns in the province; and as for Mary, she has one of the finest ferneries in New Zealand, collected from every part of the country; and her knowledge of ferns is almost scientific.”

“I beg your pardon,” answered Bertie, nothing daunted, “I forgot to mention that now and again I see a consumptive fern that has survived from the general wreck, and pressed specimens, as dry as an Egyptian mummy, that she sends to our friends at ‘home,’ who ten to one throw them away after all her trouble, because they are not sure if said specimens are ferns or dried grass.”

“What exaggeration!” cried Lenore. “To a person who can tell the different brands of cigars without the slightest hesitation, I daresay ferns seem of small consideration, but I know who of us is best off at the end of the year.”

“How high is Rangitoto, Lenore?” asked her cousin.

“It is about 900 feet high; but extremely difficult to climb on account of the stony nature of the ground—you know it is an extinct volcano—so that you had better wear the thickest boots you have, because all those who climb it expect to see their boots worn out before they get back.”

About ten o'clock the next morning the party started from the Queen Street wharf, and steamed slowly up the harbour amongst the shipping decorated gaily with flags and bunting, and presenting a most animated appearance under the bright sunlight of a midsummer's day. An awning had been spread over one end of the steamer, under which the excursionists sat on deck chairs, or on the seats fastened page 228 to the railing, enjoying the fresh breeze always blowing on the Waitamata, while others walked around watching the preparations for the regatta.

“How beautiful it is to-day!” cried Lenore, to her cousin. “You have no harbours in England like this one—they are all so crowded with shipping and great ugly barges.”

“You are the most patriotic Colonial I have yet met, Miss Balmain excepted, Cousin Lenore,” answered the Captain, smiling. “But I do assure you the Henley Regatta is a fine sight. Of course the river is narrower than this one, and the banks are not so steep, but they are covered with trees; and on the great day the water is brilliant with the different colours of the competitors, and a gay crowd always assembles to do honour to the occasion. You may see it some day and judge for yourself.”

“Ah, no! I should not feel happy, when I knew that thousands were toiling in the cities, who could have no share in such pleasures. Here every man, woman, and child, poor and rich alike, enjoy every holiday without distinction,” said Lenore, gently.

“Oh, Lenore!” cried Mary, languidly. “Please let us remember that we are in a British Colony at present, and not dwell on sad subjects on a day like this. It is the duty of ministers of the Gospel, who profess to teach love to all men, to set such questions right. In my humble opinion the more civilized the world becomes the more poor there are.”

“I will not talk of anything, when Queen Mary says no,” said Lenore, smiling, and in the tone one would use to a child.

Mr. Everard, who was standing near talking to Mr. Morgan, but who yet had heard the remarks of both girls, felt annoyed with Lenore's ready acquiescence to the half-caste's moods. With all the minister's knowledge of human nature—founded largely on experience—this girl of nineteen instinctively knew more.

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“What are we going to do?” said Mr. Morgan, coming up. “All the others have brought lunches, and are going to take them on shore; but Mr. Dayton and I have made arrangements with the Captain to have lunch on board. Does that meet with your approval?” indicating all the young people, and no one in particular. Mr. Morgan could not endure anything approaching to a picnic.

“You have robbed us of the pleasure of eating salt instead of sugar and various other picnic favours,” said Bertie.

“We won't quarrel with you,” remarked Lenore. “You can take your own share of that pleasure, and ours too.”

“Are you going up the mountain before lunch, or after?” asked Mr. Morgan, “and how many are going?–are you, Mary?”

“No, thank you, Uncle Leonard—I am one of your following to-day,” answered she, smiling up at him as she never did to anyone else. “The idea of toiling up that hill in this sun!”

“I shall go,” said Mr. Everard; “I shall never have the opportunity again of seeing such a view.”

“I have always wanted to climb Rangitoto,” cried Lenore, decidedly, “and I mean to try it—heat or not.”

“Captain Deering, what do you intend to do?” asked the host, turning to the soldier.

“I think I shall join the others. It is too good an opportunity to be lost.”

He would have preferred lingering by the side of Mary Balmain, but he also wished to ascend the hill, and then, again, he thought it might look strange if he did not make the attempt.

“There will be about half-a-dozen of you, then,” said Mr. Morgan. “I am going to stay with the ladies, and watch the regatta—we shall have a good view from here. I brought my glass on purpose.”

“Then you do not intend to land?” remarked the Captain.

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“No, there is nothing to land for. We may take a walk in the afternoon, and meet you coming from the summit.”

Boats were lowered, and all but the Daytons, Morgans, and Mrs. Brooke landed, the elders at once preparing the shadiest nooks they could find for a luncheon ground, the younger portion wandering about the beach, while those on board eagerly watched the movements of the boats engaged in the races. Lunch was to be at half-past twelve, so that the climbing party should have plenty of time for the ascent.

At half-past one Mr. Ellett signalled from the shore that it was time to start, and with many injunctions from Mrs. Dayton not to get heated—a sheer impossibility under such a sky, and considering that the mountain is bare of bush—the whole party got together, and began the ascent, keeping well together at first, but, owing to the inequalities of the ground, falling gradually into twos and threes. Mr. Everard constituted himself Lenore's escort; and the two kept well in advance of their companions, who lingered every now and again to rest or to allow the breeze to blow in their faces.

“Have you every considered,” he said, thoughtfully, “how strange it is that Mr. Morgan should lavish such a wealth of affection on one whose character is diametrically opposite to his own? There is something about it to me almost startling.”

“But are their characters so essentially different as you seem to imagine?” answered Lenore, gently. “I think if you knew Mr. Morgan and his niece as thoroughly as I do, you would find that they have many points in common; and the weak spots in Mary's nature are the very ones that appeal most to Mr. Morgan's sympathy and affection.”

“Miss Balmain knows how to retain her friends—that is a good sign always,” he said, smiling at his companion, whose steps were beginning to lag a page 231 little, so rough and uneven was the side of the mountain.

“I have never known her to do a mean action in all the years I have known her—never! She has all the noble qualities of the Maori race, and Mr. Morgan knows, and has experienced, probably, her nobility of soul more fully than anyone else,” cried Lenore, warmly.

Mr. Everard smiled; and the girl, catching his expression, felt a little nettled at it.

“You think I have not lived many years,” she said, quickly, “but I have lived long enough to find out the pettiness of one or two girls of my acquaintance; so why should I not experience as fully the generosity of Miss Balmain?”

“Nay, you mistake me entirely,” he said, quietly, amused at the outburst. “I was not thinking of how many years you have lived at all; some people in two years learn more than do others in six. It is merely a matter of temperament. I was thinking how warmly you champion your friends.”

“Mary would act the same part for me,” she said, simply.

“Your friendship is as true as yourself,” cried the minister, half-involuntarily; and then, with a sudden change of tone, “I think we had better rest awhile, and let the breeze blow upon our faces instead of our backs. This hill is steeper than I thought, and a toilsome climb.”

They leaned against a huge boulder of rock, and Lenore, while the minister held her parasol, raised her veil and, taking off her hat, allowed the pure, fresh air to cool her flushed face and stir the rings of auburn hair.

“It is pleasant, is it not?” he said, smiling down at the animated face beside him, the slender—too slender for beauty—figure outlined against the dark mass of rock.

“Yes, but see how far we have yet to go,” she page 232 said, glancing ruefully at the three points of Rangitoto's cone.

“That is not according to your principle, Miss Dayton, is it?” he remarked. “I believe you look only to those duties which lie immediately before you, not those in the near future or at some distant date. To quote a homely expression, you do not borrow trouble.”

She looked at the minister quickly, and was silent for a moment.

“I try to do that, but it is difficult—sometimes,” she said, softly and reverently.

The words moved him strangely—the hesitancy and humility were sweet to his ears, coming from one so independent and self-reliant as Lenore Dayton. Mr. Morgan had known that Mr. Everard's paleness and want of spirits were not altogether caused by his love for Mr. Dayton's daughter, but for another reason entirely. Undoubtedly, however, the more the minister saw of Lenore the more sweet she seemed to him, and the more worthy of a strong effort to win.

“It is always so,” he answered, gently, “with those who have the true light before their eyes;” and then they both turned and renewed the ascent, though, despite the rest, still in advance of their companions, who frequently paused to enjoy the coolness of the northerly breeze.

Lenore and Mr. Everard diligently pursued their way, rough and stony with the hardened lava as it was, until they reached the summit, deeming it better to take a long rest on the wind-swept cone of Rangitoto than to linger now and again in the heat that was almost unbearable on the bare sides. Mr. Everard, immediately they reached the top of the cone, wrote his own name and that of his companion underneath a long line of their predecessors in the ascent of the volcano island; and then, from his pocket, drew a good-sized tin case, which he opened, and handed to Lenore.

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“Grapes!” she cried in surprise. “How thoughtful! Did you get them on the steamer.”

“Yes, I asked Mr. Morgan for a few. I thought probably you might like them after such a warm walk.”

“How very kind, Mr. Everard!” she said, as her eyes rested on the grapes that looked as tempting and fresh as on the luncheon table of the steamer.” “But I won't touch one unless you take some too.”

“But I don't care about them; I brought them especially for you,” he objected.

“Yes, you do, and you must take a few just to oblige me. I shall eat mine with a better conscience if you help me,” she said, smiling, while the wind, almost too strong to be pleasant, blew her veil away behind her, and came with such force against her parasol, that she was forced to close it.

“Very well, it is not worth arguing about,” and to both the grapes seemed the most delicious they had tasted that season. Mr. Everard reserved a few for the descent, much to Lenore's amusement. And then they had time to enjoy the grandeur of the panorama spread before them on every side, at all times unique in its loveliness and diversity, but today exceptionally bright from the fact that this was Regatta Day. The harbour and channel presented a most animated appearance with yachts, cutters, fishing, whaling, and sailing boats, which were to compete, or had competed, for the different prizes; the flagship almost black with interested onlookers; small and large steamers following the races up and down the harbour with eager crowds of boating proclivities; “Union” and “Northern” steamships anchored off favourite bush-covered islands of the Gulf, while their human freight enjoyed themselves on the shore; the extent of country, bounded only by the hills along the verge of the horizon, being greater, on account of the elevation, than from Mount Eden. The great pathless waters of the page 234 Pacific stretched away east and west as far as the eye could see, while the bay-indented, island dotted, Hauraki Gulf and Manukau Harbour, bathed in the sunlight of the height of midsummer, lay before the eyes of the minister, in whom the glories of the Britain of the South always awoke profound emotion. For miles and miles he could see the richly-wooded, gently swelling isthmus, watered by silvery, meandering lines of the purest and coolest of perennial springs, and covered with the homes of Britain's surplus population, until further view was impeded by the ranges of hills. He stood perfectly still, drinking in the delicious air and the exuberance and richness of this land, which is to thousands of Saxon birth as the land of Canaan was to the Israelites of old, unconscious of the fact that, in the rush of thoughts that filled his brain, time was passing, and his silence must appear strange to his companion. The noise of talking and laughter of the remainder of the party, who had at length arrived, aroused him.

“I beg your pardon, Miss Dayton,” he said. “I was so absorbed in this magnificent view that I forgot myself entirely.”

“I was enjoying it also,” she answered, quietly; “it is well worth the climb, rough as it is.”

The conversation now became general, Lenore laughing at her cousin and Mabel Ellett for lagging so much in the ascent; while Mr. Ellett waved his handkerchief to the party on the steamer as a signal, Mr. Morgan returning it from the deck as had been agreed upon.

Mrs. Morgan and Mary had tea all ready for the worn-out climbers after their return from Rangitoto, sadly the worse for their acquaintance with the sun, lava, and coarse fern. Their faces were burned, the girls' dresses were torn in several places, and their boots were utterly ruined; but all were in the best of spirits and quite satisfied page 235 with the recompense from their venture. Mrs. Morgan's tea was in demand, and there was a great deal of laughter and talk at the expense of those who had not made the attempt.

After lingering over tea until the sun was well down in the west, the whole party, including Mr. Morgan, landed, and walked along the shore in twos and threes preparatory to starting for home, Captain Deering keeping close to the half-caste, and sauntering in the same direction as Bertie and Mabel Ellett, but a little in the rear.

“You must be tired, Captain Deering, after climbing Rangitoto, it is so steep and toilsome to ascend. Let us sit on this rock until the others are ready to start,” said Mary.

“Not at all—I am used to such exertion. I am glad I didn't miss the opportunity Mr. Morgan so kindly gave me of seeing the view; it is fine. I prefer to walk, if it is agreeable to you—take care, Miss Balmain,” as she stumbled over a loose stone.

In helping her, he clasped her hand, and, bending down, kissed it, scarcely realizing what he was doing. But he was hardly prepared for the consequences. For a moment the half-caste stood still with astonishment and anger, and then slowly she turned on him the splendid dark eyes he had so often admired, with a look in them that made him feel uncomfortable, but which he failed to understand. To Mr. Wilson, or even to Mr. Morgan, that half wild light from a Maori's eye was perfectly intelligible from their long experience of the race, but to Captain Deering it was inexplicable. She said no word, and the expression on her face warned her companion to be silent. When he offered to assist her, she turned on him with an icy dignity, saying, “Thank you, I am well acquainted with this kind of country—you are not.”

Her manner was perfectly polite, but he could not have believed her voice capable of such icy emphasis. page 236 And now he felt miserable at having incurred, by his foolishness, the passionate anger of the girl. But like all happy-natured people, he made the best of the situation, walking back silently by Mary's side until they reached the boat—but Mr. Morgan helped his niece on board to the exclusion of the Captain.

It had been decided to wait until the end of the evening for the return sail up the harbour, so that they did not leave Rangitoto until nearly seven o'clock. Everybody was tired, even those who had remained on the steamer all day; therefore, a very desultory conversation was kept up until someone proposed singing, Ellie and several of the others taking parts in glees and part songs.

Lenore, unaware of the passion of wrath in the heart of the half-caste, requested Mary to sing “Juanita,” a song of the dark-eyed daughters of Spain, and one peculiarly adapted to her full, rich voice. Too proud to refuse, and provoke comment, she sang it in her very best style, the air and arrangement being particularly effective in the still air of the summer evening, gradually darkening into night, and sounding over the placid surface of the river like the song of a gondolier on a Venetian canal.

Mary retired to her room immediately she got home, saying she did not want any dinner, and complaining of a headache. Mrs. Morgan made her take a cup of tea, and advised her to go to bed at once and sleep it off, comforting herself with the reflection that she would be all right in the morning.

Mary slowly took off her outer garments and put on a crimson dressing-gown with an expression on her face such as might have been on Cleopatra's when she heard of Antony's marriage to Octavia, the great flashing eyes and vivid colour of the robe producing an almost startling effect. She paced up page 237 and down the room with a sweeping, panther-like grace, her eyes brilliant with that dangerous light never seen except in the eye of native races, whose souls know no law but their own instincts and passions—a magnificent figure in her long, trailing gown and splendid, voluptuous beauty, the veneer of civilization fallen off, and the Maori blood surging wildly through her veins.

Finally she struck the hand that Captain Deering had kissed with the other, and hissed rather than whispered, “How dared he? What degradation! Does he think, because I have Maori blood in me, that therefore my pride is less than a pahkeha (white) woman? I have been insulted through my own miserable folly and weakness.”

Deep down in Mary Balmain's heart—and, in fact, in all half-castes—lay an ungovernable pride, and the knowledge of her Maori antecedents had induced a peculiar sensitiveness that made mountains of small circumstances that would affect others but little, because she imagined some slight on her birth was intended. It was so in this instance, her anger being aroused not so much against the action itself, as it was at the thought that Captain Deering had slighted her because she was a half-caste. In this she was quite wrong, as all are whose passions get the better of their sober, unbiassed judgment.

“Simpleton that I have been! What is this soldier to me that I should value his presence more than anyone else I know? What is he to me that such a thing should happen?”

And then she sat down in front of the glass, the very question awakening enough emotion to change the whole current of her thought, with that quick revulsion of feeling that was so dangerous an omen for her future happiness. The flashing eyes grew soft, the features again became calm, and the figure settled to its usual graceful repose, reflecting the charm worked by the magic power of her thought. It was not page 238 impossible—nay, was more than likely—all his actions tended that way, so why not this one?

Why had she permitted herself to be so angry when the explanation was so simple?

Just as far as she had gone in one direction, the half-caste's ideas now travelled in the other—no doubts allowed to intrude—her whole soul wrapped up in the picture she had herself evoked. Long and earnestly did she gaze at her own image in the mirror—not from any petty vanity; Mary had none of it—but because she felt glad, on account of this tumultuous, uncontrolled love, that she was beautiful.

As she leaned back, with a happy light on her face, a sound struck her ear, so intense was the silence in the room.

Tick! tick-a-tick! tick! tick! tick!

Mary listened dreamily at first, thinking it was her watch, but on its stopping and then going on again as before, she remembered old Sarah's superstitious fancy, told to her many years before, when she first came to Mrs. Morgans house.

Tick! tick! the sound went on merrily.

Mary listened with a half-smile on her face.

“What was it Sarah said?” she thought. “Oh, I remember! That sound is an omen of death, she told me one morning, and Uncle Leonard laughed, and said it was only an insect in the wall.”

And then she whispered over to herself the superstitious fancies over Duncan's death. Mr. Morgan had persuaded Mary to learn many striking passages in Shakespeare's plays, and she had forgotten none of them–

“Tis nnnatural,
Even like the deed that's done. On Tuesday last
A falcon, towering in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and killed,
And Duncan's horses (a thing most strange and certain),
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending 'gainst obedience, as they would make war with mankind.”

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“How do we know that the little insect does not warn? Maybe it is its share of nature's work. The Maoris can tell by a certain appearance of the cabbage tree (palm) that a long, dry season is approaching; certain other people can foretell rain by the action of a peculiar plant; rats forsake an unseaworthy ship—perhaps Sarah is right, and this tick in the wall is a sign of approaching death. If we were only trained we might understand all that is now described as superstitious and silly, because what is strange to us we naturally imagine is unreasonable—so Uncle Leonard says. I wonder if I am going to die?” and she shuddered in the fulness of her rich, warm life. “To die is dreadful—so cold—and we know nothing of the hereafter. Surely it is not I? I must ask Uncle Leonard.”

He was her fortification—her tower of strength. Whatever he said was sure to be right—at least, to her mind.

The shadow of the white man's foot is hovering in the track of the dark race as it has ever done and will until “the old order changeth,” but the child with a woman's form knows nothing of it—not yet!