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

Chapter II. Mary

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Chapter II. Mary.

Nine years later. The child who had been the delight and solace of the old missionary's declining years is a woman, a woman singularly striking, not to say beautiful. The large, magnificent brown eyes, with a tinge of melancholy in their depths, and with long black lashes and dark straight brows, form the most striking beauty of the face; the features are regular, and the skin a clear brown, not olive—the lovely under-tint of warm colour peculiarly characteristic of the daughters of Spain and Italy never being found in the face of a New Zealand half-caste. The hair—unmistakable sign of her birth—is very long, perfectly straight, and almost coarse; for, whereas some of the native women sometimes possess really pretty curly hair, it is rarely, if ever, seen in any caste, half or quarter, and has never the glossy appearance distinctive of raven black hair. Her figure is finely moulded, though a trifle voluptuous for one so young, but it is another characteristic of her race to mature very early.

The warm crimson of her soft, clinging dress sets off the dark head and face admirably, while some delicate white rosebuds at her throat relieve the otherwise dull effect of the darker tones, as a dash of sunlight lights up a shadowy nook of the forest.

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The peculiar power that Mary Balmain possessed of attracting and retaining love had not deserted her in her new home, and under such entirely different circumstances. From the first night, as a forlorn little stranger, to the present time, she had gradually and almost imperceptibly stolen into the hearts of the childless couple, who could not have given more love to a daughter of their own than they lavished upon the half-caste child. At first they had been tender and pitiful to her forlornness and strangeness, permitting her to go and come very much as she pleased without comment, and the child was grateful. Love, with a nature so tenacious of and faithful to the past, was not the growth of a day, and the Morgans showed their rare sympathy with her love for Mr. Wilson in a hundred ways that appealed to Mary's heart.

Alone, and sometimes accompanied by either husband or wife, she constantly visited her old guardian, who slowly but surely sank into the grave. Every luxury that money could buy and kindness inspire was provided for his comfort, and these attentions to her beloved friend won Mary's heart more than any love shown to herself. Mr. Wilson died so calmly and peacefully that it seemed as if the new, brighter life began without any sudden break from the old, hampered existence here on earth. From the day the coffin was lowered into its last resting place in the cemetery, within sound of the sea and within sight of the old home, a portion of the love she had borne the missionary was given to her new guardians, and, as her grief abated from its first bitterness, she drew nearer to Mr. Morgan and his gentle, loving wife. But in all the nine years that had passed Mary never neglected the self-imposed duty of placing fresh flowers upon the grave as soon as the old showed signs of decay.

The want of application in the half-caste that had grieved Mrs. Wilson betrayed itself throughout the page 17 whole of her school course, the only study she cared about being music, or at least singing, in which she excelled. The voice that had given such pleasure to her old guardian was trained to its fullest extent under the best masters that could be procured, and she became a fairly good musician. But in every other branch of her education Mary was by no means brilliant; in fact, the despair of her teachers. Mr. Morgan would not allow his ward to be forced; and, when complaints came to him about the child's carelessness and dilatoriness, characteristically replied, “Well, if she has no brains, you cannot make them for her,” and there the matter ended so far as Mary's teachers were concerned.

But Mr. Morgan was himself no mean scholar, his library being one of the finest in a private house in Auckland; and he was not only profoundly read in the modern school of thought, but also in ancient lore as well, possessing, in addition, a large experience of life and broad views upon many subjects. In nothing did he show his wide acquaintance with the needs and capabilities of a pleasure-loving, self-indulgent nature, more than in the manner of conducting the education of Mary Balmain. She attended school for the usual number of years, more for the discipline and companionship obtainable only in an institution of that kind than for the amount of information or accomplishments she acquired. In the evenings and on their frequent trips about the Gulf, Mr. Morgan selected masterpieces of English literature, from which he read aloud, explaining as he went along, or, as a treat, permitting the half-caste to read to him. He began with selections from Dickens, and a few poems, which, by their beauty of rhythm and striking pathos, would appeal to the strongly poetic, sympathetic nature of the little girl; and, as she grew older and more appreciative, Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, Scott, and other great English classical writers. She was lamentably ignorant of the page 18 rule of practice and the fifth proposition, but she was familiar with the grandeur and dignity of the Puritan Bard; she knew little history except from the plays of Shakespeare, Macaulay's glowing pages, and lessons given by Mr. Morgan himself on the great movements of England's proud history, and their bearing upon the Britons of to-day. She probably could give no very exact definition of the position of Spitzbergen Island, but she knew all about the queer houses and streets of Dickens's London, of “Loch Katrine in her mirror blue,” and the loveliness of Melrose Abbey. She might not be acquainted with the rules of grammar and composition, but from constant familiarity with the purest and most elegant English, her conversation was, perhaps, more refined and intelligent than girls' who had passed matriculation examinations, or taken their B.A. degree. It was such a pleasant method of acquiring information that, unconsciously to herself, Mary absorbed a vast amount of matter that, if presented in other forms, would have proved distasteful, and, perhaps, made a very small impression indeed.

It is tea time, and the two ladies are seated in the deep bay-window of the drawing-room with two visitors—Mrs. Brooke, the wife of a prominent doctor of the town, and her daughter. Mrs. Morgan is as sweet and gentle looking as of yore, time dealing very gently with her, and the room is typical of its mistress—a few fine pictures, elegant bric-a-brac, luxurious chairs, and flowers everywhere—conveying an impression of refinement and good taste conspicuous all through the house. The open piano, with music on the stand, a book lying open on a table, and fancy-work spread out in a basket as if suddenly thrown down, gave that touch of feminine influence to the room so pleasant to masculine eyes.

Mary sat at the tea-table, dispensing dainty cups of tea from a dainty china teapot—Mrs. Morgan page 19 liked her afternoon tea from porcelain, not from silver—the mistress of the house long since having relegated this duty to her niece. The ladies were discussing the advent of a visitor from England, arrived the day before for a prolonged stay with relatives intimate with the families of both Mrs. Morgan and Mrs. Brooke.

“Have you seen Captain Deering—I believe that is the name—yet? My son says he arrived by the mail steamer yesterday,” said Mrs. Brooke to Mary.

“No, we only came up from Waiwera this morning, so that we have seen or heard nothing as yet,” she answered.

“We did not know you were away from home, Mary. Did you go in the yacht? Awfully jolly down at Waiwera, is it not?” said Miss Brooke. This young lady had some claims to prettiness, and a weak, affected voice, which she was under the delusion was charming. “Awfully jolly” described a vast number of her ideas, and for this habit and her general silliness she was anything but a favourite with the master of the house, who hated young women who indulged in slang or fastness of any kind.

“Yes, we sailed down and stayed at the hotel since last Saturday week; but it was rather dull, because there were so few visitors, and the weather these last few days has been so unpleasant—so much rain and wind,” said Mary, her soft, musical, yet firm tones contrasting favourably with the affected voice of the other.

“I hope this new-comer dances well, and is jolly company,” cried Miss Brooke, returning to the first subject of conversation. “I suppose he will come with the Daytons to the Grammar School dance next week, and then we shall have a chance to criticize him as to his merits or demerits. Is he old, or young, or middle-aged, do you know, Mrs. Morgan?”

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“I can tell you absolutely nothing about Captain Deering, except that he is a young man, a soldier, and Mrs. Dayton's nephew,” answered Mrs. Morgan. “My ideas about him are rather hazy.”

“You forget, auntie, the fact that he is on sick leave, a most interesting point in the description of a soldier in my opinion,” laughed Mary.

“After all it is foolish to discuss a person whom we have never seen, when we shall so shortly make his acquaintance, and be able to judge for ourselves,” said Mrs. Morgan in her gentlest tones.

“I don't think so. It is amusing to draw a portrait from our impressions of someone we expect to meet, and verify it with the original,” cried Mary.

“If he is anything like his relatives, the Daytons, he will be very agreeable. They are one of our nicest families,” said Mrs. Brooke. “No, I will not take any more tea, thank you, my dear,” to Mary's proffered hospitality.

“You are all inclined to take it for granted that this new-comer is all that is pleasant. I am sure I hope he is, and that he feels flattered at the stir his arrival is creating; he ought to be, if he is not. Lenore, who, by rights, should be well informed on all points, is inclined to take a more pessimistc view of the situation than outsiders,” said Mary, with a glance of amusement from the dark eyes.

“Oh! what does she say? Do tell us; it is sure to be correct, coming from that source,” cried Miss Brooke.

“I don't know about that, it is nothing very tangible. She says he will either hold himself extremely aloof, and patronize everybody and everything, satisfied with nothing, or else in the most exasperating manner imaginable declare himself delighted with all he sees; even with this late summer, and the hills and gullies.”

They all laughed. Lenore's sayings were familiar to all, but none the less amusing.

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“It will be decidedly disappointing if he does not answer to our expectations, and should turn out to be disagreeable. However, I shall have the honour of an introduction to the unknown to-night, when I call for Ellie—it is practice night at the Choral Hall this evening you know. I wonder if he sings?” said Mary.

“Here is Mr. Morgan!” said his wife, as she saw him pass the glass door opening on to the verandah; but as it happened to be locked, he made his way through the hall entrance, and so into the large drawing-room in which the ladies sat. He shook hands with Mrs. Brooke and her daughter, and then sat down in an arm-chair near Mary.

“Just in time for tea, Uncle Leonard!” she said, as she handed him a cup. “We had nearly given you up!”

The half-caste called her guardians uncle and aunt by their request; but it was long before it ceased to be an effort on her part; now it came as a matter of course.

“A cup of tea is grateful,” said Mr. Morgan, “after walking from town. It is quite warm in the sun for this time of day!”

“Did you walk home, Leonard?” said his wife, a little surprised. Her husband was by no means fond of exercise of any kind, and especially disliked walking long distances.

“Yes, I thought it would do me good after the sail this morning. By-the-bye, I met Mrs. Dayton's nephew, Captain Deering, down town this morning, with young Bert. He tells me he came by the mail steamer yesterday.”

Exclamations from everybody.

“Tell us all about him, not omitting a single particular,” commanded Mary, leaning back in her chair luxuriously.

He smiled indulgently upon her with a softening page 22 of the rugged features, and a tender gleam under the heavy eyebrows.

“I can't give many details, I am afraid; I shall have to leave that to you young ladies. What I saw was a frank, thorough-going, soldierly-looking fellow, no nonsense about him like some of the whipper-snappers that come out from home, and want to teach old fogies like us the way,” he answered, grimly.

“What a description of the poor young man!” cried Mary, mockingly. “Is that all?”

“I only saw him for a few minutes, my dear; and as you will see him very shortly yourselves, it ought to describe him very well.”

“Is he handsome, Mr. Morgan?” asked Miss Brooke.

“I failed to notice, but it is of little consequence so long as he is a man and a gentleman. I wouldn't give a fig for your merely handsome men, whom Nature decorates only on the outside, leaving the inside to take care of itself,” he answered, the slightest touch of scorn in his voice.

“But you like Bertie Dayton, Uncle Leonard; and he is quite good-looking,” expostulated Mary.

“I don't doubt he is all that—he is well enough; but the brains he should have are in Lenore's head.”

“Nay, Leonard, that is hardly just to the lad. He is a good son, and has many fine qualities that will develop. He is but a boy,” said Mrs. Morgan, in defence of her favourite.

Mrs. Brooke and her daughter now rose to go, Mrs. Morgan accompanying them to the street door. As the door closed behind them, Mr. Morgan grumbled to Mary–

“How can a sensible, refined woman like Mrs. Brooke endure that empty-headed daughter of hers? Every time I see the two together I wonder the same thing. I don't believe she knows how to mix mustard or hem a pocket-handkerchief.”

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“O yes, she does. But that is a slight variation of the formula, is it not? It used to be to boil a potato and sew on buttons,” laughed Mary, saucily. “But really, Uncle Leonard, a great deal of Amy's silliness is on the surface—she imagines it is charming, the affectation and slang she puts on.”

“Humph! what do you know about it, I should like to know?” patting her cheek lovingly. “It is a blessed thing that Miss Brookes are rare in Auckland, or else we should have to import a bevy of girls from home. What have you been doing since lunch time?”

“Nothing particular. I filled all the vases with flowers, and watered my fernery—O! and cut all the dead fronds away—not very important work, you see. I wanted to practise a little while, but Mrs. Brooke and Amy came, and I was prevented.”

“We must give a little hospitality to this young man, Annie,” he said, as his wife came into the room again, “give him a sample of Colonial good cheer.

“Certainly we must; not only for his own sake, but for our old friends, Mr. and Mrs. Dayton's. He is sure to be agreeable and polished. Has James brought up all the things from the yacht?” she added.

“No; I am glad you reminded me. Put on your hat, Mary, and we'll go ourselves.”

The hat was not far to find. In a little room off the wide hall were kept all the manifold articles used for yachting excursions—rugs, oil-skins, baskets, fishing-lines, shawls, etc.–and garden hats for both ladies, gloves, scissors, and baskets for holding flowers; in fact, it was a receptacle for odds and ends that were rigorously excluded from the other rooms by orderly, house-wifely Mrs. Morgan. From here, then, Mary procured a garden hat, and slipping her arm in that of Mr. Morgan, they started for the beach.

“You must not be long, Leonard,” cried the page 24 mistress of the house, “because it is nearly dinner time, and Mary is going out this evening to practise.”

“All right!” he called out from the corner of the slope.

It had been an extremely late spring, and though it was the first week in December, summer showed herself very tardy before the boisterous blasts and severe aspect of her predecessor, the spring. The last week had been especially tempestuous, leaving the marks of its violent course upon the flowers that had bloomed in defiance of the lateness of one season and the dilatoriness of the other. Great full roses hung their heads glittering with raindrops, others again appearing torn and wind-blown from the fury of the storm, while petunias, great white lilies, and scarlet geraniums raised their blossoms in brilliant array against the background of rain-washed trees. There was a freshness, an exhilaration in the air, most delightful after the closeness of the preceding days, and which are left only in the train of the storm king.

Great fleecy clouds attended the sun in his downward course to the west, but in the east and high in the heavens the sky was perfectly clear and serene, bright with the reflection of the glory of the setting sun, harbinger of fine weather to come.

It may not be out of place here to give some idea of the man who had adopted John Balmain's half-caste child.

He could never be called a handsome man in any sense of the word, but yet in a room full of people the eye of a stranger would at once single him out as the most striking figure amongst them all. His whole appearance gave the impression of power—the tall commanding figure, the lofty brow, the square jaw, the massive head that seemed almost too large even for its owner's great form.

The features of the face were rugged in the extreme, page 25 and but for the kindly expression of the sunken, though clear, brilliant eyes, under great heavy brows, would have been harsh and forbidding in aspect.

Mr. Morgan was not the kind of man to whom people are involuntarily attracted, his harsh voice and grim sarcasm repelled; but to those who were his friends the man's great intellectual and moral qualities, his extensive and practical knowledge, his haughty disdain of all that was false, his generosity, his profound pity for sorrow and pain, shone like a jewel, badly set though it might be.

He rarely laughed, and if he did it was as the sun's reflection on a wintry day; but it was not because he took a sad view of life, but because a melancholy expression was natural to him. Indeed, a stranger seeing him for the first time might imagine Mr. Morgan was haunted by a terrible sorrow. But it was not so; his life had been singularly uneventful and prosperous, and with the advent of Mary Balmain the want in his home was satisfied.

He had emigrated to the Colonies with no capital but a more than ordinary education, and through his shrewdness and integrity amassed a considerable fortune in those days when money was more easily made than now. Of late years he had almost entirely given up business, occupying himself with study and keeping himself posted on the great questions of the day from the standpoint of the ablest thinkers of the time. As he spoke French and German fluently, he was familiar with the masterpieces of both languages.

Visitors to Auckland—especially if they were of literary distinction—were always welcome at Mr. Morgan's house. To many the time spent at the house on the cliff was the pleasantest of their Antipodal experiences. The beauty and rarity of the half-caste type and her culture and fascination; the learning and keen interest in the progress of the page 26 world of the host, and the refined simplicity of Mrs. Morgan's hospitality, were not likely to be forgotten by any who once experienced them.

Mr. Morgan was too blunt and plain-spoken to please some ultra-refined people—people who, in speaking of crying evils, minced matters—but his honest, practical good sense and generosity both with his time and his money were appreciated at their true value by the city, which possessed many evidences of his liberality and good taste.