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

Chapter XX. The Proposal

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Chapter XX. The Proposal.

The next morning Mary and Captain Deering were amusing themselves in the drawing-room, shaded as much as possible from the glare of sunlight outside, the half-caste singing the softest and sweetest lieder, and her companion dreamily listening and watching her slow, graceful movements at the same time. The air was heavy with the odour of roses arranged in great jars and delicate vases effectively placed here and there in different parts of the room, and to the Captain it seemed almost oppressive.

“Will you not come out into the garden, Miss Balmain?” he said, as she paused and twirled round the piano stool. “It is rather close in the house to-day; and if any spot is cool and pleasant, it is the terrace on the edge of the cliff. I merely offer this as a suggestion,” as he saw a half-mocking smile on Mary's face.

I don't feel it close,” she cried, with emphasis on the pronoun; “it is simply delightful. It is difficult to please some people—especially those who have been scorched out of India. Why, when you were toiling up the bare sides of Rangitoto the other day you would have been only too glad to be able to walk into this drawing-room, and it would not be too close,” she finished, smiling at him mockingly.

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“But I am not in India, neither am I on Rangitoto to-day; and we measure all evils by comparison. Therefore to me, at this present moment, the cliff seems more desirable than the drawing-room,” he answered, smiling at her.

“You are like the rest of mankind—ungrateful; but you make up for your other shortcomings by admiring the terrace. Lenore and I think it is perfection. Does the sun strike on it very much?” she said, moving towards the window to look, “No, I shall not need a parasol,” and the two made their way into the hall, Mary picking up her hat from the table on which she had carelessly thrown it after performing her self-imposed duty of gathering flowers.

Slowly they sauntered past beds of flowers, one mass of brilliant colour, to the terrace cut from the face of the cliff, where Captain Deering had sat with Mr. Morgan the first day he had visited at the house. How far off that time seemed, and yet how near!–far, from the various circumstances that had contributed to the growth of his love for the half-caste; near, from the pleasure and enjoyment he had experienced during his visit.

Mary seated herself in a low garden chair, shaded by a handsome puriri, from which the berries had not yet disappeared; while Captain Deering threw himself on the ledge that rose almost on a level with the girl's seat, and for a time both were silent.

“‘For now the noonday quiet holds the hill;
The grasshopper is silent in the grass,' ”

she quoted, playing with a spray of vivid scarlet blossoms that she had plucked on her way. “I think ‘Œnone’ is my favourite poem; the sweetness and sadness of her tale always seem fresh to me. And then, again, she was not one of those patient, resigned people, who always provoke me, but fought page 255 against the wrong that had been done her, even although her passionate protests availed her nothing.”

“There is no Greek woman that will take the palm from you,” he said. “You will not complain to the hills of your misfortune, as did the daughter of the river god.”

How lightly we speak! often when the shadow of coming sorrow is already upon us, but hidden by the glow of a fleeting happiness that mercifully veils our eyes. And truly he was justified in his belief, for surely a more vigorous and magnificent example of blooming womanhood it would be difficult to find than Mary Balmain presented at that moment, robed in a gown of creamy tint and of the softest texture, with a silken sash of deep crimson confining her waist, as unlike the hapless Œnone as she could well be. The languorous, balmy air invited to that repose so dear to the heart of her race; and as she leaned back indolently in the chair with her eyes half closed, and her face shaded by the large white hat fashioned from the fibre of some “Island” tree, she appeared the impersonation of a houri in the dream of an Oriental—the warmth of colouring, the liberal, graceful outlines of the figure, the languid movements, the soft, rhythmical voice.

As the rather large, but shapely hand toyed with the spray of blossoms the sunlight caught the sparkle of the stones in the ring on her finger, bringing out a thousand flashes of light in all the colours of the prism, which at last attracted Captain Deering's notice.

“What a curious ring!” he said, bending forward slightly. “It is very valuable, I should think, the workmanship is so fine. I presume you prize it highly, as I notice you are never without it.”

The half-closed eyes opened wide at the question, and it affected him strangely to see the tender light in their depths as she answered in that soft, pathetic, page 256 plaintive tone that—how could he know?—was so marked in Maori women when speaking of that which was sacred or dear to them.

“Nothing that I possess do I value as this ring. Mr. Wilson—he was my guardian, you know—put it in my hand when I was only ten years old, just before I was adopted by Mr. Morgan. There is some story connected with it, but Uncle Leonard has never told me what it is; but I know my father treasured it, and before he died told Mr. Wilson to give it to me when I became old enough. I have worn it since I was fifteen years old.”

“You do not remember your father at all, do you, Miss Balmain?”

“No, I have not the slightest recollection of him. He died when I was a mere baby; but I have a photograph of him, taken in his officer's uniform—I think I told you he was a soldier.”

“Yes, and I have heard Mr. Morgan say so several times;” and then there was a silence that affected the half-caste with a nervousness unusual to her, as though she felt a presentiment of what was to come.

“We shall all miss you very much,” she said, quickly, by way of conversation. “It will seem strange for auntie and me to be alone. Uncle Leonard rarely takes a trip unless accompanied by us.”

“Will you miss me?” he asked, meaningly, and looking at her with almost boyish eagerness that filled her with a vague emotion, but which had no power to change the expression on the dark, passionate face.

“Certainly,” she answered, with a voice as sweet to the ear as the never-absent streams of water in the silence of the forest of her native land. “How can it be otherwise after a fortnight's visit? I shall be as sorry as your own people when you leave New Zealand.”

“But I shall see you again. I feel that my trip here has been for a purpose. Do you ever page 257 feel impressions that amount to certainties?” he said.

“No, not in that way.”

“I have longed to tell you what I felt—how much I admire you—but something seemed to hold me back until yesterday, when I heard what has decided me. From the first evening I saw you in Aunt Marion's drawing-room you have occupied my whole thoughts. None that I have ever known can approach you in my eyes; and now you have it in your power to make me happy—the most fortunate of men. Mary, will you be my wife?” he finished, with a sudden change of tone, and clasping closely the hand that lay nearest him. “I don't mean to startle you, dear, you can take your own time to consider; but surely, if you know your own heart, now is the time to speak. You are not one to indulge in idle coquetry?”

The wild, idolatrous love that this hybrid child of civilization and barbarism had permitted herself, almost unknowingly at first, to nourish in her heart, and whose power and force were such as could find a place only in the nature of those who so fully represented the warmth and luxuriance of the climate in which they lived, but which was outwardly veiled by the repression natural to her, and by the training of years, surged through her veins with an impetuosity that rendered speech impossible.

Mutely she clasped the hand that held her own, and with inimitable grace raised it to her lips, and pressed a light kiss upon it. She had answered, and he understood.

“You do think of me a little then, Mary?” he said, with a strange dreamy feeling that astonished himself—surely it must be the air that invited to repose—and mistaking the quietness of her actions for want of that warm, passionate love of which he knew she must be capable. He felt slightly disappointed that she betrayed so little emotion; but, nevertheless, his pleasure at her acceptance of his page 258 proposal left no room for criticism. “Yon, perhaps, feel the idea of making your home in England a little strange at first—everything there is so different to life in the Colonies; but tell me you do not dislike the thought of it.”

“No, now you misjudge me wholly,” she cried, clasping her hands together with a quick motion that startled him. “Wherever you are, there will be my sunshine, my gladness, my hope. I shall be as happy in England with you as I have been here in New Zealand; you shall be the sunshine and warmth and blue, skies in yourself. Ah!” she went on, with a caressing motion, infinitely tender, “you do not know how I can love. I love only a few, and on them all I have is bestowed. But it is all so startling, so strange; I am so happy that speech seems stupid.”

“Lenore is right in the pet name she gives you—Queen Mary; it shall be mine, too. You are a southern queen, inimitable and unsurpassed, like your native land. I thought of these things when I tirst saw you.”

And then they were silent from pure happiness, sitting quietly hand in hand, unconscious of the flight of time, or of the nearness of the realities and stir of every-day life, absorbed only in themselves, called to a delicious, dreamy sensation by the balmy air, freighted with the odour of countless flowers that form the chaplet of the intoxicating, gladsome summer of the south, by the monotonous, yet musical sing-song of the waves, as they broke and curled on the rocky shore beneath, by the bursts of song from English larks, and the never-ceasing twittering of the sparrows, the hum of insects, and the caressing, musical touch of the breeze on the great forest trees, on the face of the cliff, and in the background.

Surely Paris never wooed Œnone or the Grecian Helen in a fairer land than this suburb of Auckland page 259 presented on the day that the English soldier declared his love to this daughter of the soil!

A delicate, blue haze lingered on the hills, and away far as the eye could see, while the canopy of heaven, of the palest turquoise, with a golden sheen, reflected from the brilliant centre of the universe, showed not the smallest fleck of white, and was reproduced on the broad bosom of the river beneath, whose surface, smooth as glass, was scarcely ruffled by the gentle puffs of wind that came only at long intervals. A stillness of all but nature's voices possessed the scene as if it had been lulled to silence by the warmth and opulence of the air.

“Say to me, ‘I love you,’ ” he commented at last; “you have not said so yet, you know.”

She repeated the words after him obediently, and then said softly, from the self-indulgent side of her nature that she inherited from her mother–

“How pleasant it is to sit here, and dream one's self into forgetfulness of humdrum life. But I forget,” she added, quickly, “Uncle Leonard does not like me to speak in that way, nor perhaps do you,” rising as she spoke, and looking at him with a charming droop of the eyelids.

He sprang to his feet, drawing her arm within his own with an air of possession, and together they returned to the house.

“You shall say just whatever you wish,” he cried, with a lover's fondness, but the simplicity and reserve of the half-caste forbade any great show of lover-like attentions on his part.

They found Mrs. Morgan sitting in the coolest spot she could find in the drawing-room, and fanning herself lazily, while she gently rocked to and fro with the chair. She was beginning to wonder as to the whereabouts of her guest and niece, when their entrance put an end to further conjectures. Something in their manner and appearance struck her peculiarly, and she rose quickly as Captain Deering page 260 led Mary forward, saying in an eager tone with a note of triumph in it–

“Mary has promised to be my wife, this morning, of course with the full consent of Mr. Morgan and yourself. You will not play the part of the obdurate parent—you will be kind to us?” bending down and kissing her forehead as she sank back in her chair, and Mary made her escape.

“It is all so sudden—so strange, Captain Deering, and you will take her from us,” she cried, pitifully, and with far more agitation than her niece had shown. “But Mr. Morgan is Mary's guardian, the decision rests with him. As for me, I desire only Mary's happiness, and I can trust her with you,” she added, gently.

“Thank you, Mrs. Morgan; but please do not allude to it in any way in speaking to your husband. I prefer announcing it myself this evening; I think you will understand my feeling,” he said, gravely.

“It shall be as you wish, but as Mary has consented he will make no objections whatever,” answered Mrs. Morgan.

And Mary. At the window of her room she stood with all the passion and the force she had controlled in her interview with the Captain plainly portrayed in the liquid, speaking eyes and trembling lips-Tears, a most unusual sign of emotion with her, wetted the long, black lashes, and her whole attitude bespoke the tender, absorbing love she bore the man to whom she had just plighted her troth. She was unspeakably happy—so happy that the thought of her guardian did not intrude; the desire of her heart was fulfilled, and she would love not wisely, but too well.

In spite of the maturity of her appearance, Mary Balmain was singularly child-like and simple—facts that were patent to the Captain, and which won his admiration, and appealed to all that was best in the man; hence her love, passionate and absorbing as it page 261 was, possessed all the elements of purity and innocence. It seemed to her too sacred to dwell upon or to speak about; all the beauty and tenderness of her character were now uppermost.

In his room sat Captain Deering, exultant over Mary's ready acceptance, for which he had scarcely dared to hope, but looking forward with a strange repugnance to his interview with Mr. Morgan. He could not account for this feeling; indeed, he felt angry with himself for indulging in it, for no one could have been more hospitable, more thoughtful, than his host; but the elevated qualities and high intellectual gifts of the man formed a barrier between the sympathies of the two; and a wide, intense sympathy was not a characteristic of Mr. Morgan. Nevertheless, the Captain was well satisfied so far, and permitted himself to weave golden dreams of his future life with Mary as his wife, until the luncheon bell rang, and he was forced to come down to the realities of every-day existence.

As it happened, Mr. Morgan did not come home until very nearly dinner time, a most unusual occurrence for him, so that his wife could not, if she would, inform him of the event.

But he saw that something had happened, and it struck him with a keen pang, though he did not surmise the reality.