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

Chapter XXII. The Shadow Begins to Fall

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Chapter XXII. The Shadow Begins to Fall.

The next morning the younger members of the Dayton family were gathered about the verandah and lawn with Captain Deering, who was going down town on business with Mr. Dayton. They were holding a desultory conversation, when Bertie, who had received the news of his cousin's engagement with his customary nonchalance, appeared on the scene.

“I congratulate you heartily, my dear boy. I was afraid it might be that grenadier of a young lady—Miss Ellett; but as it is Mary, there is nothing to be desired,” he said, with a mixture of banter and seriousness.

“Thank you, Bert; I knew you would give me your best wishes. I am only sorry you will be too far off to come to the wedding,” answered Captain Deering, with a happy smile on his face.

“What do you mean, Bertie, by speaking of Mabel in that fashion? She is an extremely amiable, clever girl; much too good to you for your deserts,” cried Lenore, who was engaged in throwing stones as far as she could—which was not very far—for a small terrier to run after. Lenore's energy was bound to find some outlet.

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“Lenore,” said Ellie, half impatiently, “papa does not like dogs to run over the grass, breaking off branches from the shrubs, ‘and spoiling the lawn.’”

“You are like the preachers—or some of them, I should say—who want one to do what they say, not what they do, for I saw you doing the same thing last night, Ellie,” said Bertie, while his sister coloured a little. “But it is like me to be forgiving—taking your part, Lenore—when you have just paid me a sweet compliment. I can't say you treat me above my deserts. I believe I did not mention Miss Ellett's qualities—only her distance skyward, which you must own is considerable. Tall women are in the way,” he went on, oracularly; “never look well unless they are dressed up finely. Mary Balmain is just about the right height; by the way, she is to be a cousin of mine,” as if the thought had just struck him at that moment.

“Come now, Bert, that will do. A tall, graceful woman is a thing of beauty. I don't admire your taste at all; besides, you are remarkably attentive to tall girls, if you don't admire them,” said the Captain, laughing.

“When a tall woman is graceful, yes. The exception proves the rule, dear boy,” replied Bertie, unmoved.

“If I were you, Leslie, I would not argue with him. Perhaps Mabel has not treated him well of late. What he says to-day he denies to-morrow. You can never be sure of people who are fair to one's face and make remarks behind one's back,” said Lenore, throwing a rose at her brother as she spoke.

“A clear sign that great things are to be done by me in the future in the line of politics or literature. A great many belonging to those classes conveniently forget to-day's remarks a week hence,” he retorted, as he sauntered down the path.

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“I am ready now, Leslie,” said Mr. Dayton, appearing in the doorway. “Where's Bertie?”

“Gone—as far, as the gate. Hurry and Bertie came into the world at different times,” laughed Lenore, as her father and Captain Deering followed her brother.

Lenore was also preparing to move in the same direction, when Ellie, almost fretfully, made her pause.

“Where are you going, Lenore?”

“To see Mary. I shall not be long,” returned the other.

“Why are you in such a hurry? It is not such a great honour for us to receive Mary into the family that you need to run off post-haste to give your good wishes. You are like a school girl sometimes, Lenore.”

Lenore raised her eyebrows at the tone.

“What has come to you, Ellie? Leslie's engagement does not seem to please you at all. I never knew you to be so bitter. Mary has been quite good enough for a companion all these years, so why should we change now that she is to become our cousin? It is poor taste, to say the least of it, to show her that you do not care about the engagement, when all the rest of us are so pleasant about it. Another thing, Mary is my friend, therefore it becomes me to be cordial,” said Lenore.

“You never will look at things in a common-sense light,” complained Ellie, “or with any regard to the family dignity.”

“As the definition of common sense differs considerably with different people, I sometimes get a little mixed as to its signification,” remarked Lenore, dryly. “As to the family dignity, I am very sure I shall not compromise it by visiting Mary Balmain, my cousin's promised wife.”

“Of course, I don't mean that you should do anything ill-bred; but I don't want it to appear that page 275 we in any way sought the match, or feel particularly honoured by it,” said Ellie.

“I don't think people will think anything of the kind; and if they do, I shall not trouble myself about it,” and Lenore went on her way, leaving her sister sitting on a garden seat in not the pleasantest frame of mind in the world.

Poor Ellie! she was very sore indeed at the engagement of her cousin; not that she did not hold Mary in high esteem for her many fine qualities, but she could never quite overcome the prejudice entertained by so many people with regard to intermarriage with either a half-caste or Maori; and, as it proved, she was right.

Lenore, on the other hand, though deep down in her heart lurked a fear of the future, would not permit herself to indulge in it, because she was Mary's friend, and because she saw clearly that no good could possibly come of her objections to the match, comforting herself with the thought of Mary's beauty and culture.

It must not be imagined for a moment that Ellie Dayton was a disagreeable girl, for she was nothing of the kind. As a usual thing, she was extremely sweet and lovable, and far more lenient to the eccentricities and shortcomings of her acquaintances than was her more vigorous sister, but in a restricted sense. Ellie was distinctly conventional; she had no sympathy whatever with those questions or those actions outside of the groove to which she had been trained and accustomed; therefore it seemed to her that Captain Deering was forgetting his duty to his family—love she did not take into account—when he married beneath him, from her point of view.

With Lenore it was very different; she had little patience with the pettiness and small faults of those with whom she came in contact; but the horizon of her view was very wide, her manner of looking at a question liberal in the extreme.

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Lenore found Mary in her fernery, in which were gathered the rarest and most beautiful ferns and mosses of the unequalled New Zealand bush, and engaged in watering them and cutting off dead leaves. Directly she saw her visitor she laid her watering-can and scissors down and came forward, a fair picture in a gown of yellowish pongee silk, with crimson roses at her throat, and lace falling to the waist.

Lenore kissed her lovingly.

“You are to be my cousin now as well as my friend, Mary,” she said, softly, “though I shall not have you for long from what Leslie said this morning. I wanted to be the first to congratulate you.”

“You are kind, Lenore. I knew you would give me a welcome into the family,” replied Mary.

“They will all give you a welcome, Mary—not only I,” said the other gravely.

“It all seems so strange. I cannot realize it at all,” went on Mary, scarcely heeding Lenore's words; “and then Leslie is going away to the ‘Lakes’ in a day or two, and after that there will be only a month left of his visit. I wish he could stay in Auckland for good.”

To Lenore's eyes there was a subtle change in the half-caste that she did not like. Was she exacting, she wondered; but it seemed to her that under the same circumstances she would act very differently. Between herself and Mary, in one night there had arisen, apparently, a wall that all her efforts could not break down. She had come over from her generosity of feeling and genuine love, and she was disappointed at her reception. There was a restlessness, an absent-mindedness in Mary's manner, a strange quickness of utterance unusual to Mary's even tones, and a new brilliance in her eyes that sorely puzzled Lenore; and all of which she had never noticed in the half-caste before. It puzzled her sorely.

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“Are you not well this morning, Mary?” she asked at last, after a painful silence, when she found her remarks falling flat.

“Yes, perfectly. Why do you ask?” answered she.

“You seem so restless and not yourself this morning, dear.”

“I am so happy that I cannot keep still five minutes. I cannot contain myself, my heart feels so light. I long to sing and dance for perfect delight. I don't think anyone was ever so happy as I am. I am like treading on air.”

Perhaps in themselves the words were harmless; but Mary's manner made Lenore shrink from her with a fear that her sister's prejudice against the race might be right, so little control of herself did Mary seem to have. This total surrender of her love argued badly for the future, thought sage Lenore.

“I am glad you are happy, Mary. You were not made for sorrow,” she said, tenderly, as to a little child.

And then she walked slowly homeward, musing on love and the different kinds of love. “I did not want confidences,” thought she, “because I never give any myself, but I think half-castes are different to other girls,” thus excusing Mary's apparent coldness, which had hurt her warm, generous heart more than she would allow.

At the gate she met Mr. Everard, who had been visiting the master of the house in answer to the note of the evening before.

“How are you this morning, Miss Dayton?” he said, laughingly, and holding out his hand. “You do not look as happy as I thought you would at the prospect of a new cousin.”

“I am quite pleased, as far as that is concerned. Appearances are often deceptive,” she said, with a sudden flash from the blue eyes.

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“Then what is it? You said I was to have the honour of your friendship, so you must tell me what it is that troubles you. I claim my privilege,” he cried, smiling gravely down at her face, which had become serious again.

“It is nothing—really nothing, only—perhaps it is the way with some girls—I fancy Mary has changed to me. I went over to see her this morning, and she seemed cold,” said Lenore, slowly. “It is foolish to speak of it, but you just happen to be in the way when I feel it.”

“I am glad you told me,” remarked the minister, who was steadily gaining ground with Lenore in spite of herself. “But it is a little thing, and I think not intentional. Miss Balmain and you were always such firm friends.”

But Lenore shook her head.

“Mr. Morgan told you of my cousin's engagement, I suppose? I always fancied he wished Mary to marry a Colonial. But it is not what he desired that is to be done.”

“From what he said, I believe he would prefer that Captain Deering were Colonial, but as he is not there is no more to be said. Shall I tell you of what Miss Balmain often reminds me?” said the minister, looking at Lenore's serious face with amused eyes.

“Yes—of what?” she said, wonderingly. “Mary can be compared to many.”

“Of the kauri tree,” he answered, smiling.

“The kauri! What can you mean? Please explain.”

“If I do you will not like it. I notice you are extremely sensitive with regard to Miss Balmain, The kauri, as you know, is a very beautiful tree, very strong, very large—in fact, it is the king of the New Zealand forest. Nothing will grow underneath its branches, and from its slow growth and great strength it would appear to be invulnerable. Is it not so?”

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“Yes, it is perfectly true,” agreed Lenore, with interest.

“But there comes a time when the kauri is powerless—when the rata winds its grasp around the trunk of the tree and climbs even to the topmost branches; the kauri faints and dies a slow, lingering death. Is not that also true?”

“Yes,” again assented Lenore.

“Now comes the point: Miss Balmain is like the kauri in the forests of her native land—fair to look upon, and, as far as we see, as strong in her present life as the kauri before the rata fastens upon it. But is there not with her also a weak point, which the rata most aptly symbolizes? You know there is,” said the minister, gravely. “Now I have given you an allegory.”

“You mean that the native blood in her may assert itself?” said Lenore, quickly. “You mistake, Mr. Everard; Mary Balmain is no ordinary half-caste, as you yourself see. Her instincts are too refined, her education has been too thorough, and she has been under European influences too many years for such a possibility. I am surprised that you should imagine such a thing,” cried Lenore, with all the dignity she could assume.

The minister was amused. He liked to see her indignation, which showed itself more in her face and voice than in her words.

“Nay, Miss Dayton, there is no imagination about it at all. Half-castes as refined, as good in every way, as Miss Balmain have gone back to their own people. We have no right to assume that refinement is a characteristic of civilization only. Perhaps natives may possess it in a very marked degree, and when it is so we are certain it comes pure from the heart. It is not considered an impossibility by Mr. Morgan, and, you must acknowledge, his affection for his niece is much greater than yours could page 280 ever be. Not that he ever said so—it is a dim, shadowy fear within.”

“All that you say may be very true, but not for—Mary Balmain,” and she smiled at him with a perfect faith in her own words that he could not but admire.

“David and Jonathan in the female sex,” he said, laughing.

“I must be running,” she cried. “Good-bye,” and she was gone.