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

Chapter XXVI. London

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Chapter XXVI. London.

London! What a world of ideas the very name of this vast city, the modern Babylon, calls forth! Its size, its great age, and historical associations extending over a period co-eval with Britain itself; the poverty and the wealth; the squalid wretchedness and refined luxury; the thoroughly cosmopolitan character of its population. It is the centre of attraction for the whole of the ever-increasing, ever extending Anglo-Saxon people, whose thoughts, even at the uttermost portions of the earth, ever gravitate towards the Mecca of the race—London. It is equally the home of the millionaire, the miserable outcast of humanity desirous of hiding himself from what cause soever, and the field for the display of artistic and intellectual power.

And amidst this great city, throbbing with the hopes and fears, the struggles and patient endurance of countless thousands, how many souls are sick with the disappointment that is the death-blow to the consummation of their dearest hopes; how many fallen, weary, despairing call aloud to the heavens for that justice which is denied to them here below; how many retire from the arena of its life broken in spirit, mental and physical wrecks!

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It was night at the latter end of November, and the proverbial fog was exercising its permeating and depressing influence to the great discomfort of all but well-seasoned natives. Of all fogs, London fog is the most melancholy in its effects—murky, chilly, harsh, and totally lacking in that fresh, sultry quality, distinctive of the fogs of certain places, which redeems them from their worst features, and particularly trying to those accustomed to a warmer and dryer atmosphere.

In a private parlour of their hotel, on this particular foggy night, were two gentlemen ready dressed for the evening and apparently prepared for going out, as their gloves and coats lay upon a table as if placed there until time to start. A roaring fire blazed in the chimney in delightful contrast to the gloom prevailing in the street, lighting up the shadows of the room—the gas had not yet been lighted—with a fitful, fantastic glare that, to an imaginative person, would have been full of a subtle fascination. But neither of the two occupants of the room was at all imaginative; rather the reverse. The fire, however, bright as it was, seemed not to satisfy the elder of the two gentlemen, for, moving up to it, he poked vigorously among the embers, sending the sparks flying and the fire blazing up the chimney; and, as if content with his work, sat down in an arm-chair well within the influence of the heat.

They seemed to be discussing the advisability of going out that evening, the warm room having great attractions for Mr. Mordaunt, the elder of the two men, while the younger was all eagerness to go.

“I wish, Charlie, my boy, you would go without me. I can tell you twenty years' residence in the Colonies is hardly the thing to help a man to brave the miserable fogs and cutting winds of London. You can convey my excuses to Mrs. Morgan, and tell her the weather is to blame, not I. She will page 309 sympathize with me better than you can, as she knows well the climate of the northern part of Auckland,” said Mr. Mordaunt, settling himself more comfortably in his chair, to his nephew's great annoyance.

“Deliver us from Australians, Colonials, or whatever you choose to call yourselves, say I,” retorted the young man, ironically. “When you were out there the whole burden of your song ran something in this wise: ‘What a blessed time it will be when a kindly fate wafts me homewards never to rove again.’ Now that you have managed to accomplish the desired end, you will not move six steps from the fire without persuasion, meanwhile railing with most praiseworthy persistence at what you consider the shortcomings of this most salubrious climate—that is the proper term in my opinion—in fine style. I'll tell the two ladies that you wouldn't come—catch me excusing you a particle. Besides, you can't get out of the fact that you promised Mrs. Morgan we should go to her box at the theatre to-night.”

“True, I did,” answered the other a little scornfully. “You are like the rest of them—a pair of dark eyes and a little romance go a long way,” and then, pausing a little, added, “perhaps I had better go and see John Balmain's child for myself—a little, elfish, brown-eyed tot, the last time I saw her, allowed to run wild at her own sweet will. It is strange that I never saw her after she had grown up, though I visited Auckland several times; but she always happened to be absent when I called at Mr. Morgan's house. The Daytons—they are Captain Deermg's relatives—were always singing her praises, so I heard plenty about her.”

“Is it really a fact, uncle, that Miss Balmain is the daughter of a full Maori? One can hardly realize it, though Mr. and Mrs. Morgan make no great secret of it, relying, I suppose, upon the fact that page 310 General Balmain came of such a good family, and that Captain Deering's antecedents are also irreproachable. He is the best fellow in the world!” cried the young man, warmly.

“I don't doubt it in the least. Solomon was a fool in his marriages, and he has not wanted for successors, who are anything but Solomons, from his day to this. In my opinion, a man must be afflicted with a temporary mental aberration to ever unite himself with a half- or quarter-caste of any native race, when he knows, as well as I do, what the end is. I remember, in the time of the war, a lieutenant of the army fell desperately in love—perhaps he thought he did, poor fellow, which comes to the same thing generally—with a half-caste of quite as good birth as John Balmain's daughter, but not wealthy, and married her. All went merrily for a time, until the novelty wore off, and the longing came to her that comes to most of the race, and she went back to the tribe of which her mother's father was chief.”

“What? You don't mean to say that, after a European training and living as a civilized being, she became, to all intents and purposes, a barbarian again! ” cried the young man in surprise. “I can understand a Maori woman married to a white man longing to go back to her old, free life, but not one that has never known the influences of savage life.”

“It's in the blood; what is in the blood will come out. We have a terse way of putting some things in the Colonies, which means quite as much as your long sentences and pretty words, and going back to the tribe is one of them, and quite expressive enough for a Colonial.”

The young man was silent, the only sound in the room being the crackle of the wood in the fireplace, and from the street came the rumble of passing vehicles and the everlasting hum of the great city page 311 that lay all around them. A strange, quizzical look lighted up the face of the Colonial—a look half of amusement, half of sadness—as he glanced at his young, nephew sitting opposite—a mere boy, scarcely twenty years of age—and instinctively followed his line of thought; therefore he was not surprised to hear an emphatic defence of Mary Balmain.

“Such an unhappy termination might occur in one or two cases, but I am certain that Miss Balmain will never go back to the tribe, as you so vulgarly express yourselves in those benighted regions. Ugh! the very idea is an insult! All that grace and beauty will never consent to be buried in a native village,” cried the young man, quickly. “I have noticed that Colonials are extremely prejudiced against the half-castes.”

“You have, eh! You are not unlike the good, stay-at-home people in war time, that know a thousand times better how things should be managed than the poor fellows whose lives are in danger every hour at the scene of operations; you know more about the proper attitude of Colonials towards certain questions than the Colonials themselves,” said Mr. Mordaunt, testily.

“Very well, then; it can all be put down to your pessimistic views of human nature, in which bachelors are apt to indulge now and again,” answered his nephew, good-humouredly.

Mr. Mordaunt smiled sarcastically.

“We won't discuss the subject; but remember this, Charlie—the views of old bachelors, that young people are apt to despise, may, perhaps, be clearer than you think for. Their judgment is not prone to be clouded by the contemplation of grace and beauty, as yours evidently is,” he said, slyly. “They deal with hard facts, unbiassed by pretty sentiments.”

“We know all your arguments well, uncle,” answered the other, impatiently; “but surely Mr. Morgan is a man of solid sense—he gets the page 312 reputation of being quite learned, even among the literary class which he affects—and yet he has adopted Miss Balmain, knowing, we must presume, the customs of the Maori race. There is not a doubt but what he thinks a great deal of his niece, and she of him.”

“Live and learn, is an old and very true adage,” said Mr. Mordaunt, sententiously. “I never could understand Morgan's reason for adopting John Balmain's child, for he had no acquaintance with him whatever. I warned him not to do it, but he only laughed at me, and does to this day. Perhaps he is trying an experiment—should not be at all surprised—could not expect anything else from a man always poring over books the way he does.”

“Well, if we mean to go out this evening, we had better go at once, unless we mean to walk in at the last act. Hullo! here's somebody—come in,” he cried, as a knock came to the door.

“Ah! how do you do, Mordaunt?” said Mr. Morgan—the man of whom they had just been speaking—heartily, and advancing into the room. “I knew I should find you at no great distance from the fire. Your efforts,” turning to the younger man, “to wean him into the delights of the outer air have not been very satisfactory.”

“Confound delights!” cried the Colonial. “How is it you manage to get along without grumbling, Morgan? Actually you seem to enjoy the pestilential climate. See what it is to be fifteen years younger than I am.”

“I thought I should be as you are,” answered Mr. Morgan, leaning his massive frame against the mantelpiece, and looking down upon his friend, who seemed suddenly dwarfed; “but instead of that, I feel braced up, as it were; able to think clearer, and, altogether, I feel a better man. But, of course, I like the New Zealand climate and out-door life in page 313 preference to this. But this is London! the centre of the universe. I thought, perhaps, you might be gone to the theatre,” he went on, “but gave it the chance. Mrs. Morgan and Mary have gone to dine with Lady St. Clair, who is Captain Deering's sister, you know, and I suppose they will be at the theatre before us, so I made up my mind to call for you. I think we had better be going at once.”

Mr. Mordaunt rose slowly from his comfortable seat before the fire at this reminder, and began to put on his gloves.

“Well, I suppose I had better make good use of my time while I am here, for it hardly pays to come sixteen thousand miles and, after all, go back without seeing the attractions of London. Ellen Terry and Irving—or stars like them—will not receive sufficient inducements to venture upon an Australasian tour in my time, eh, Morgan? Genius requires pounds, shillings, and pence as well as the rest of us, and perhaps more,” said Mr. Mordaunt, thoughtfully.

“I say, uncle, you had better button your coat well, for the fog is pretty thick, I must own,” cried his nephew, after satisfying himself from the window.

“Of course it is,” replied the other, crossly. “It has been nothing but fog, fog, fog for the last week, and when it is going to change, the Lord only knows, I don't!” as he followed the other two from the room, much against his will.

Mr. Mordaunt was a run-holder of over twenty years' standing, who had made a considerable fortune in New Zealand both in mining speculations and sheep and cattle, intending, on making a sufficient sum of money, to make England his home for the remainder of his days; and, for nearly a quarter of a century, he had planned and worked with this idea in his mind. But like hundreds of his class, page 314 “absence lends enchantment to the scene;” and living for any great length of time under the influence of the sunny skies and soft breezes of the southern ocean renders a British winter a thing to be dreaded—the “spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” The dull, dreary days of a northern winter to the children of warmer regions have the same effect upon their spirits that the absence of the sun has upon the sea—all the sparkle and brightness disappear, and nothing but shadow remains.

He had delayed his coming too long; and, having no family, for whose sake he might desire to strain a point and make himself believe he liked the climate, he made no secret of the fact that he would not stay another winter at “home.” As his nephew said, Mr Mordaunt's desire for many years had been to settle in his native land, where already had migrated, with their families, many of his rich Colonist friends; his relations were all in England, the home in which he had been born and bred, and which his money had beautified and cleared from heavy encumbrances. His ideas and opinions were so thoroughly in the spirit of his fellow countrymen, that he did not experience the lonely, outcast feeling so common to Britons who have long lived amongst people of totally different characteristics to their own, and of suddenly finding themselves out of harmony with the general tenor of English thought; and, lastly, he wished to enjoy the advantages of living in a great city like London, where congregate the stars in the dramatic, artistic, and intellectual fields.

But he found that old habits had grown too strong, and the climate was an ever-present drawback, so, much to the disappointment of his friends, he declared his intention of going back to New Zealand—he had only been six months in the country—in a few weeks' time, so as to get the benefit of the southern autumn. He was not unlike many old men who insist to the page 315 younger generation that “the country is going to the dogs,” because things are not done as they used to be; and so it pleased Mr. Mordaunt to believe that the climate of England was not as good as it used to be when he was a boy. Nieces and nephews used their persuasive arts on this generous, kindly uncle of theirs, but all in vain.