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

Chapter XXVIII. Lady St. Clair's Reception

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Chapter XXVIII. Lady St. Clair's Reception.

Lady St Clair was not unlike her cousin, Ellie Dayton, though some years older, handsomer, and, of course, with a matronly presence, but she possessed more of Lenore's traits than those of Ellie's more negative character. Contrary to the forebodings of Captain Deering and Mrs. Dayton, both Lady St. Clair and her sister received Mary most kindly, though she was scarcely the bride they would have chosen for their brother; but as it was they made the best of it, as did their New Zealand aunt. After a short acquaintance their doubts gave place to a warm friendship and respect for Mr. and Mrs. Morgan, and real admiration for the fascinating, beautiful half-caste, who adapted herself to her new surroundings as to the manner born.

When Mary arrived at Lady St. Clair's house she found her hostess had a guest with her in the dainty little sitting-room in which she sat in the morning—a sister of Sir Hugh's, not long a widow, a delicate, slight, pretty little creature, whom to see was to love.

“Now, Mary,” said Lady St. Clair, “you and Amy must be good friends, for two greater extremes page 327 it would be hard to find; and we are told that such make the best friends.”

Mary smiled sweetly, and sat down in front of the fire between the two ladies with her usual graceful ease.

“One would imagine that I was the elder of the two; you are so girlish-looking and petite,” remarked the half-caste, turning to Mrs. Adair, or Amy, as her sister-in-law called her. “Now, I don't think I ever looked girlish; I was a child, and then a woman.”

These two women could easily believe it, for Mary, though not twenty years old, had all the maturity of appearance of a matron of twenty-five years old.

“They tell me, Mary—I may call you Mary, may I not? you shall be another sister to me,” said Mrs. Adair–“that it is so sunny and bright in New Zealand. Do you not find it a great change to come here?”

“Yes, indeed, you can have no idea of the difference. I often wonder if really the same sun shines here as at the Antipodes,” said Mary, in her ever-charming, pathetic voice, “or whether it knows how to shine at all in these northern regions.”

“Oh, what heresy! after enjoying our beautiful English summer in the country, too,” laughed Mrs. Adair.

“I don't think so much about the weather—I did not expect it to be very fine—but I feel so sorry, so sad, to see so many poor little children and miserable people about the streets; and yet no one seems to think much about it,” said Mary, dreamily.

“It is sad,” agreed Lady St. Clair, shading her face from the heat of the fire with her fan, “but one does all one can. I suppose you will help with charity work, Mary; Leslie says Lenore is admirable in that way.”

“No, I don't understand it,” said Mary, rather curtly, “I always give money to those that ask, page 328 but in all other ways I seem to be wanting in tact, or feeling, or something that I cannot explain. Leslie is right—Lenore is in her element in charitable work; even Mr. Everard thinks she is perfection.”

“Who is Mr. Everard? Ah! I remember Leslie mentioning him, but I forget in what way,” remarked Lady St. Clair.

“It is strange that none of the family have written you. He is a kind of minister, but not quite orthodox in his views, though not so broad that he is obliged to break away from the Church altogether. He is a sort of supernumerary,” explained Mary.

“But who is he? I do hope Lenore is not one of those dreadfully advanced young women so common nowadays, and whom I especially detest,” said Lady St. Clair, anxiously.

“No, indeed; Lenore is too refined and sensible for that sort of thing, and Uncle Leonard would not hold so high an opinion of her if she were. Mr. Everard is a man of independent fortune, merely in New Zealand on a visit. I don't know what induced him to go there in the first place. Leslie knows, I think; but he is a good man, there is no doubt.”

“It is a great pity this gentleman is not content with the Church as he finds it. There are too many ministers adopting broad views of late,” said Lady St. Clair, decidedly.

“I don't know that it does them any harm,” answered the half-caste, coolly. “Uncle Leonard is an advanced thinker, and he is fifty times better than the generality of orthodox ministers.”

This was treading on delicate ground, so Lady St. Clair changed the subject.

“What is that you are doing, Mary?–ah! embroidery, I see. How beautifully you do the stitch and shade the leaves and flowers! It is for a screen, is it not?”

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“Yes, it is for Uncle Leonard's library. I will do you one like it if you wish.”

As we have seen, the half-caste, like all of her race, was extremely clever with her fingers, and did most exquisite embroidery of all kinds.

“Thank you, dear, I should like it very much.”

“You dined at Lord A–'s last week, Sir Hugh was telling me, Mary,” said Mrs. Adair. “Has he not a most beautiful house?”

“Yes, I think he has—I did not notice particularly,” answered the half-caste, indifferently.

“Mary is one of those who will never make themselves ridiculous by showing surprise at what they see,” said Lady St. Clair. “She is one of those fortunately constituted people who simply take things for granted, be they elegant or otherwise; therefore her manner is the same at all times.”

And then a silence fell upon the three ladies, broken by Mrs. Adair.

“Sing something for us, Mary, will you? I have heard so much of your singing from everybody.”

The half-caste rose at once and went to the small cottage piano in the room. Sitting down, she sang that simple little Scotch ballad, “Robin Adair,” out of compliment to Mrs. Adair, in her rich contralto voice, to the delight of both ladies, who made her sing all the songs she knew by ear.

“You must sing like that at my reception to morrow, Mary. Will you?” asked Lady St. Clair, as the half-caste rose from the piano. “Some girls do not care about singing before a room full of strangers.”

Mary smiled scornfully. Nervousness she knew not at all.

“I do not mind who is present. I have sung in public often, so that I am used to large audiences,” said the half-caste.

“Yes, Leslie wrote me about it.”

Mary looked her best at Lady St. Clair's reception page 330 the next evening, the last time she appeared at a London entertainment. She was attired in a soft, black lace dress over crimson silk, with a crimson rose in her hair, and the diamond star at her throat—a combination that became her dark, regal beauty remarkably well.

She stood beside the hostess until the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Morgan and the two Mordaunts, when she moved with them amongst the guests, conversing with their friends and attracting attention from all parts of the room.

The air began to feel close as the evening advanced and the rooms filled, and—she never knew exactly how it happened—Mary found herself behind the long, heavy curtains of a deep bay window which looked upon the street. She stood for a while gazing out at the wavering, fantastic appearance of the lights in the dense fog that covered the city as with a pall, and enjoying the cooler air of the alcove, when suddenly her attention was attracted by a conversation, evidently between two gentlemen, going on on the other side of the curtain, and about herself. Without realizing, or, in fact, giving it her attention, she still held her position at the window until the remarks became so personal that she felt ashamed to move forward, and at last rage kept her rooted to the spot.

“Who is this Mr. Morgan? Seems a man of culture and a gentleman—not the usual style of parvenu,” said the first.

“I don't know much about him except that he is received by good people—none of the glorified without-a-shilling-beginning kind of air about him. He prefers the society of literary people, or those who affect that sort of thing—quite a scholar, too, in his way, and wealthy, I believe,” answered the second. “In fact, the whole family are striking to a degree.”

“You say Deering is engaged to the niece. I am page 331 surprised at his choice, I must say,” returned the other, and at this Mary trembled with a fear of she knew not what. “He is a fine fellow, and in no need of being a fortune hunter. If he were in want of money, I doubt his resorting to such means to fill his coffers; he is too honourable. After all, this girl, handsome as she is, is only a Maori; half-caste, people may call her, but it amounts to the same thing in the end.”

“That may be true enough, Colonel,” answered the second voice, “but he is getting a very beautiful, clever wife, and an heiress to boot.”

The two men moved away, leaving a passion of rage behind that would have surprised them considerably.

Even in the darkness of the alcove the half-caste's eyes seemed to flash and her form dilate with the wild passion that consumed her, but which she was obliged to smother on account of Lady St. Clair's guests within a few feet of her. Once before had the barbarian in her broken loose, but then love had smoothed and softened the worst features of her anger, and in the end completely conquered it. But now it was far different. The scornful words of this strange soldier seemed to sear her brain as if burnt in with a red-hot iron, and to dance before her eyes like letters surrounded with tongues of fire; in their very truth lay their sting. A murderous hatred towards the man stirred in her heart, a wild longing to crush him beneath her feet, like that which nerved her pagan ancestors to the atrocities of the deadly wars they waged against their enemies before the white man's advent.

“Only a Maori.” Up and down the small recess she walked like a caged leopard, her bosom heaving, her eyes flashing, her hands locked together in the intensity of her emotion, and her whole form, transfigured into an incarnation of deadly passion that, instead of tending to make her feel weak, gathered page 332 in force until she felt as though possessed with the strength of two. This petted darling of the old missionary and of Mr. Morgan, carefully shielded from the rude blasts of care and sorrow, indeed, felt the sting of the slight with a keen pain that was the more bitter on account of the fact that she was the betrothed of Captain Deering, than because she was Mary Balmain, the daughter of Tapera. As we have before seen, the half-caste was not ashamed of her Maori descent, so far as she herself was concerned, but she was extremely proud—a perfectly honest and just pride—and her spirit revolted at the thought that there was a weakness belonging to her that called for remark. She felt a bitterness towards the place, the people, to everything in her wild, unreasoning, uncontrolled passion so essentially distinctive of barbarous races.

In all her anger the half-caste remembered that perhaps she might be missed, and that questions might be asked, and, though she hated the thought of facing the lights and gaiety of the rooms beyond, she wearily prepared herself for the ordeal. After standing quietly for a few minutes leaning her burning head against the cool glass of the window, she drew the curtain, and stood on the other side rather confused by the sudden entrance into the brilliantly lighted room. It seemed long since she passed into the alcove, but in reality it had all happened in a very short time. Time is not measured by the amount of emotion mortals can crowd into it.

“I have just been looking for you, Miss Balmain,” said Mr. Mordaunt, at her side. “No one seemed to know where you were.”

For once she was really pleased to see him. Here was one, at least, who liked her for herself, Maori and all though she might be.

“Does anyone want me—Uncle Leonard?” and at the name a whole flood of affection rushed into her heart.

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Never had he appeared so noble, so grand, so far above all littleness of soul, so tender and loving in all his actions to her.

“Lady St. Clair wishes you to sing,” answered the young man.

“Where are they all—Auntie, Mr. Mordaunt, Uncle Leonard?” she asked, moving along with him with a haughty carriage of the head and a new dignity in her mien that was not usual with her.

“They are all up at the other end of the room near the piano.”

“Ah! here you are,” said Lady St. Clair, gaily, as they approached. “You will sing for us now, will you not, dear?”

Mary would have liked to refuse. She felt in no mood for singing, but she knew it would provoke remark if she did not; and then, again, she had a wild desire to show the gallant Colonel that though she was a Maori, Maoris could sing, and, for once, Mary Balmain was proud of her gift.

Amidst a perfect chorus of requests from those immediately around the piano, the half-caste drew off her gloves and sat down to the instrument. As her fingers touched the keys, a silence, the involuntary tribute to Mary's gift, fell upon Lady St. Clair's guests.

After a short prelude, the girl's clear, rich voice floated through the room, with a power of vocalization a professional might have envied, in a gay hunting song, which she rendered with the brightness and gusto suitable to the words. At its conclusion, and without pausing, Mary glided into a dreamy, pathetic love song, so tender and sweet that to many the contrast between the two songs was almost painful. But to the half-caste, emotional, alive to every influence as she was, there seemed to be no incongruity, each song was the outward expression of a phase of thought.

As Mary rose from the piano she was besieged page 334 with compliments, and with requests to sing again, all of which sounded in her ears as the roar of the waters in the ear of a drowning man. If her life depended upon it, Mary Balmain felt that to sing again would be an impossibility. She had saved herself from remark, and that was all she desired.

As she slowly drew on her gloves again, the words of Colonel Vane rang in her ears with a persistency almost insufferable–“Only a Maori! only a Maori!” like the monotonous hum of an insect on a warm summer day.

“Mary,” said Lady St. Clair's voice at her side, “allow me to present Colonel Vane to you. He knows Leslie very well, and was in New Zealand at the time of the war.”

The hatred—noxious growth of an hour in Mary's heart—rose in arms at the proximity of the man whose scornful words rang in her ears; but she murmured a few words of acknowledgment, and bowed as gracefully as if he were merely a new acquaintance, and nothing more.

“Your singing is a delight, Miss Balmain,” ventured the Colonel. “Your voice has been very well trained.”

How she hated the sound of his voice! Possibly he had asked this introduction to criticize her! To be near him nearly suffocated her, and in every word he uttered she heard the expression that she resented so bitterly.

“I am very fond of singing and music generally,” she answered, in that musical, plaintive voice which charmed even this man, prejudiced as he was against its owner.

“Miss Balmain's voice was trained by masters in her native place,” said Lady St. Clair. “She will not take lessons in London,” and then the hostess moved away to other guests, leaving these two, so strangely met, alone.

“You are from Auckland, are you not?” he went page 335 on, courteously. “I know something of New Zealand, as I was drafted out there in the time of the late war. I presume the country has changed somewhat, though, from what I hear, it is still sparsely settled—the greater part is still in its wild state—a good thing for the emigrating class in this country.”

He could not have made a more unfortunate remark; though, to do him justice, the Colonel had no intention of hurting the pride of the half-caste in her native land, but spoke merely from courtesy on a subject in which he imagined she would be interested.

Inflamed as Mary's feelings were towards the soldier, his simple remark seemed to her to veil a sinister motive, and only added fuel to her wrath, for, unreasonable as it may appear, she firmly believed that the Colonel slighted her country of set purpose, as he had herself in the early part of the evening. It was an utterly absurd idea, utterly without foundation; but angry people are rarely amenable to reason, and especially anger like that of the half-caste, perfectly uncontrolled.

Slowly she raised her splendid dark eyes to his face, glittering with all the brilliance of the diamonds at her throat, and said in her smoothest, sweetest tones, slowly and gracefully waving her fan the while–

“A great part of New Zealand is in its wild state,” quoting his words ironically, “but you must acknowledge that civilization has asserted its supremacy to a very large extent when we are in full possession in all parts of New Zealand—of public-houses and prisons.”

The Colonel raised his eyebrows at the half-caste's words, and at the peculiar mockery in her voice as she concluded. Indeed, the starlike brilliance of her eyes and the subdued passion in her remark, that he felt rather than heard, made him vaguely uncomfortable. page 336 She was an enigma to him, wholly beautiful, wholly graceful, but wholly dangerous as well.

“I am sorry you have such a poor opinion of civilization as your words would seem to infer, Miss Balmain,” he said. “Possibly you have not seen it under the most favourable of auspices,” he went on, quite unconscious of the wrath of his companion.

“Truly I have not. Here in this great London I have the fullest opportunities of studying the most advanced nineteenth century civilization—to the public-houses and prisons I can add workhouses, reformatories, gin-shops, and the list does not end. New Zealand is certainly not a favourable country in which to study results; but time will do it,” went on the half-caste, ironically.

Her companion gazed at the half-caste in wonder; he saw he had made a mistake somewhere.

“Mary, would you like to stay a little longer?” said Mr. Morgan at her elbow. “I see you have made Colonel Vane's acquaintance. You are well acquainted with the North Island at any rate,” he went on, turning courteously to the soldier.

“Yes; a rough country it was in those days, though Miss Balmain seems to fancy civilization has made progress,” answered the Colonel, with a smile.

But Mary rose with an expression of subtle mockery on her face, and took her guardian's arm. She did not see the shadow that came to the rugged face of Mr. Morgan, as he felt the irony in Colonel Vane's tone; with a sudden exaltation she realized all that her guardian was, and lovingly pressing his arm, she swept away from a presence she hated, and the shadow on the beloved face passed unnoticed.

“Oh! you are fascinated with our charming half-caste after all, Colonel,” cried the gentleman who had discussed Mary near the alcove with the soldier, and had seen the latter introduced to her.

“Not yet,” answered the other, quietly, “only judging for myself the qualities of Deering's bride page 337 that is to be. She is fascinating, unfathomable, beautiful; I don't wonder at the poor fellow's infatuation, living, as he did, for four or five months under the influence of her spell. That powerful, grim-looking guardian of hers has educated her splendidly—put on a fine veneer, as it were. But mark my words, that girl will play the leading part in a tragedy, and at no distant date. I see it in her face and hear it in that wonderful voice of hers. I have had some experience of savage races, and can read the signs.”

The Colonel had been in several parts of the British Empire, and knew whereof he spoke.

“Pshaw!” answered the other. “Tragedies are not the thing nowadays in the society in which Miss Balmain moves. The idea of talking of savage races in connection with such a creature, so lovely and charming as she is! They have made you fall sadly behind the times out there, Colonel.”

“Out there” stood for that part of the world from which Colonel Vane had just come, it might be China, it might be Egypt for aught the other knew or cared.

“We shall see,” returned the other; and before that evening fortnight they did see.