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

Chapter XXIX. The Shadow Deepens

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Chapter XXIX. The Shadow Deepens.

It was a dull, foggy morning a week after Lad St. Clair's reception, and a few days after Mr. Morgan's departure on his visit to the South of France.

Mary came down the staircase humming a little tune, and dressed in a gown of her favourite white, of some heavy, soft material, and with a silk sash of scarlet round her waist.

No foreboding of the night so soon to fall upon her disturbed her serenity—all her life apparently lay clear and straight before her.

“Good-morning, auntie,” she cried, gaily, as she gave Mrs. Morgan her usual morning kiss. “Am I late? I hate to get up, the mornings are so dark and dreary.”

“No, I fancy we are both early to-day,” answered the elder lady. “I got a letter from your uncle this morning, Mary, and he says he may be able to come home sooner than he expected.”

“I am glad of that. We miss him so much—more than one could imagine without the experience.”

“Let us have breakfast now, Mary,” said Mrs. Morgan, drawing up to the table. “It is quite chilly page 339 this morning; perhaps a cup of hot coffee will make me warm.”

“Do you want the carriage to-day, auntie? Are you going anywhere particular? I should like to do some shopping—to buy presents for Polly and the rest of the natives at Waitoa. They would be so pleased to hear from me, and especially through Mr. Mordaunt, who understands their ways so much better than a stranger.”

“No, I don't need it to-day. I should like to go with you. I was going to write some letters for the New Zealand mail, but they can wait.”

And then there was a silence—a strange silence that at last struck Mary—she was lost in a dream—as being unusual.

“Is anything the matter, auntie?” she asked, gently.

But Mrs. Morgan answered nothing. Almost mechanically she had picked up the morning newspaper, and glanced down the columns of the sheet which first presented itself, when her eye was arrested by the sight of a name she knew, followed by a brief announcement. For a moment her heart seemed to stand still and her brain refused to take in the sense of what she read—the paper appeared blurred and wavering before her eyes, a sort of terror seized her, and, strive as she would, she could not regain her usual calmness, for which she would have given worlds at that precise moment. To hide from Mary the direful tidings, at least until she was more composed, was all her desire. Mrs. Morgan's peculiar silence, and white, distressed face filled Mary with a vague alarm.

“What is it, dear auntie?” she said, tenderly. “Are you ill? Let me go for your smelling-bottle,” and she hurried from the room to get it before Mrs. Morgan could remonstrate.

What mockery the simple words sounded to her! The paper fell from her helpless hands, and a low page 340 cry escaped her. She was not ill in such a way that a poor device like a smelling-bottle could afford her any ease. What was to be done?

“How shall I tell her? how shall I tell her?” cried the poor lady, in utter helplessness. “I shall wait until I know with certainty. These reports often get about without foundation.”

But even while she said the words she felt that the report was true.

The smelling-bottle, however, failed to bring back Mrs. Morgan's colour, or take away the strained, distressed look from her face; but, curiously enough, Mary did not connect the sudden emotion and pallor of her aunt with anything to be found in the newspaper, and wanted to send for a doctor.

“A doctor would do me no good, dear. I am a little better now,” and after drinking a cup of hot coffee the colour returned somewhat to her cheeks and a more natural look to her face, much to Mary's relief, she being quite inexperienced in illness and afraid of it.

The newspaper, which had caused all Mrs. Morgan's emotion, happened to lie upon the table within the range of the half-caste's vision, and, half-involuntarily, her eyes sought its columns.

“Don't read the paper now, Mary; wait until after breakfast,” said Mrs. Morgan, with a sharp ring in her voice that surprised her niece.

“Why ?” she asked, still reading. “Uncle Leonard is not here.”

The two ladies never made a practice of reading the newspaper when Mr. Morgan was present, as he disliked the practice extremely, and never indulged in it himself, no matter how anxious he might be for news.

Suddenly the girl rose from her seat with a cry that rang in Mrs. Morgan's ears for years afterwards. She, too, saw what had affected the elder lady so unpleasantly, and stood perfectly still, all page 341 her life rising before her in that one instant. She did not heed the tears, the clinging arms, the reiteration of the comforting fiction, that it was all a mistake, of the elder lady, for the half-caste knew instinctively that there was no mistake, and the light of her life had gone out in blackness. As yet, however, she felt only the numbness incident to a sudden stroke of grief; the realization of the bitterness of her sorrow was to come.

Slowly, and without a word, Mary disengaged herself from Mrs. Morgan's clinging arms, and blindly made her way from the room. Still no tears! no words!

The elder lady permitted the girl to go without remark, judging that it was better for her to be alone for awhile to recover from the first effects of the blow. Truth to tell, she was appalled at the weight that had fallen upon her shoulders, and Mr. Morgan not expected home from Paris for a few days at the least. Never had she so longed for her husband's coming as now, for his influence over Mary had always been greater than her own; and there was a look upon Mary's face that she feared, she knew not why. The current of her life had moved so smoothly all the years of her married life that a crushing sorrow like the present appeared of greater body by force of contrast.

For nearly an hour Mrs. Morgan sat before the fire with the breakfast things unheeded on the table, her mind occupied with her own sorrowful thoughts, when the name of Mr. Mordaunt was announced. It would be a comfort to discuss the matter with anybody, and especially with a man of such large experience as the Colonial, an old friend of Mr. Morgan's, and also of General Balmain's—one of the few the latter had made in New Zealand.

She went to meet him with outstretched hands and tears in her eyes, and her manner so dejected that it touched the heart of the man with real pity for her.

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“How good of you to come to us at once!” she cried. “I see you have heard the terrible news. Is there no hope of its being a false report?”

“I am afraid not, Mrs. Morgan. It would be folly to build your mind on such a belief—the news has come on good authority. Lady St. Clair will come to see you this afternoon. I met her husband at his club before I came on here, and he told me they have received letters from India from Captain Deering's friend. He seems very much cut up about it. How does Miss Balmain bear it?” said Mr. Mordaunt.

Mrs. Morgan sat down weakly.

“She has never spoken since, and somehow her face frightens me. I never realized the difference between an English girl and a half-caste so keenly as I did this morning. If Leonard were only here it might be so different.”

“It is a terrible blow for her, Mrs. Morgan, and so sudden. Indeed, I sympathize heartily with you all. I understand Captain Deering was one of those frank, generous men whom everybody likes; and he has the reputation of having been a fine officer. It is very sad for so young a man to be cut off in the best of his days.”

“And he was to have come home for good next July,” said Mrs. Morgan, through her tears.

“If he had been struck down in an engagement his friends would have the satisfaction of feeling that his end was honourable, and as he would desire it; but to be cut off by illness, so far away, is the saddest feature of all,” went on Mr. Mordaunt, feelingly.

“Oh, it is dreadful!” sighed Mrs. Morgan. “I don't dare to think of it. Poor Mary! it is a calamity for her.”

“Can I do anything for you? Would you like a telegram sent to Mr. Morgan ?” asked the Colonial.

“No, thank you, Mr. Mordaunt—I would rather page 343 not. He is coming back in a few days at any rate, and perhaps a telegram might alarm him. I'll go up and see Mary, if you will wait for a little while,” said Mr. Morgan.

And she went. Somehow Mr. Mordaunt felt an awkwardness when the name of the half-caste was mentioned, and yet he did not wish either of her guardians to guess how strong was his prejudice against the girl.

Mrs. Morgan knocked gently at the door twice. No answer. After waiting a few minutes she opened it, and walked in.

On the floor, in an abandonment of sorrow, pitiful to see, lay Mary Balmain, who, only a few hours before, had been so happy and brilliant, with not a care in the world. No pillow rested under her head, and on Mrs. Morgan placing one near her, she pushed it away with a petulant movement.

What a picture for an artist! The dark head, with the long, straight black hair all unbound in a tangled mass, rested on a deep crimson rug, and stood out in bold relief against the white dress, now all tumbled; the sash of vivid scarlet appeared as a dash of blood on the snowy whiteness of the gown; the great, tearless eyes seemed to have grown larger and stared at vacancy; while the forlorn position of the figure spoke in eloquent terms of the crushing weight of grief that had fallen upon the heart of its owner. No sound broke the stillness of the room—no sobs, no cry—nothing but a blank, dreary expression on her face, whose beauty seemed obscured by the sullen, gloomy nature of her sorrow. The rata was twining its tendrils around the king of the forest! Mr. Everard's simile was extremely apt.

Nevertheless, there was a wildness—an undefinable something—about the girl that frightened the woman who had been a mother to her for nine years. This was not the way that Lenore Dayton would act under the circumstances, nor any girl that page 344 Mrs. Morgan had ever known; and it perplexed her sadly. Loyal to the last, she would not acknowledge to herself that the bulwarks of a civilized training were breaking away.

“Mary, my dear little girl,” she said, her voice breaking with sobs, “don't give way like this—it will hurt you—you will be ill. Let me help you from the hard floor on to the couch, so that you may rest more easily.”

No answer—the same deathly silence.

Mrs. Morgan waited for a second or two, and then bent down as if to raise the still, prostrate figure; but, to her surprise and sorrow, the half-caste pushed her away with a flash in those dark, tearless eyes that warned her to desist. She had seen it before, but not with Mary—not with Mary. The girl's words, however, were quiet enough.

“Please let me alone, auntie, I am better alone,” she said, with all the music gone out of her voice.

“But, my dear child, you will catch your death of cold lying on that floor. To please me, will you lay upon the sofa instead ? Leonard will be sorry to find you ill when he comes home again,” said Mrs. Morgan, hoping the mention of her husband's name might rouse the girl to some degree.

At the sound of the name a quiver shook her from head to foot; but she made no answer, only turned her head impatiently away.

For a moment the motherly instinct made Mrs. Morgan resolve to persevere, but sorrowfully she owned to herself that it was useless to make any more attempts to try and make an impression upon that prostrate figure. It would do no good to Mary, and give fresh pain to herself. With a sigh from the bottom of her heart, she slowly turned to go downstairs; but at the door paused, and, going back again, placed a soft woollen rug upon the girl.

In the drawing-room Mr. Mordaunt patiently awaited Mrs. Morgan's return with a good deal of page 345 interest, and was not much surprised at her account of Mary's peculiar way of taking her grief—he expected it.

“What shall I do with her, Mr. Mordaunt ?” said she, with tears in her eyes. “If I only could get her to cry she would feel relieved, but I am powerless with a girl that will not speak to me, nor allow me to come near her. To tell the truth, I am afraid to provoke her too far. You know the sudden gleam that comes into a Maori's eyes when he is angry ? Mary looked at me in the same way when I tried to raise her from the floor.”

“Leave her to herself—don't interfere with her,” answered Mr. Mordaunt. “Time is the best cure for these things. But there is one thing I should like to say, don't let Miss Balmain go from your sight—out in the city I mean, for—I don't wish to alarm you needlessly, but it is a serious and likely contingency—I fear that this sorrow will drive her back to her mother's people—a mother is a mother, Maori or otherwise.”

“Go back to the tribe, you mean!” cried Mrs. Morgan, with a host of disclaimers in her tone. “How can you be so unjust to poor Mary ? You do not know her when you so misjudge her. It is a sheer impossibility; and yet—and yet—I fear something myself. Oh! I wish Leonard were here!” recurring to her desire for her husband's presence and help.

“His influence would be certainly of the utmost value now; but as you do not wish to send for him, you must be all the more careful and watchful. I am now speaking from true friendship to yourself and Miss Balmain, believe me, Mrs. Morgan.”

“I understand,” she answered, sorrowfully, while her heart sank with a weight it had never known before. Every hour increased the dark aspect of the future, rising like a great blank wall before her mental vision, unlighted by a single ray of hope. page 346 Gentle natures like Mrs. Morgan's are prone to bend before the blasts of sorrow, instead of bracing against them and becoming stronger in the effort.

“I shall come again this afternoon and see how you are getting on,” went on Mr. Mordaunt, and then he took his leave.

Early after lunch Lady St. Clair came, very sorrowful, very sympathetic, and with a soothing effect in her very presence that was very grateful to Mrs. Morgan's overstrung nerves.

“How did you hear the terrible news, Mrs. Morgan?” she said, after kissing the elder lady with mingled affection and sorrow. “Was it from the newspapers ? Sir Hugh saw it first, and broke it to me as gently as he could, but I suppose it came upon you all at once. I forced myself to come out to see you and Mary. How is she ? Poor Mary!”

“She feels it very much, as one would expect, Lady St. Clair. She is upstairs in her own room; I think it better to leave her to herself to-day,” answered Mrs. Morgan, careful, as ever, of her darling's failings.

“Poor child! sorrowful as it is for us all, it is crushing to her. To think,” went on Lady St. Clair, as a wave of bitter memory swept over her, “that he died away in India, none of us near him to soothe his dying hours, and perhaps in the ravings of the fever he called upon our names and spoke of us, and maybe he did not get sufficient care. You know he was only recovered from the same fever when he went to New Zealand.”

Though traces of her grief showed themselves on Lady St. Clair's face, she shed no tears. Tears were not in her way before witnesses, not that she felt one iota the less than Mrs. Morgan, who, poor lady, had nearly exhausted the fount of her tears.

“Mr. Mordaunt says your husband received a letter. Did it give any particulars ?” asked the elder lady.

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“No. I never yet knew a man that had the ability to write a satisfactory letter of that kind. Those little, touching incidents so dear to women are never mentioned, just the fact of my dear brother's illness, and then the announcement of his death,” went on Lady St. Clair, her voice broken with emotion. “The writer was very good to Leslie—I shall always be grateful to him—and was an officer in the same regiment. He says he will write more next mail.”

And then she rose, and leaving a loving message for Mary, she sadly took her way homewards.