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

Chapter XXXI. Living Yet Dead

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Chapter XXXI. Living Yet Dead.

Mr. Morgan returned to London on a particularly raw and foggy evening; and as he had not written to his wife on what day to expect him, the carriage was not sent to the station. She was under the impression that her husband would telegraph from either Paris or Dover, and, therefore, as none had come, had resigned herself to a prolonged absence.

Mr. Morgan was thankful to find himself at his own door after his fortnight's visit to a more genial clime, the damp air affecting him unpleasantly, but it was not that circumstance which struck him with a presage of evil on entering the hall. No one was there to meet him, and a deathly silence seemed to linger about the house. What could be the matter, he caught himself wondering; and yet the man was not fanciful, was not superstitious, but, strong as he was, a slight shiver went through him.

It was one of those presentiments that come to all at one time or another, and which are as difficult to analyze as the fact of life itself. Perhaps it may be, as some of our fellow-men would have us believe, that the mind is prepared, as it were, by invisible, but ever-present forms, who are cognizant of that which is before us, and thus, to a certain extent, lessen the force of our sorrow.

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Mr. Morgan opened the drawing-room door very gently—so gently that his wife heard no sound—and, on looking into the room, was pained to see her listless attitude, as she sat at a little table drawn up in front of the fire, and so occupied with her own thoughts that she had not heard the stir of his entrance at the street door. Surely he was not mistaken in his own house, but there was some subtle change in the air of it that puzzled its owner sadly! He had never noticed before that weary, sorrowful drop of the mouth, nor had he ever seen the face so pale, and it seemed as if all at once his wife had aged, and—where was Mary? The two ladies were always together at this time of day.

As her husband moved forward further into the room Mrs. Morgan saw him, and starting to her feet with a cry of mingled pain and pleasure, advanced a few steps to meet him.

“Are you ill, Annie?” he said, holding up her face so that the firelight shone upon it, and betrayed the fact that her eyes were full of tears. “You seem so pale and languid; what has been the matter?” he went on, with anxiety in his tone.

“I am not ill, Leonard,” she answered, wearily, “only tired. I am so happy to have you home again—I have missed you so,” and she clung to him with passionate eagerness, and yet with fear in her manner that would have struck him as peculiar at any other time, but now he thought it was from the weakness of illness.

“Don't excite yourself, Annie,” he said, soothingly. “Where is Mary? Is she not well, that she is not here?”

“Did you hear the news of Captain Deering's death?” asked his wife, sitting down again from very weakness.

“Yes; I saw it in the newspapers, and Sir Hugh St. Clair wrote me—he had my address. I don't think I ever felt so shocked in my life. I hurried page 362 away directly I knew of it. How does Mary bear it? It will be a terrible blow for her, I am afraid,” went on Mr. Morgan, still harping on his niece's absence.

His wife felt that to die would be easier than to tell him the desolation that had come upon them, but she knew that the blundering, torturing practice, which some people call “breaking the news,” would be of no avail with her husband.

“Mary is gone, Leonard,” she said, gently, “gone of her own free will!”

“Gone where?” answered Mr. Morgan, bewildered. “Annie, don't trifle, dear. I cannot bear it on that subject. Where is Mary?”

“I wish to God that it was trifling. But Mary shall speak for herself,” and drawing from her pocket the letter the girl had written, she gave it to him, silently, her tears falling in a shower the while.

He read it through very slowly, and then, with a trembling hand, folded it up carefully and laid it down. Who shall tell the thoughts that crowded upon him?

Rising abruptly he walked up and down the room, not quickly, but with a slow, heavy tread that made his wife's heart ache to hear, and her eyes tired to see. She suffered more for him than for herself, as is the nature of woman.

The firelight, too, contributed to the general uncanny effect, flickering on the walls with strange, weird-like motion, and, now and again, bringing into relief the massive form and rugged outlines of the man, who appeared not unlike a figure carved in stone by the master hand of an ancient Egyptian.

At last, tired out, Mr. Morgan threw himself into a chair with almost a groan.

“She went by the mail, I see,” he said, harshly (he could not bear to speak the half-caste's name yet). “God help her, she does not know the nature of the step she has taken.”

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“Is there no hope, Leonard? Perhaps she may come back to us when she finds everything so different to what she has been accustomed,” said Mrs. Morgan, with a hopeful ring in her voice that she did not feel, but it is an old and true saying that drowning men catch at straws.

“Never, Annie. Once the blood of the savage asserts itself, the delights of civilization lose their power; she will be disgusted at first, and then it will all come natural. But her mother—great God! The child knows nothing of her; a low creature, a Maori of the worst type. She was always on her best behaviour, and got up decently, when we saw her,” and he buried his face in his hands.

“I saw the change in Mary the first day. She would not allow me to come near her, or speak to her—had all the sullen despair of a native, and her eyes flashed at me dangerously when I insisted. I cannot believe that she is gone,” Mrs. Morgan cried, with a burst of sorrow.

Still neither of these two generous, noble hearts blamed Mary, or even considered the obligation which she owed them—all the benefits they had showered upon her. All lesser feelings were lost in the deep sorrow that filled their hearts that she was dead to them, precisely as they would have felt had it been their own daughter that had left her home of her own free will.

Mr. Morgan retired to the library with his grief, to think it over, to accustom himself to the thought that Mary was no longer a part of his life. He sat down at his writing table, leaning his arms upon it and burying his face in them, and gave himself up to the gnawing grief that devoured his heart, and in which was no numbness to dull the edge of the blow; he felt the first instant to the full the burden of his loss.

His impression that sorrow was coming out of the engagement of the half-caste and Captain Deering page 364 had been only too prophetic, but he had then been powerless against the decrees of a mighty power, and now he was the victim—he and his wife were the sufferers. The soldier was for ever at rest from the troubles of this life, and Mary—ah! what pain it was even to think of the name!–she was not capable of realizing any great intensity of feeling, or at least any on a high plane; and, as the years rolled on, her fine sensibility, cultivated under the wing of the nineteenth century, would be dulled amongst the low aims and elementary ideas of her pagan relatives. Oh! that she had died before this mad desire had come to her! Had died years ago when she was a little girl, and her life was despaired of in a fever that comes to certain children at a certain age. He remembered it all; the long days of watching, the still house with the sunshine all shut out—it was the summer time—the anxious face of his wife, pale with watching, and how relieved they all were when the suspense was over, and Mary was declared out of danger! It had all a pitiful significance now.

If she had only died then, or even at this late date, he would not look upon it in the light of such a calamity—but living griefs are always harder to bear than dead ones—he would have the poor satisfaction, but still a satisfaction, of visiting her last resting-place, and of feeling that she was, perhaps, happier than with him, great as might be his love for her, but that voluntarily Mary should give up the luxuries, the culture, the refined society, and all the other advantages of civilized life, to him was more bitter than her death. She had placed between herself and this man, and between her old life and her new, a gulf as great as that which stretched between the rich man and Abraham's bosom, and there was no way of bridging it over, and his heart was empty.

Yes! there was one way; but at the mere suggestion page 365 of it Mr. Morgan shuddered; not even his great love for the half-caste could ever face such an alternative. This man,

“The heir of all the ages, in the foremost files of time,”

familiar with the lore of the ancients, and with the learning of the great ones of the earth from their day to this; to whom the spirit of controversy, the evidences of the march of progress, the scientific researches of these days were as the breath to his nostrils, and to whom the luxuries of the nineteenth century were almost a necessity—he to exile himself from all that which is the salt of life, to go back to the primitive, soulless existence of a barbarian race, to send back the hands of the clock of his heirship over two thousand years, and make the glorious achievements of civilization of none avail! Then, and only then, could he leap the chasm that yawned between his own life and Mary Balmain's; but it was a Rubicon that he might never pass, the very thought of it bringing the drops of perspiration to his brow. Henceforth she was a thousand times worse than dead to her old guardian.

Strong, loving natures only are capable of the grief that filled this man's soul—a grief that possessed not the smallest grain of reproach for the girl herself; indeed, appeared to take it for granted that she had merely obeyed a natural law, against which there was no appeal. But it was none the less an irreparable loss, her companionship, her sweet, fascinating presence, her varying moods, and the culture, even though it had not sunk very deep, in which he had himself been the gardener, so to speak. He realized now, as never before, the pain it had given the old missionary to part so ungrudgingly with the little half-caste child, and it struck him now that he and his wife had been selfish, even though for her good, in depriving Mr. Wilson in his helplessness of the solace of the child; if they had page 366 been too anxious, the missionary was amply avenged. But then again, Mr. Morgan reflected (so prone are we all to find excuses for our own actions), Mary, a mere child, could never have held so firm a place in Mr. Wilson's heart as she had in his own, for had he not seen her blossoming from childhood to girlhood, from girlhood to her magnificent womanhood, and had he not almost entirely educated her?

The air of the room seemed stifling, although all around was cold and dark; the fire long gone out, the lights not lighted; voices sounded in his ears calling “Mary, Mary, Mary.” He remembered the last night, as it happened, she had sat in this room after the performance of Hamlet at the theatre, in her rich evening dress, and had seemed so sweet and womanly, and now where was she? On a steamer bound for New Zealand, the home of her race, and where the training of civilization would be blotted out in barbarism, or what is worse, a barbarism and civilization making an effort at reconciliation, and only succeeding in combining in the individual the worst vices of both.

How long he had been in that one position he did not know, but he felt chilled to the bone, Mrs. Morgan, knowing his moods, not allowing him to be disturbed on any pretence whatever. He felt a sort of melancholy pleasure in subjecting himself to physical discomfort—it seemed in keeping with his mental attitude.

But Mrs. Morgan, how was she bearing this isolation?

She had ordered the servants to remove the dinner things—all in the house knew of the misfortune that had come upon the family—and had a cup of tea brought to her in the drawing-room that cried aloud with loneliness, and had spent a miserable, dreary evening alone.

At last, tired out, she went upstairs, and prepared for the night, and still no sign of her husband. page 367 Nervous fancies which had haunted her, filled her mind all the evening as she sat in front of the fire. When she could bear herself no longer, she made her way to the library, where she knew Mr. Morgan was to be found, though it was now morning.

Softly opening the door that revealed the darkness within, the wife crossed the thick, soundless carpet and felt her way to her husband.

“Leonard,” she said, her voice trembling with weakness, and at the sound he started up a little dazed, “come upstairs now; this room is so dreary, and I am so lonely, dear.”

Gently he took the slight figure in his arms, and carried her up to her own room.

“I was wrong, Annie—I have been careless of you to-night, dear,” he whispered. “I have my wife still—I have not been left utterly alone; I have been ungrateful.”

The loving arms tightened their clasp, and the loving heart, that had never failed him for a quarter of a century, was lighter than it had been since the woful tidings came. She would get over the loss of her adopted child in the care of the great healer—time.

But the man. Ah! never would the marks seared into his heart in that one night be obliterated. Just as his love had been always deeper, stronger, more enduring than his wife's, so would be his grief. Mary's memory would be ever present with him until he himself was no more.

“Alas, for the love that loves alway!”