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

Chapter XXXIII. Lenore Starts for Waitoa

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Chapter XXXIII. Lenore Starts for Waitoa.

It is strange, and often irritating, the rapidity with which news flies, especially when it is of a character derogatory to someone with whom we are acquainted.

Mr. Mordaunt accompanied the Dayton family to church on that particular Sunday evening spoken of in our last chapter, and happened to mention the fact of Mary Balmain's unfortunate action to some of his old friends, but giving no details. By noon the next day it seemed—or so Mr. Dayton and Bertie thought—as if half the town knew that the half-caste had gone to her mother's tribe, judging by the number of people anxious to know the truth of the report; and the latter was none too civil in his answers to such “impertinence,” as he expressed it to Lenore that evening in most unmeasured terms.

Mrs. Dayton was truly thankful on the Monday following that her daughter was too busy preparing for the morrow's journey to spend any time in the drawing-room during the afternoon. Two or three ladies called—it was true they were not intimate friends of the Morgans, but had tried to become so—and irritated their hostess almost beyond endurance with a page 377 discussion on Miss Balmain's extraordinary conduct. Mrs. Dayton bore the infliction bravely, but Lenore had an extremely sarcastic and cutting manner of answering such people that alarmed her mother at times, and which she considered did no good, only gave offence. Lenore was too honest, too generous to listen to the carping of people who had worshipped the sun in its splendour, so to speak; in other words, when Mary was an heiress in her own right, and also the presumptive heiress of Mr. Morgan, beautiful, gifted, cultivated, they had made much of her, invited her to their homes, flattered her, but now that she had declared herself Tapera's daughter, their tone changed at once.

As Lenore had been persuaded by Mr. Mordaunt to promise a week or ten days' visit, Mrs. Dayton hoped that the worst of the talk would have died down before her daughter's return.

The next day at five o'clock the travellers were to start for Russell on the same steamer that had taken Captain Deering scarcely a year before. Russell is the coaling station for Sydney-bound steamers, and is therefore a port of call.

Mr. Everard, who had not yet taken his departure for “home,” and who had heard the gossip regarding Miss Balmain, had called in at Mr. Dayton's office early in the day, and had been informed by Bertie that Lenore was to start for Waitoa that evening, the former giving more information to the minister than to any other inquirer.

Mr. Everard, therefore, made it a point to meet the family at the steamer to see her off, Mrs. Dayton making one of the party, in order to place Lenore in charge of a lady travelling to Sydney, with whom she was acquainted.

Silently the minister shook hands with the girl, upon whose face he saw a new gravity, a new power.

“You have heard the tidings, then?” she said, quietly.

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“Yes; one could hardly fail to hear it,” he answered, half-bitterly. “Mr. Morgan would have need of all the charity he possessed, were he in Auckland at present. I confess I don't feel very charitable towards my neighbours at this moment.”

Lenore's blue eyes flashed with scorn.

“What do they say? Oh, you need not tell! I can understand! That is the reason mamma did not wish me to come downstairs to the drawing-room, when some visitors called to-day. I am too plain of speech for some people, who are not worthy to tie Mary Balmain's shoestrings, half-caste and all as she is. There is no littleness of soul in her—no sitting in judgment upon others; and that is one reason why she was so dear to Mr. Morgan. She was after his own heart,” said Lenore, warmly.

“You are still faithful; but you do think that Miss Balmain has not done wisely? For Mr. Morgan's sake it was not well,” answered Mr. Everard, thoughtfully, leaning against the side of the vessel.

“It is hard to tell. I cannot tell. These things seem so difficult to understand,” said Lenore, with a peculiar movement of her hand across her forehead, “But I am going to try to persuade her to return—but only God can tell.”

An admiration for this girl, even greater than he had ever felt before, rose in the minister's heart. With her as the helping, sustaining spirit of his life, he felt as if nothing would be too difficult for him to attempt, no sorrow too great to bear; and yet there was so much of the woman in her that she was extremely lovable and near to him, not placed on a pedestal to be only reverenced and admired, and not loved. A woman that has no faults is not a lovable woman.

The steamer now gave the unearthly whistle that is a combination of a yell and a roar, and which is being introduced in all the steam-boats of the page 379 Colonies, for what reason it would be difficult to tell, as fogs are rare, and friends began to make their farewells.

“God send His blessing with you, Miss Dayton,” said the minister. “None can help you but He.”

“Pray for me,” she answered, gravely. “I feel that I shall fail.”

Mrs. Dayton came up to her daughter to say good-bye.

“Do your best, Lenore dear, if only for Mr. and Mrs. Morgan's sake. Write and let us know.”

And with dreamy, thoughtful eyes, Lenore, sitting by Mr. Mordaunt's side, watched the crowd of people moving in a continuous stream down the gang plank, and taking their position on the wharf, until, all having left for the shore, the steamer slowly moved from her moorings out into the stream, amidst the waving of handkerchiefs and of hands.

The next morning, very early, they arrived at Russell, and after a rest and breakfast at the hotel, the horses were brought round by Mr. Mordaunt's servant, who had been in the town since the evening before, the luggage going in a country cart.

Lenore had not been allowed to be dull, Mr. Mordaunt, who was decidedly of a cheerful, talkative turn, keeping up a constant stream of conversation, and on subjects that were interesting to his companion.

As they left the town behind them, and were able to canter on the long stretches of level road, the motion and sweet, fresh air contributed to an exhilaration of feeling which Lenore that morning could not have conceived possible. The weight that had rested on her spirits since she first heard of Mary's degeneration, lifted as if by magic.

At twelve o'clock they stopped to rest at a small wayside public-house, kept by a man who combined the duties of publican and farmer very profitably. The house was extremely neat, and the food, though page 380 plain, was nicely cooked by the host's pleasant-faced wife, being very acceptable to the travellers, who were hungry after their long ride in the fresh air.

After lunch Mr. Mordaunt and Lenore strolled into the kitchen garden at one side of the house, where they found their host gathering peas. Strange as it may seem, the girl had a lingering hope that Mary had not cast in her lot with the Maoris, but could explain her absence in another way.

“Do you have many visitors here?” she began, to Mr. Mordaunt's amazement, and if he had known her motive, his amused pity at her belief.

“No, not many—mostly settlers from roundabout here going or returning on business to Russell or Auckland,” answered the man politely, but rather ambiguously.

“Did a young lady visit here about a month or two ago?” she asked again. “But perhaps you don't remember.”

“I don't know. What kind of a young lady? Several ladies have stopped here on their way to visit folks about here for the summer holidays.”

“Very dark and handsome,” said Lenore, proudly.

“You don't mean the half-caste young lady that has gone to the Maori settlement?” he cried, and upon Lenore saying that it was, he went on, “They do say that she's gone to the tribe. She only stopped here an hour or two, and was very quiet-like. People have told me she belongs to rich folks. Perhaps you know her?”

“Yes,” answered Lenore, briefly. It grieved her to the heart to hear her friend spoken of in the half-patronizing tone adopted by this common man—beautiful, gifted, refined Mary Balmain! What had she done?

Again they started on the road to Waitoa, the farmhouses growing further apart, and the country more broken and richly wooded, until late in the afternoon they drew up at a large white gate, and page 381 Mr. Mordaunt, dismounting, opened it, and leading his own horse, walked by Lenore's side up the wide avenue of trees that led to the house.

Mr. Mordaunt's house was built on an eminence that commanded an extensive view of the country round, and like so many Colonial homes, more attention was paid to the adornment and laying out of the grounds than to the beauty of the house itself, which was big, one storied, and with a very wide verandah and French windows in front.

Miss Mordaunt appeared on the steps as the travellers approached, receiving her visitor most cordially, and warmly greeting her cousin after his long absence. She was a tall, angular lady, and had once been handsome, but was now wrinkled and old before her time, but she was courtesy and kindness itself; years of residence in this out-of-the-way country place had not succeeded in robbing her of English simplicity and ease of manner.

“I am sorry, Miss Dayton,” said Lenore's hostess, as Mr. Mordaunt disappeared with the horses, “but you will need to keep on your habit until our man arrives with your things. Come to your room now; you will be glad to wash your face and hands after your long ride. And then we shall have tea.”

Through a passage and down another and along another they went, until Miss Mordaunt stopped at a door on the right, and the two women entered a large, pleasant, airy room looking upon the garden.

“Don't go unless you wish,” said Lenore to her hostess; “I shall not be long, and I am afraid I cannot find the way.”

“Very well. The house is rather rambling, I must own,” answered Miss Mordaunt, “but you will soon find your way about it. Rooms have been added at different times, until it has lost all pretensions at a plan.”

Never had a cup of tea seemed so refreshing to Lenore as on this particular afternoon. They all sat page 382 on the verandah, wide as a room, and shaded by a delicate creeper that climbed to the very chimney, the air blowing fresh and cool as the sun declined, and freighted with the perfumes of a hundred flowers, Miss Mordaunt serving tea from the daintiest and most delicate china, brought from her English home.

“Did you know I was coming, Miss Mordaunt?” asked Lenore.

“I was not sure; but my cousin wrote by the last mail that Mr. Dayton's daughter might come to us on a visit, so that I prepared for you,” answered the hostess.

“You see,” remarked Mr. Mordaunt, “I knew what kind of a young lady you were. It is not everyone that can be depended upon so implicitly.”

“I am afraid they know how to flatter in England better than they do in the Colonies,” said Lenore, smiling.

“No, really I only made a simple statement,” he expostulated.

“How shall I reach Waitoa?–is all this district Waitoa?–I mean the village or settlement, or whatever it is called, to which Miss Balmain has gone,” said Lenore, after a silence.

“I'll go with you. It is a matter of ten miles, and I don't think you could find the road. I shall wait with the horses at a house near the Maori settlement—I know the owner and his wife well—and you can walk to the huts. We can have lunch there, and ride home in the cool of the evening,” explained Mr. Mordaunt.

“That will be delightful!” cried Lenore, to whom a ride was a pleasure; but again her face clouded—perhaps it might not be so delightful if her mission failed.

“You shall ride every day while you are here. My cousin is as fond of riding as you are, and she can take you to all that is to be seen about these parts,” said Mr. Mordaunt.

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“I hope you will succeed in winning Miss Balmain to return to her friends again,” remarked the hostess, gently.

“I hope so, indeed,” answered Lenore. And from that moment she liked Miss Mordaunt for her tender manner in speaking of Mary, so unlike her cousin's evident prejudice.

When she was shown to her room that night, Lenore, as was her wont, sat at the open window, and drank in the beauty of the landscape so new to her eyes, accustomed as they were to the glories of the sea. The air was pure and still, the silence broken only now and again by the screech of a night owl or the lowing of cattle. The sky was of that marvellous, luminous clearness so distinctive of the skies under the Southern Cross, and spangled with stars which scintillated with a thousand sparks of light; and the whole scene was pervaded with a rare beauty of a more liberal type than even the landscape of Lenore's more southern home.

The air was heavy with the odour of magnolias, the trees standing up tall and dark before the window, and covered with blossoms.

Within ten miles of where she stood, thought Lenore, was Mary. Should she find her old friend changed, she wondered, by contact with those of so much coarser mould than herself, and with the habits of their kind? She could not bear to think of Mary mingling with Maoris on perfect terms of equality—the companion of refined Mrs. Morgan, and of an intellectual, highly-cultivated man like Mr. Morgan.

If she failed! But God knew best, and Lenore prayed to be given strength as she never had before, and, with a trustfulness that belongs only to the purest and best, left it all with a higher Power.

That night Lenore's sleep was troubled. Visions of Mary in strange, perilous, and always hopeless situations rose before her mind; now it seemed she was floating away on a great wave reflecting the page 384 dark, angry clouds above, the beams of a pale half-moon casting a weird light upon the whole scene, while Mr. Morgan's figure, in bold relief, stood on a cliff, holding out his arms to the face that mocked at his agony; now the half-caste appeared, a beautiful unearthly form, on a giant boulder of rock, every now and again moving backwards and forwards, Lenore in her dream fancying that the girl might lose her balance; and then, again, Mary sat in a canoe pushed by invisible hands down a flashing, dancing streamlet in the heart of the shadowy bush, the creek running into a lake of almost limitless extent, deadly to the eyes, broken not by ripples, but by a tremendous swell, as if caused by some titanic force.