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

Chapter IV. Captain Deering's Morning Call

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Chapter IV. Captain Deering's Morning Call.

The next morning at eleven o'clock Captain Deering crossed the road and the little patch of green that extended in front of the house on the point, and at the gate met Mr. Morgan, apparently waiting for him.

“Fine morning, isn't it?” he said, opening the small gate at the side of the carriage entrance. “I think the summer has set in at last!”

“Yes, very fine!” assented the Captain. “It is not unlike an Italian day, though the air is more invigorating, I fancy.”

“You are right! Let us walk round to the point, so that you can see the view to better advantage,” said the host, leading the way as he spoke.

As they passed the side of the house, the sound of Mary's voice accompanied by the piano was wafted to their ears on the clear morning air; but Mr. Morgan made no reference to it, and Captain Deering instinctively felt, with true refinement, that the half-caste was the last subject upon which his host would have anything to say.

Mr. Morgan led his guest to the brow of the cliff, where, in a sort of terrace almost hidden with shrubs and trees, were placed rustic seats, and taking one himself he motioned Captain Deering to another.

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“You can smoke here if you wish,” he said, half grimly, “but I would not advise you to go within ten yards of the house; my niece and Mrs. Morgan have very strong objections to the odour of tobacco in any shape, and as I never smoke, they will not permit anyone else to do so within a gunshot of them!”

“Thank you, I will take a cigar, and will also remember your caution, Mr. Morgan!” answered the young man, with a smile that lighted up the frank, open countenance. “A smoke is often a great comfort to a soldier, so that I can scarcely hope to follow your example, at least for a time.”

When he had lighted the fragrant weed, he allowed his eyes to rove over the prospect before him—the expanse of dancing blue waters, the wooded islands, the lonely mountain opposite—with appreciation on his face.

“Fine, is it not?” said his host after watching him awhile. “Better take the field-glass” (which he held in his hand).

“No, I think not; thank you. I do not care particularly for a view through a glass, and such a thing is superfluous in this clear air,” answered the Captain.

“Quite right—just my opinion. These are the days of the scientist, the experimentalist, the iconoclast, who will not permit us to cherish any poetical beliefs; but lay their desecrating hands upon the entire realms of nature, literature, art, baring shadowy corners to the garish light of day,” said Mr. Morgan, harshly.

“What a splendid position!” went on the other, discreetly unheeding his host's words; “and how admirably the face of this cliff is preserved in, what I suppose is, its native state,” looking down as he spoke at the giant arms of the pohutukawa (Christmas tree), twisted and gnarled by a hundred storms and by the lapse of time, their red blossoms brightening the æsthetic tint of the foliage and page 46 sombre background. Caressing the face of the cliff, grew coarse ferns, trailing grasses, and small shrubs to the very shore, and often washed by the spray from the huge waves that broke on the rocky base of the point.

“Yes,” answered Mr. Morgan, “that is a small bit of the primeval forest, which within my remembrance covered all the country around here. It is your cousins' and my niece's special admiration, as they are both enthusiastic over the bush—as we call it in these parts—and not without reason. The breeze blows very fresh to-day,” as a strong puff was borne into their faces, “and, I understand, you have lived some years in India. Perhaps we had better walk further down the slope, where it is more sheltered, and yet where we can have quite as fine a prospect.”

“Not at all. The sun is warm enough to counteract the coolness of the wind—and, you must remember, I have come from a rainy English autumn,” replied Captain Deering, and glancing curiously at the man beside him, who, in the searching rays of the midday sun, appeared more massive and grimmer than in the soft, tender starlight of the evening before; but who must possess wells of tenderness in his composition to express such a kindly thought for another's comfort.

“So be it. I might have purchased a more sheltered cliff than this—there are numbers in this harbour of ours, especially in that direction,” pointing to their right, where the land rose and fell like waves of the sea, “but I could not combine shelter for my house with deep water for my yacht—the water is often shallow in the bays and coves in that direction.”

“Miss Balmain told me you owned a yacht. I should imagine this to be a very safe and pleasant harbour to sail in,” remarked the Captain.

“Yes, it is that; and we have so many islands page 47 and rivers to visit that sailing does not become monotonous. I hope we shall have the pleasure of your company the next time we take a trip. Your cousins often joined us in sailing excursions; but of late there has been a little cloud,” and his listener thought Mr. Morgan's smile slightly sarcastic.

“Indeed!” was all he could say.

“Probably you have not yet observed that Lenore is a most unusual girl—one of the kind that wishes to jude for herself, and not take the opinions of others as her guide; and I, pleased to see it, lent her books from my library, explaining difficult passages to her as they came up. Mrs. Dayton—like many good people—is prejudiced against me, or rather against my opinions—not that she ever said so, but one does not need to be told these things—and lays the blame of Lenore's independence at my door. In this she is mistaken. None of the books contained any heterodox doctrine, and almost all were precisely the same as those read by my niece; but your cousin has an original mind: Miss Balmain has not. Where the ground is fertile, the smallest seed will generate and produce fruit; but where the soil is sterile the happiest eircumstances will not make it smile. You often hear people say that they must read such and such a book to ‘improve their mind,’ when, by the sound of their voice, you know it is distasteful to them. Do you observe that such reading makes them more intelligent in any way? No! where there is not a mind, trust me, it cannot be improved.”

Captain Deering again turned his eyes upon his host, who was steadily and thoughtfully gazing seaward. If the niece is uncommon, he thought, the uncle is still more so.

“Pardon me,” he observed at last. “I did not mean to give you a lecture. Let us go into the house,” rising almost abruptly.

After lunch the whole party strolled out on the page 48 verandah, to which the sun was now slowly travelling. Mary sat down in a low rocking-chair, with her hands lying carelessly in her lap, while Mrs. Morgan's fingers moved swiftly to and fro in a fine piece of fancy work.

“Where are you going this afternoon, Annie?” Mr. Morgan asked his wife.

“I have not made up my mind. Why? Did you wish to go anywhere in particular?”

“I thought it a pleasant day for a drive. Captain Deering might like to see the suburbs.”

“Very well. I should think it would be pleasant out on the Remuera Road. But we don't need to start for a while yet,” said Mrs. Morgan.

“Ruhe ist das beste Gut
Dass mann haben kann,”

quoted Mary, languidly.

“Are those your sentiments, Miss Balmain?” asked Captain Deering, smiling.

“At present they are. There is nothing so pleasant as to sit and dream on a lovely summer's day in a lotus-eater idleness and repose,” went on the half-caste, dreamily, and with her eyes half-closed.

Somehow—he knew not why—the words jarred upon the soldier's ears; and, glancing at his host, he saw a shadow steal over the rugged face.

“Nay, Mary, you are jesting, dear. Surely the soulless wrecks of men, who lived in the enchanted isle, where it was always afternoon, are not worthy of your emulation.”

She smiled gently, and, for the first time, the stranger observed her peculiar hair, so straight, so coarse, and yet not unbecoming.

“I did not mean to vex you, Uncle Leonard; my simile is to blame. But you know it is pleasant to rest on a day like this,” she went on in her slow, musical voice.

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“I am not displeased, Mary,” answered Mr. Morgan, in a voice so gentle that Captain Deering was surprised. He saw that this girl possessed the sensuous enjoyment of all that is bright, beautiful, pleasant, that seems to be inseparable from the natives of a warm climate; but the strong will of her guardian and her love for him kept it to a large extent in the background. Had Captain Deering more experience, and a deeper knowledge of human nature, he would have known that Mary Balmain possessed one of those characters which totally unfitted her for the thorny paths of life—sorrow, adversity, pain, were almost incomprehensible to her. She shrank from them, not from lack of sympathy, but because they affected her so that she wished to forget that such existed.

When the ladies retired to dress for the drive, Mr. Morgan led his guest to his library, in which he took special pride and delight. It was the study of a man of culture, of taste, of solid judgment. From the floor to the ceiling, on shelves, were ranged books covering a wide field of subjects, though theological works predominated; and in a book-case were placed elegantly-bound volumes, many of which were gifts. Here and there appeared fine pieces of statuary, one or two vases of elegant design and workmanship, and on a lounging chair was thrown a rug, while on the chairs were rich, warm-tinted drapings. On the mantelpiece were two pictures of Mary, one when she was quite a child, and another—evidently taken recently—in a fancy costume as Night, and beautifully coloured. In a jar were carelessly arranged a few tea-roses—Mary's presence everywhere.

Captain Deering's eyes wandered appreciatively over the lines of books, noting the fact that repre-sentatives of the literature of nearly every country were present—France, Germany, Russia, England, besides the classics of ancient times.

“I see you make theology a special study, Mr. page 50 Morgan, to judge by the numerous works upon the subject you have here,” remarked the visitor at last. “And I imagine your views are not orthodox.”

“No, sir, they are not,” and the grim smile came to his face. “How many do you think are orthodox that think, that reason, that trouble themselves at all about the mighty problems of life and death, and the future existence of the soul? No, sir; the more you study, and think, and examine, the more heterodox do you become. Of course, there are great and grand natures for whom the Christian religion seems peculiarly fitted, and it is they that keep the fabric man has raised from tumbling to ruin.”

“Have you entrapped Captain Deering in here?” said a girlish voice in the doorway. “You cannot say this time we took an hour to put on our bonnets, regardless of the fact that I do not wear such things.”

For the first time Captain Deering felt a little impatient. His host's conversation possessed a certain amount of fascination for him, and he would have liked to hear more; but, after all, he thought, there was plenty of time; and in Mary Balmain's society he soon forgot.

She had not changed her dress; but had merely put on a large—she always wore large ones—hat, with soft, white feathers, and in her gloved hands she carried a parasol.

Away they went, past pretty villas set in gardens, ablaze with all the colours of the rainbow, past Mount Eden, and away to the rich level suburbs of the Whan and Mount Albert, the silvery Waitamata gradually narrowing to a thin, fine line. The fresh breeze blew in their faces, and the sun, now losing some of his strength, shone with a mellow radiance. As they swept on Mary or Mrs. Morgan explained the history or origin of the different names, and pointed out any specially interesting spot.

Captain Deering acknowledged to himself that page 51 night the fact that he had enjoyed himself thoroughly all day, and that the study of the Morgan family promised to be interesting. It is rather dangerous to make up one's mind to take an interest in one of the opposite sex, especially one so fascinating as Mary Balmain, and she occupied the greatest amount of his thought, though he deluded himself with imagining that Mr. Morgan was the greater attraction.