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

Chapter V. The Grammar School Dance

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Chapter V. The Grammar School Dance.

Captain Deering's acquaintance with the Morgans grew apace. He had—in company with his cousins—been asked for a sail in the yacht on the Saturday afternoon following his arrival in Auckland; he had been over twice to tea; and scarcely a day passed but he saw at least one of the family. He was not neglected in other quarters by any means. Pleasant, friendly, English soldiers and men of the world were not visitors of such frequent occurrence that society people in the town could afford to dispense with the company of Mrs. Dayton's nephew. He had attended a lawn tennis party at Dr. Brooke's, had been to a dinner at Mr. Ellett the banker's house, and every day found him something pleasant, and every evening occupied with some engagement. He won golden opinions from everybody by his frank, genial manner, and hearty enjoyment of the social attentions heaped upon him, the fact of his being a man of fortune and eligible in no sense detracting from the estimation in which he was held.

The Friday evening, nearly two weeks after Captain Deering's arrival, was set apart for the Grammar School dance, and, as usual, was clear, calm, and beautiful. Who had ever known that event ushered in page 53 with cold or wet, or both? This special dance was of yearly occurrence, and was given by the “old boys”–that is, those who had been educated at the school, and were now engaged in different vocations in the town—to their relatives and friends.

It was presided over by the Head Master and his wife; the school building—a very fine one indeed—was used for the occasion. It was given on the last evening before the long summer vacation; and was always a brilliant success—naturally, considering that it was pervaded by a distinct Grammar School influence. This particular establishment of which we speak being on a decidedly higher plane than any other of the kind could ever hope to be, because why? the master was an Oxford or Cambridge—it does not matter which—University bred man, and of course from England, facts which neither he nor his wife were likely to forget, nor allow anyone else to do so.

Mr. Dayton kept no carriage of any kind, so it was agreed that the four ladies—Mrs. Morgan not being of the party; she thought the dance not as exclusive as it might be—should accompany Mary, and that Bertie and Captain Deering should walk, or ride in the omnibus as they chose.

“We shall have to go early!” Lenore impressed on them all, Mary included, “because Mrs. Gardiner (the Head Master's wife, and hostess of the occasion) thinks it the correct thing to leave punctually at twelve o'clock, not the eighth of a second later. So, unless you want to wait until everybody has their programmes filled, go early.”

This injunction was meant for Ellie and Mary's sole benefit, as they were not known for extreme punctuality, and often fretted Lenore almost beyond endurance with their easy ways, when it was not absolutely necessary to be in time.

Bertie and his cousin arrived first, and waited at the principal entrance until the advent of their party, page 54 not by any means the first, despite Lenore's warnings.

“Awful crush!” Bertie confided to anyone that would listen to him, as the ladies were helped from the carriage, immediately hastening to the cloakroom, which only the day before contained thirty restless boys, deep in the mysteries of English or Latin. “I believe everybody is here, without exception, and for goodness sake, Lenore, don't let that Mabel Ellett play an extra, like a good girl!”

“I should advise you to talk to Mrs. Gardiner, as you are such a favourite with her!” she retorted as her head disappeared, but not before her brother gave a low whistle, expressive of dissent.

The ball-room was already quite full they could see, as they slowly made their way to the hostess of the evening.

Captain Deering was presented, and received most graciously—Bertie in an aside to Lenore sarcastically whispering, “He's a gentleman, you know!”–was he not a gentleman of fortune, an officer, and last, but not least, with no contamination of trade? This lady had a most decided objection to anything and anybody that was connected with trade, and thereby drew upon herself the dislike of many who would, otherwise, have been kind friends.

A waltz was just forming; Captain Deering claimed Lenore, Bertie took Mary, while Ellie was already half way up the room with Mr. Willerton, one of the friends of the family.

During their promenade Lenore managed to give her partner several points in her usual racy style.

“Pray don't make any remarks about anybody to anybody else, I beg—Oh! I know you fancy such a thing is impossible to do; but when a person appears remarkable, it is so easy to speak of it. There is a clique here consisting of cousins in all stages of development, and it will be a miracle if you don't meet some of them. However, none that you know page 55 as yet are related to half the room, and we must try and introduce you to partners that are not so rich in relations.”

“I hope you are not exaggerating,” he replied, “but I must make a note of the fact that personal remarks are out of court according to Cousin Lenore's order.”

“Laugh as much as you like; you will find out, perhaps, to your cost, the truth of my words!” retorted Lenore.

At the conclusion of the dance the whole party, with the exception of Bertie, returned to Mrs. Dayton's corner, where had now collected, with their mothers, Amy Brooke, Mabel Ellett, and several other girls.

“Here is Callagan Frye. Prepare yourselves for torture!” said Miss Brooke in a whisper.

“Mark the confidence!” cried Mabel, as he came nearer with, the satisfied smile of conceit on his face. After bowing to Mrs. Dayton, he turned to the two girls, all the others having retreated, and asked for their programmes, putting down his name for two dances on each.

“Audacity thy name is, man—a man that fondly imagines he can dance and can't, and no snub in this world will make him believe so. I pity our toes when he is done with them, Ellie, if nothing worse happen!” cried Lenore indignantly, as Mr. Frye turned away.

“What a pity he does not hear your flattering remarks!” laughed her cousin.

“I wish he did without hurting his feelings,” said Ellie, for his dancing is simply execrable, and he believes it divine, though he does not know a step properly.”

“He comes to you two,” remarked Mary, placidly, “because you are good-natured. He gets plenty of snubs in other quarters of the room, if I know the girls here to night.”

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“And that is not all,” went on Lenore, to Captain Deering. “Did you notice anything wonderful about him?–anything that recalled a famous man in history to your remembrance? No! Not the Duke of Wellington? Pray don't tell Mr. Frye you see no resemblance between him and the portrait of the Duke of Wellington, or you are his enemy ever after; for on that point he is particularly sensitive—more so than on the dancing.”

“You can scarcely believe it, but he is one of the finest tenor singers in Auckland. He belongs to the Choral Society,” said Miss Brooke, in her soft affected voice.

“There goes one of my illusions,” replied the Captain. “I always fancied musical people had an air of the divine art about them. And what a name for a man that has a likeness to the ‘Iron Duke!’ ”

“He is the Duke of Wellington minus the brains,” returned Amy.

“The poor young man can't help being a bad dancer, Lenore. It won't hurt you to dance one or two with him,” said kindly Mrs. Dayton.

“If he were not so conceited he could learn,” and as the band struck up again there was a general dispersion.

“It is our dance now, Miss Balmain,” said Captain Deering to the half-caste, who was languidly fanning herself.

“There seems to be a mixed assemblage here to-night,” remarked the soldier after a pause, and looking round the room.

“Indeed,” she said, coldly. He was a little surprised at the quick change of tone.

“Yes, don't you think so? You ought to know better than I.”

“I have not observed anything out of the common. I suppose the whole affair to you is tame, and what might be termed countrified after the elegance and refinements of English entertainments,” she said, page 57 almost irritably, and in a repressed tone of voice. Lenore's prophecy, Mary thought to herself, was about to come to pass, and this soldier was going to try to patronize them.

“Do you imagine, then, that every entertainment I have ever attended has been elegant and refined?–those are the expressions you used,” he cried, smiling down at her, determined not to be annoyed.

“I am not in a position to judge; but if all be true that Mrs. Gardiner and others of her kind tell us, I should be inclined to think so,” still coldness in her voice.

“Indeed, you mistake me entirely if you fancy I intended to slight anyone here, or made any attempt to patronize the dance in any way. I cannot imagine how such an interpretation could be put upon my words—but we are losing the dance,” he added, as couple after couple swept past them.

Round and round they went to the dreamy music that sounded as if the air were being wafted across the waters from some passing vessel. To the half-caste dancing came as naturally as singing—and was enjoyed to an extent only known to such natures as hers—the languorous, dreamy motion becoming the graceful figure as none other could. At the conclusion, Captain Deering took her back to Mrs. Dayton, with the consciousness that somehow a mistake had been made, though quite unintentional on his part.

Mary's coldness was made up to him by the pleasantness of his other partners, Amy Brooke, Mabel Ellett, and half-a-dozen others making much of this frank, gallant officer, in their own charming way.

The evening wore on, and he found himself again at Mrs. Dayton's side, where Lenore had already betaken herself. Mrs. Gardiner, seeing them all together, bore down upon them in all the majesty of a black satin dress and a portly figure, and with a sweet smile turned to Captain Deering.

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“I hope you manage to enjoy yourself. It must seem to you a little dull after your experiences in the world.”

The soldier caught the scornful smile on Mary's face, she having just come up and heard Mrs. Gardiner's remark.

“Not at all, Mrs. Gardiner. I am enjoying myself thoroughly,” he replied, eagerly.

“Of course you are too kind to say otherwise, but I know the difference well.” She was afraid he might imagine she was a Colonial born and bred.

Her attention now turned to Lenore.

“Will you please play an extra for us, Miss Dayton? and save us from the tender mercies of Miss Ellett, who, when she consents to favour us, starts at breakneck speed; and then, just as the dancers are beginning to wonder what the matter is, the music suddenly ceases.”

“Certainly,” said Lenore, briefly, to this tirade, and allowing herself to be carried off in triumph.

“May I have the pleasure of this dance, Miss Balmain?” asked Captain Deering of Mary.

“I am engaged to Mr. Willerton,” she answered.

This young man glanced at his defeated rival with what the other imagined was triumph, though there was not the slightest foundation for the assumption. But young men in love, or on the way to it, are apt to imagine others to be in the same state of mind as themselves.

“Let me sit and talk to you, Aunt Marion, and rest awhile,” he said, taking a vacant seat beside Mrs. Dayton.

From their position they had an excellent view of the dancers, who were already promenading to Lenore's music. Fair Colonial lasses, British maidens with dainty colour on their cheeks, and a sprinkling of dark faces gave variety to the scene; but amongst them all Mary Balmain's dusky head and brilliant eyes found no rival. There was justice in her unique page 59 position. She was on the soil trodden by her ancestors for generations; they were aliens—the product of another hemisphere. Lenore, with her usual intuitive power, had predicted that her cousin would be charmed by Mary and Mary alone, and she was right. There were really beautiful faces and forms before him—many of Ellie's type, and one especially lovely, a girl with wonderful dark eyes, rich warm bloom, regular features, the silkiest of black hair, and the most perfectly symmetrical form; but it was Mary, attired in a creamy gown of satin, with a diamond star in her hair, like a great, dark rose rising from a bank of primroses, that fascinated him to the exclusion of all others.

“It is a scene worth looking at, is it not, Leslie? and one quite new to you,” Mrs. Dayton said at last.

“It is indeed.” His eyes were following the diamond star and dark head.

“Mary looks well to-night, does she not?”

“Magnificent!” he answered, all attention. “She seems to dress in a style peculiar to herself, but very becoming.”

“Did you observe the diamond star in her hair?” asked Mrs. Dayton.

“Yes.” What had he not noticed!

“She values that, and a ring she always wears, very highly, because they were left to her by her father.”

“Indeed. By-the-bye, who was her father, Aunt Marion? I have heard of her mother, but not of her father,” he said.

“It is strange you have not heard us speak of him. Mary's father was a soldier, General Balmain, and, I believe, a man of excellent family. There are many stories told about him, though people are beginning to forget now, but one can hardly believe them all. He left his daughter a considerable fortune,” said Mrs. Dayton.

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“Stories? What kind of stories?” he queried.

“None that were exactly to his discredit,” she replied. “But some sorrow sent him out to the Colonies with his temper so soured that the less he saw of his kind the better he was pleased. He lived a lonely, recluse life away in the north of this province, with not a white face within ten miles. All his servants were Maoris, who had a terrible dread of him, and in the end he married a chief's daughter, who left him, after two years of married life, for her own people.”

“What did he do with his time?” asked the Captain.

“That is a mystery. Some say he had a laboratory, and frightened the Maoris—who are superstitious, you know—out of their lives with his experiments; others say he dabbled in the occult sciences; but whatever it was no one will ever know except Mr. Morgan, who discovered it from the papers left for Mary, and he and his wife kept the secret.”

“What strange histories could be written on tombstones in this new country, if it were customary to do such a thing,” said Captain Deering, slowly.

“That is true,” assented Mrs. Dayton. “Mary is the finest half-caste I have ever seen, and we have several amongst our acquaintances. One half-caste, married to a gentleman of considerable wealth, is one of the finest musicians I have ever heard. Many of them cannot overcome a certain inherited wildness of manner, even although they may possess every advantage of training and education.”

“How then do you account for Miss Balmain's repose and perfect breeding?” asked her nephew.

“I confess I often feel puzzled over Mary myself. No doubt her isolation from children of her own age, and the constant intercourse with the missionary, Mr. Wilson, combined with the influence of late years with a man of Mr. Morgan's learning, may page 61 account for her great superiority over others less favoured.”

“Who is the gentleman that took her for the extra?” he asked.

“Mr. Willerton. He is the son of an old friend of Mr. Dayton's.”

“I see Miss Balmain does not like Mrs. Gardiner,” he observed after a pause.

“No, neither does Lenore. They are both hypersensitive about disparaging remarks with regard to the Colonies; and they both resent a patronizing manner in any stranger. Mrs. Gardiner, I must say, gives them plenty of food for resentment,” replied Mrs. Dayton.

The evening was wearing on. The corridors grew more and more in request, and the dancing hall on this warm December night was becoming more than comfortable. Many were beginning to look fatigued, and faces more or less flushed. But there was no abatement in the mirth; round and round went the dancers, as if weariness were to them unknown.

The last dance but one on the programme Captain Deering had reserved for himself on Mary's card, and on his appearance to claim it, he was pleased to notice all her previous coldness was forgotten, or that she had thought better of it.

In the middle of the dance she stopped to rest, and her partner, noticing the heat of the room, led her out to the corridor, now almost deserted.

“Oh, how refreshing it is out here!” as the cool breeze from the street was wafted in upon them. “I wasn't aware the room was so warm,” she exclaimed.

“Let us walk up and down for a little while—it is rather draughty standing here,” he said.

Captain Deering did not know why, but the presence of this girl always cut short the commonplaces to which he was accustomed. He—a man of the world—felt something akin to awkwardness before page 62 her transparent, truthful nature, and recognized the fact that the trivialities of fashionable society were out of place in connection with her. She was quite unconscious of her own power, of her brilliant, opulent beauty, of her fascination; or, if she were aware of her gifts, they evoked in her no pride in their possession. She was a child in the garb of a woman.

“Do you know, Miss Balmain,” he said, looking down at the splendour of the dark eyes, and the clear-cut face, “you remind me of a picture I once saw of Cleopatra. I have observed the resemblance several times, but Lenore will not have it so. I hope you will not deem it presumptuous on my part,” remembering the offence he had given before.

“No, I do not mind. In one sense it is complimentary, and in another the reverse. But you forget that Cleopatra is credited with having possessed red hair,” she said.

“I don't believe it. The picture in which I saw her, portrayed the typical Egyptian—splendid dark eyes, dark olive skin, black hair—the same as you are to-night,” he cried, with admiration in his eyes, of which she was unconscious, but the tone of his voice moved her in a way she did not understand.

“I may possibly remind you in some way of the picture, because I am so dark, but in no other way am I in the slightest degree to be compared with the Egyptian for whom Marc Antony threw away a world. I have no heroism in me to die by the sting of an asp of my own free will, and with a fierce delight in the action. To read of such things frightens me; how much less could I perform them!” and she shivered slightly, as if the cold breath of the long, lonely years to come had passed over her.

“Let us hope, Miss Balmain, that your future life may be as happy and free from care as now. Stormy scenes and terrible experiences will be far from your path in these well-regulated days,” he said, gently.

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“Let us go in to Mrs. Dayton,” she said, after a loner pause, a shadow having fallen on them. “I think it must be nearly time to go home.”

They found Lenore—who was looking tired and sad, for her—with Mrs. Dayton, while Bertie joined them almost at the same time, as bright as if the evening had just begun.

“Let us go home now, mamma, if you are willing, Mary. There is but one dance more, and by going now we shall avoid the crush,” said Lenore.

“What is the matter with you, dear? You have tired yourself out,” remarked the mother, kindly.

“No, I am not particularly tired. But I agree with Mrs. Morgan that the Grammar School dance is not as nice as it used to be,” she answered, dully.

Mrs. Dayton said no more. She saw that either her daughter was not well, or something was the matter, and so was silent, wise woman that she was.

“I am ready when you are, Lenore, and think it a good suggestion on your part. We shall avoid delay and get away in comfort,” said Mary.

“Bertie, please find Ellie, and bring her to the cloak-room,” and Mrs. Dayton led the way from the ball-room.

When they were all ready for the homeward drive, and were walking down the corridor, Lenore turned to her brother.

“Are you going to walk home, Bert?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Because I think it will do me good to take a walk in the fresh air after that close room, and I am in the mood,” she returned.

“All right. Leslie, you had better take Lenore's place in the carriage, unless you would prefer walking,” said Bertie.

“Thank you, I will ride,” answered the Captain, and after helping in the girls and Mrs. Dayton, the carriage drove off.

The Grammar School dance was ended, for that page 64 year at least; and two of those who had taken part in its mirth will never see its walls again, and the shadow is on them now!

Lenore and her brother trudged on at a good pace, her weariness and depression lessening at every step in the pure fresh breeze from the water. Bertie was eagerly explaining the points of disagreement between the Parnell Cricket Club, to which he belonged, and a rival in Ponsonby, the suburb at the west end of the town; and she tried to take her usual interest in her brother's affairs. But every now and again, she found herself thinking of the stillness, and almost solemnity of the night, so doubly apparent after the glare and stir of the ballroom. The great shadows of the trees, whose leaves scarcely fluttered in the calm air, the soft, pale radiance of the moon as it brought into relief the tall bare cone of Rangitoto and the hills around; the glittering, silvery mass of water below fading into the dark curves of the cliffs; and the great canopy of heaven, clear and cloudless under Luna's mystic beams—all contributed to a picture of entrancing loveliness. Lenore felt her heart swelling with a consciousness of the beneficence and power of the Great Creator, and a keen enjoyment of the beauty of the scene, which appealed to her artistic eye.

How calm it was! A soft, balmy breeze gently stirred the leaves of the trees, and fanned her hot cheeks, bearing the resinous odour of a plantation of pines. As they walked on, every step taking them nearer the water's edge, the vista increased in beauty and extent, and the harbour lay before them a great sheet of moving silver, bounded by rolling cliffs and titanic shadows.

All was still as they neared the house, everyone having retired, but the hall door had been left unlocked for the two stragglers.

“I don't think you enjoyed yourself much, page 65 Lenore,” said Bertie, kindly, and in a whisper (Lenore was his favourite sister). “You cannot be well. Take a good sleep, and you'll be right in the morning. Good-night!”

“Good-night, Bertie,” she answered, her eyes filling with tears. Somehow the consideration in his tone affected her strangely; natures like hers are always keenly alive to sympathy.

When she was safely in her own room, she took off her hat and wraps, and made her way to the window, through which the tender moonlight entered, making patches on the floor.

Kneeling down on a little low stool, always kept there, she gazed far away to the distant hills that bounded the horizon, thinking of many things alone with her own soul.

“I wish I knew—I wish I knew. It is all so dark and uncertain to me,” she said half aloud, giving utterance to her thoughts.

And then kneeling down by the bedside she prayed, “O God, help Thy servant to know Thee as Thou art,” the moonlight making a halo on the bowed head.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”