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

Chapter VI. Mary's Confession

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Chapter VI. Mary's Confession.

On the Friday evening following the Grammar School dance, and a few days before Christmas Day, the Choral Society gave their annual rendering of The Messiah, in which Ellie and Mary both took a prominent part.

All the elders went in Mr. Morgan's carriage, the young people as usual walking. The party, however, kept well together; therefore Captain Deering found small opportunity for conversation with Miss Balmain; and at the hall door they separated, the two girls entering at the side, and the others at the main door.

Mr. Morgan had kept seats for the two cousins—Bertie joining the Brookes—and the party placed themselves in the following order: Mr. Dayton, Mr. Morgan, Lenore, Captain Deering, Mrs. Morgan, Mrs. Dayton.

The hall was filling fast with a fashionable audience from the town and suburbs; and the Captain observed many faces that he had especially noticed the week before. As yet, however, the performers were not to be seen.

“Where is Mr. Everard?” asked Mr. Morgan. “I understood he was to join our party.”

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A flush rose to Lenore's face; but, nevertheless, she answered quietly enough.

“I do not know. I heard nothing of his coming.”

“You must make Mr. Everard's acquaintance,” went on Mr. Morgan, turning his face in Captain Deering's direction. “He is an intimate friend of all of us, although he is almost a stranger in Auckland. You tell your cousin who he is, Lenore.”

“Mr. Everard is a Church of England minister whose views are too broad to hold a living in any diocese. I don't exactly understand what the points of difference are; but I know that he preaches in churches of any denomination—Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist are all one to him. He has been in Auckland nine months,” explained Lenore in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Is that all! You don't give him half a character, child. I thought you would do it better than I. Mr. Everard is a man of independent fortune, which he spends liberally amongst the poor of this town, and who is always to be found for the sick and needy. He is of the muscular Christianity type, and belongs to cricket and lawn tennis clubs, in which he is a crack man,” cried Mr. Morgan.

“You will hear plenty about him before long, Leslie,” supplemented Lenore, “for there is not a more prominent figure, nor one more talked about than he is at present—in this town at least.”

“It is strange I have not yet met him, when he is so friendly with you all,” remarked Captain Deering.

“He has been up in the north,” said Lenore, “or else you would have seen him at the house. Papa thinks very highly of him.”

But all eyes were now turned on the stage, to which the performers were now slowly making their way, and almost filling the seats that rose tier after tier nearly to the ceiling. The majority were quite young—here and there appearing a matronly figure—and all dressed in simple evening costume. The page 68 professional air was totally lacking; it did not take great observation to tell that the members of the Choral Society were nearly all amateurs.

There was a short interval, during which instruments were tuned, leaves turned, books opened, and a general air of getting ready pervaded the whole stage.

Mr. Morgan turned to Lenore.

“I saw you walking from town yesterday with that young Willerton. Take an old friend's advice, child, and don't let his opinions influence you. He is young yet, and there is good stuff in him, but a little more humility in speaking of sacred things would be more becoming. My belief has been matured after years of patient study into the writings of men, who have made it the purpose of their life to examine into the origin and development of religion, and from thought on my own part. This young man merely attended a few of Gerald Massey's lectures, read some of his works, and others of Robert Buchanan's, and now imagines he knows all that is to be known upon theology. You see the difference?”

“Yes, I knew it before, Mr. Morgan. I dislike his levity myself; but you must admit that considering he is little more than a boy, he is fairly well read,” said Lenore.

“I admit it, but not in works that allow of the confidence he betrays,” returned Mr. Morgan.

The conductor's baton now sounded, and Handel's masterpiece was begun. As chorus, solo, recitative succeeded one another, Captain Deering, accustomed as he was to the performances of stars in the musical world, could not but acknowledge to himself that the rendering of this Antipodal society was really creditable.

Mr. Frye contributed a tenor solo in excellent style, despite the fact that he resembled the portrait of the Duke of Wellington. The leading soprano page 69 was a married lady, with a beautiful, flexible voice, but who could be rarely induced to sing in public, and whose appearance always gave real pleasure to musical connoisseurs of the city. But he had heard this magnificent tribute to the “Man of sorrows” many times before, and by gifted artistes; but he had not heard a solo by Mary Balmain, and for this he anxiously waited.

At last the half-caste stepped forth with another young lady by her side, who sang in a deep, well-trained voice, “He shall lead.” How charming she looked so far above him! How simple and unaffected! There was not a trace of nervousness in her manner, neither was there self-confidence. She wore a white gown—probably the one he had so admired the day he lunched at her uncle's house—with two crimson roses—red was the colour of her side of the chorus—at her throat, and white gloves on her hands. No jewellery destroyed the effect of the rare simplicity of her costume. Her companion was of the same type of womanhood as herself, but of an austerer cast, lacking the richness, the brilliance, the depth of tint, which made the half-caste so lovely.

Softly and slowly the orchestra performed the symphony; and then from the girl's throat poured forth a stream of melody that penetrated to the furthest recesses of the hall without the slightest effort. The full, pure notes came as natural from Mary Balmain's throat as song from the lark. To Captain Deering it seemed as though the words had never struck him with such force as now. “He was despised and rejected of men; a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,” sang the sweet voice. A vision rose before his eyes of the patient, lowly Nazarene, the pattern and teacher of all Christian peoples, and whose very experience of sorrows draws us into greater sympathy with Him. But he felt that the man, Christ Jesus, was not in Mary's thoughts. She merely sang, in perfectly correct page 70 style, a piece of music from Handel's sublime oratorio of The Messiah, which pleased her ear in its arrangement, gratifying her sense of the beautiful, but the spirit of the words and music finding no answering chord in her soul. Her rendering might affect others, and deeply; but herself its meaning failed to touch. To Lenore, the Saviour, stripped of the dogma and creeds by which His personality is surrounded, was an intense reality; to Mary He was a dim figure of the past, who influenced neither her imagination nor reason.

At the conclusion of the solo Captain Deering gave a sigh of satisfaction—the picture had charmed him, and he had caught a half smile on the half-caste's face that he hoped was intended for him. His interest was now centred in Ellie, whose solo followed very shortly after Mary had sat down.

She stepped forward alone. There was a slight trace of nervousness in her manner, but not enough to render the audience uncomfortable. She was, like the half-caste, in pure white, with the daintiest bit of blue tulle at her throat and a few forget-me-nots in her hair—blue is the colour of the soprani.

Never had her cousin seen Ellie Dayton look so pure, so spirituelle, or the delicate oval face and clear, colourless skin to such advantage. After the opulence and brilliance of Mary's appearance, this delicate subdued beauty seemed the more striking by contrast, as a lily appears purer by the side of a damask rose. With a pang, Captain Deering in that moment realized the chasm that lay between the two girls. But it was a transitory thought that was soon swept away in the intensity of his passion.

If the half-caste represented the embodiment of the exuberance and superb colouring of the tropical regions, Ellie Dayton no less bore upon her the imprint of the temperate zone—the theatre of man's noblest efforts and highest ideals. The one represented passion, the other purity and the self-control developed through generations of ancestors.

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Ellie's voice, too, had little resemblance to Mary's fuller tones. It possessed a peculiar soothing quality, which, added to its great flexibility and bell-like purity, made its owner a great favourite with the general public.

The religious feeling lacking in Mary's rendering of her solo was now apparent, and penetrated to the mind of the dullest. “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things.”

Captain Deering glanced at his companions. Lenore leant a little forward, drinking in the words and the sense as if entranced, while Mr. Morgan sat upright, with an intense earnestness on his face that softened its harsh outline. In his glance the soldier was struck by a resemblance—fleeting as it was—between the expression on his cousin's face and on that of Mr. Morgan. It was gone in an instant, and on looking again he convinced himself that his fancy played him tricks.

At the conclusion of the oratorio, the whole party gathered—with the addition of several friends—in the ante-room, where everybody talked, and nearly all at once.

“Auntie, may I walk home instead of driving? I should prefer it, the night is so lovely,” said Mary.

It had been settled that she was to drive home in the carriage, Mr. Dayton walking with his daughters.

“Certainly, if you wish, dear,” answered gentle Mrs. Morgan. “Wrap up well.”

So Mary and Captain Deering, as if by common consent, walked slowly on, followed by Lenore and Mr. Everard—the latter had arrived at the Choral Hall too late to join the Morgans and Daytons, and had been obliged to take a seat far behind—with a whole party in the rear.

For some time the two spoke commonplaces, until during a pause in the conversation, Captain Deering referred to the concert.

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“I don't think, Miss Balmain, I ever heard the solo you took to-night sung so well before—at least it never made such an impression on me, that I can remember.”

“Indeed? I am glad you liked my singing,” she answered, simply. “What do you think of our society now?”

“It is really a credit to your city. Some of the voices are very fine, and well-trained, and the choruses are especially good; but, of course, one cannot expect from a society composed of amateurs the same results as from professionals. I am sure you are too honest to desire me to flatter,” he said.

“That will do for an opinion. We have not fallen in your estimation, I am glad to find; and we do not require flattering,” she answered, mockingly.

He detected something new in her—a subtle mocking more dangerous by far than her former gentle reserve and dignity, and yet so veiled that he felt rather than heard it.

After a long pause, she went on slowly and distinctly–

“I have thought over what you said last week about my resemblance to a picture you once saw of Cleopatra, and I am not sure whether you are aware that I am a—half-caste” (she hesitated for one instant before uttering the last word)–“that is, my mother is a Maori.”

Had his companion started to dance or anything else out of the ordinary run of things, Captain Deering could not have been more surprised and embarrassed. “What will she say next?” he thought, half angry with her.

“Yes, I know it,” he said, gently. In spite of his annoyance he felt admiration for the girl's honest avowal of her birth. There was no false pride in Mary Balmain.

“Yes!” she went on, rapidly. “You will find some half-castes who are ashamed to acknowledge their page 73 own mother, and who will pass her in the street as the veriest stranger, should acquaintances be with them. There is a girl in Auckland who was married a short time ago, and actually did not invite her mother to the wedding because she happened to be a Maori. This same mother is a handsome woman—handsomer than her half-caste daughter—and quite ladylike in her manners—of course comparatively speaking. What do you think of daughters such as these?” she asked, and he could hear the note of repressed passion in her voice.

He felt uncomfortable. For his part he could not find it in his heart to blame what was not the fault of the children, but their father's; but on the other hand he could not say so to this girl at his side. So he compromised.

“It is hard to judge, Miss Balmain, until one knows the circumstances; probably then we should give them our sympathy,” he said.

“There is no circumstance or circumstances whatever that can excuse them—nothing at all. I am surprised, Captain Deering, that you should take the part of such unnatural daughters,” said the soft voice, indignantly.

“No, hardly that, Miss Balmain; I meant to say that their training and education may have been sadly defective, and you must acknowledge that we can hardly hold them responsible for what is a misfortune and not a fault,” he answered, at a loss.

“There are some people,” she went on, not heeding his remark, and speaking in a strange, hesitating tone, “that have a strong prejudice against half-castes” (again the hesitation at the last word), “and perhaps you are one of them.”

He was startled. What was her motive for the question? He could not but doubt that she had one.

“I have no prejudice whatever, of that you may be assured, Miss Balmain—you forget that I am a stranger, only Colonials entertain the prejudice you page 74 refer to. Anyone that knew you could not regard you with aught but admiration,” he cried, warmly, and so engrossed was he in the conversation with his companion that he had not observed that they had passed Mr. Dayton's house, and were now close to the carriage entrance of the point. Mary had noticed it, however, and in a half-mocking voice she said–

“What have I been saying? Why did you allow me to go on with such nonsense? Who could regard me with aught but admiration?” she queried, repeating his own words and bowing mockingly at the same time. Before he could collect himself she had opened the gate, and was in the drive.

“Enchantress!” he called out.

“Good-night!” she returned, and from the shadow of the house appeared Mr. Morgan, who had been waiting for his niece on the verandah, and had heard the sound of approaching voices.

What sleepless care! With what loving attention he hedges this girl from all trouble and annoyance! Truly her lot is cast in pleasant places.

Captain Deering turned to meet his cousin and the rest of the family with his thoughts full of his late companion and her sudden changes of humour—her mockery, her reserve, her simplicity. The toils of the enchantress were being wound about him, but as yet he saw nothing of them. To him she was a new study of which he knew merely the ABC, her brilliant beauty and subtle fascination attracting him with irresistible force.

At the gate halted Lenore and Mr. Everard, and as her cousin approached she spoke.

“Let me make you two gentlemen acquainted. Mr. Morgan was speaking of you to my cousin tonight, Mr. Everard, and saying that you must meet one another. Captain Deering—Mr. Everard.”

From the darkness came the sound of the minister's voice.

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“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Captain Deering; you are a visitor here like myself.”

“Then you do not intend to make your residence in the Colonies?” asked the Captain.

“No; I am merely taking a holiday. I shall leave Auckland at the beginning of next year, if all be well,” he answered.

Mr. Dayton and Ellie, who had lingered talking to their friends, now came up.

“Is that you, Mr. Everard? Oh! I see it is,” cried Mr. Dayton in his hearty tones. “Come in for awhile, and have supper.”

“Not to-night, thank you. It is rather late for visiting,” he said.

“If Mr. Everard will not come in with us, we had better say good-night, papa,” remarked Lenore.

After shaking hands, and a hearty invitation for a speedy visit, the Daytons and their cousin turned to go to the house, leaving the minister standing at the gate. He leaned his arms upon it, and seemed lost in thought as he gazed upon the fast receding figures that appeared grotesque in the darkness. The sound of the door closing startled him a little, so still and calm was the night. With a shake, he turned and walked rapidly away.

Mary's room was as distinctive of her personality as Lenore's was of hers—as great a difference as between the characters of the two girls. The latter adhered to almost severe simplicity, considering her artistic temperament, while Mary delighted in luxuries. Her room was large, facing the upper end of the harbour, and though elegantly furnished, its appointments suited the climate. Instead of a carpet covering the floor, soft rugs were laid here and there, a brass bedstead stood in one corner, and two or three luxurious chairs with soft cushions were placed in different parts of the room. The duchesse dressing-table, of beautifully mottled kauri, was covered with elegant trifles of all descriptions, and page 76 on a small table stood a lamp that emitted a subdued light. Mary, herself in a long white dressing-gown, leaned back idly in a long, low chair like an eastern houri that had found herself in an English home.

The expression on her face was peculiar—half triumphant, half uncertain, and yet wholly child-like.

Her thoughts were running on her walk home with the Daytons' English cousin, and ran in this wise–

“He knows now who I am, and I am sure he thinks none the less of me. I wonder if I did right? Surely yes!”

She rose and walked in front of a wardrobe with a long mirror, and gazed long and earnestly at her own reflection.

“What do I care whether I am beautiful or not? I used not to care about it, but I do now—he is so gentle and kind.”

The beginning of the end! Mr. Morgan may keep his sleepless watch on his darling to save her the sorrows of this life; but it is beyond him. Like Undine, the half-caste has found her soul—for what!