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

Chapter VII. Mr. Everard

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Chapter VII. Mr. Everard.

The next day (Saturday) was calm and bright, rather warm if anything, but the summer was now advancing with rapid strides, as if to make up for lost time, and her influence was of the warm, sunny regions of the south.

Captain Deering had now come to understand that the afternoon of this day was to the Auckland public a sort of half-holiday, on which fathers and brothers would take their share in any amusements going on—lawn tennis parties, garden parties, afternoon teas, and so on. At any rate the suburbs and town on Saturday afternoon presented a totally different appearance to that of any other day of the week, what with riding parties, cricket matches, and groups of both sexes with racquets in their hands, or else on their way to some other diversion.

On this particular Saturday afternoon Mrs. Morgan gave a small lawn tennis party, to which, of course, all the younger members of the Dayton family were invited; the elders having an engagement in another direction.

There were none present that Captain Deering had not met before, with the exception of the minister, Mr. Everard, to whom he felt a certain attraction page 78 from what he had heard the previous evening; the darkness, when Lenore introduced them, preventing him from seeing little more than the outline of Mr. Everard's figure. In the broad daylight the two men could judge of one another's merits from their own particular standpoint.

The minister was by no means tall, but so perfectly proportioned that he gave the impression of being much taller than he really was. The vigorous frame, the broad chest and shoulders, the upright carriage, and the lofty poise of the well-shaped head, covered with close, wavy, black hair, would anywhere mark Mr. Everard as no ordinary man, though side by side with Mr. Morgan he showed to less advantage.

There was an air of dignity about his personality, and a gentle reserve in his manner, that commanded respect from all with whom he came in contact; and at the same time his rare charm of manner—invaluable to him—combined with an almost intuitive sympathy, attracted the love and admiration of diverse classes of people.

His voice exercised the same power that belonged to Mary Balmain's—though in a different sense—and seemed capable of expressing every variety of emotion. This gift was one secret—apart from the real solid merit of his addresses—of his power over the public of Auckland.

Mr. Everard gained the confidence, and through it, an influence over the young men of the town, by his love of such sports as cricket, football, tennis, and did not think it beneath his dignity to join them at their games. He also appealed to the best instincts as well as the interests of the working classes by his homely, practical talks on all that nearly concerned their present and future condition.

Captain Deering, of course, did not observe all the above in Mr. Everard's face, but what he did see was a handsome, dignified gentleman—in the truest sense of the word—that impressed him most page 79 favourably, and one that he felt it was an honour to call friend.

Mr. Morgan's lawn tennis ground was well down in the hollow facing the lower end of the harbour, which had the rounded appearance of a lake from that point of view, enclosed as it was by Rangitito and the island near it, and by Orakei. A few trees, natives of the New Zealand forest, were planted on its southern side, and, on a gentle rising, stood a rustic summer house, now covered with a cloth of gold rose in full bloom. Seats and garden chairs were carelessly placed here and there for the benefit of those who did not come for the game, or for the elders of the party.

Lenore and Mr. Willerton, against Amy Brooke and Mr. Everard, started lawn tennis at once, while Captain Deering posted himself near Mary Balmain, who sat indolently in a garden chair, half in and half out of the summer house.

“Do you not play, Miss Balmain?” he asked.

“A little, and only when a set has to be made up, but they are always glad to get rid of me, I play so badly. It makes me feel warm even to look at Lenore rushing about in the hot sun. Look at her now!–and acting as if her life depended on making a good score.”

He turned in the direction of the players. Mary was right; his cousin seemed to be throwing all her energies into the game, playing brilliantly, but warily, and betraying in her face subdued eagerness. Captain Deering imagined it was merely an anxiety to win, but the reason lay deeper in the girl's heart—to her, success or defeat was an omen.

“Somehow, Miss Balmain,” he said, slowly, removing his eyes from the players, and leaning negligently on the back of her chair, “you remind me of a calm summer's night when I see you in certain poses; and now, though it is a bright, sunny day, the same thought comes to me, You have all page 80 the repose and calmness of night, and your dark style of beauty heightens the effect.”

She smiled at his praise, the form of which was new to her; indeed, flattery of any kind was not very familiar to this girl, reared in a small town under the Southern Cross, and she scarcely knew what to do with it.

“My presence must act as a stimulus to your imagination,” she cried, with a little ripple of laughter; “you have likened me to so many beautiful things—not to speak of Cleopatra,” a glance of mockery coming into her eyes.

“It is not fair of you, Miss Balmain, to laugh at me for what you yourself are responsible,” Captain Deering objected.

“Speaking of a summer's night,” went on Mary, not heeding her companion's last remark, “we must get up a riding party, such as we have here often at this season of the year, but, of course, it must be a moonlight evening.”

“Then you like riding?” he commented.

“Oh, yes! I never get tired of cantering on a good horse on a level road, and with a breeze blowing in my face I feel free and light as a bird,” she answered, her eyes brightening with the prospect her own words had called up.

“Are you not free sitting there?” he cried, laughingly. “One would think to hear you speak that you carried a burden too difficult to bear, which is hardly the case.”

“You can scarcely understand from words what I feel, though it is very real to me. It seems as though the world and everything connected with it passes from my memory, and I am in another atmosphere, where nothing troubles, and where thought is dead, and yet in which every pulse is keenly alive to the pure fresh air, the rapid motion, the beautiful expanse of country. You must not laugh at my page 81 description, please; it is the truth,” as she caught the smile on his face.

“That is something after the style of an Indian's dream of the next world, minus the hunting.” He stopped short, thinking probably she might deem it a reference to her antecedents; but she was serenely smiling, and the import of his remark passed unnoticed.

“What are you two concocting here?” cried Mabel Ellett at their side. “You look as solemn as two owls.”

“It is too warm, Mabel, to be very gay; effort is required for that, you know,” replied Mary, lazily.

“Miss Balmain's plot is a very pleasant one, not a characteristic of such things in general, Miss Ellett,” said Captain Deering, in explanation. “She has been proposing a riding party on a moon-light night—in the near future, I suppose.”

“How delightful!” cried Mabel. “We have not had one this summer, the season has been so late. I wonder when these people are going to finish that game? Oh! there they are, and Lenore is beaten!”

“I wanted to win that game from you, Mr. Everard, and I have failed,” said Lenore, with the slightest trace of disappointment in her tone, as she sauntered to where her cousin and Mary were sitting.

“You see it is impossible,” he answered, lightly. “I also wished to win, because whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well. You are one of the best players of your sex I was ever matched against.”

“Thank you,” returned the girl, mockingly; “that is a little like the comfort given by the champion Beach to his rival Hanlan, who came half a length behind on the Paramatta river.”

“Won't you play a game now, Miss Balmain?” asked the Captain.

“No, not to-day—it is so pleasant here in the shade. I have no desire to get heated and tired in page 82 that hot sun—like you, for instance, Lenore,” turning in that young lady's direction.

“Oh, we all know Mary is not one of the most industrious girls to be found,” remarked Miss Brooke, in a tone meant to be pleasant, and yet with a covert sneer. She was not at all pleased that Captain Deering should devote himself so assiduously to Mary Balmain to the exclusion of herself.

“What, may I ask, Miss Brooke, would you term industry?” asked Mr. Morgan, who had just come up in time to hear the last remark, and whose voice was particularly suave for him.

“Oh, one that practises music and lawn tennis every day, and that—Oh, you know better than I do, Mr. Morgan,” said Amy, a little discomposed and a little pert. She had not expected her host, of whom she was secretly afraid, to answer her shaft.

There was a general merriment at Amy's expense. She was not a favourite with many, who, nevertheless, invited her to their homes, not for her own sake, but because her father and mother were universally respected—kindly, conscientious people.

“I think after that, Mary, you may consider yourself a pattern of diligence, considering the qualifications for the position are so simple,” exclaimed Lenore.

“I have no desire to be regarded as industrious,” remarked Mary, placidly.

“Well, if you will not play, Mary,” broke in Ellie, “we shall have to form a set without you.”

“I am ready,” cried Bertie.

“So am I,” exclaimed Miss Ellett, and all four left their predecessors in the game to talk and rest as they chose.

“I can't agree with you, Queen Mary” (this was Lenore's pet name for her friend, and which of late had been adopted by Mr. Morgan). “I am a staunch believer in industry so far as it signifies perseverance. page 83 It is of more value than brilliance, and nearly equal to genius.”

“I think the man who is enthusiastic can also perform great things; indeed, we have evidences in this world of ours of what it is capable,” said Mr. Everard, slowly.

“Yes,” put in Mr. Morgan, “a certain amount is essential to the character of great men, but, when strongly developed, it is oftener the accompaniment of genius than perseverance; and, though necessary to the leaders of all great movements, is apt to lead its possessor into the grotesque. Perseverance to me conveys an idea of plodding, which is incompatible with enthusiasm, a characteristic more of heart than head.”

“It always seems strange to me,” said Mary, after a pause, in her slowest, sweetest voice, and with eyes half closed, “that people talk so proudly of the civilization and reforms of the nineteenth century, and yet that which they desire above all things escapes the greater number of people to-day. You must acknowledge, Mr. Everard, that to find a happy man we must resort to the old cynic's light. As civilization increases, happiness decreases.”

At the words of the half-caste, Mr. Everard saw a shadow steal over his host's face, as Captain Deering had observed on a former occasion. But the minister guessed its cause, not only from his own profound experience amongst all classes of people, but from the knowledge he had acquired, since his arrival, of the qualities of the Maori race. He saw the nobility of character as well as the limitations, and also the great physical beauty of the girl plainly; but saw her defects much more clearly than Mr. Morgan, who was to a certain extent blinded by love, and Captain Deering, by her loveliness and his own superficial knowledge of human nature.

He, therefore, replied gently–

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“It is only too true what you observe, Miss Balmain; but you surely do not think for a moment the position of our forefathers superior to ours at the present day? It seems to me that we are gradually approaching a time, when as great strides as have been made intellectually will be made spiritually and morally.”

“It is very slow in coming then,” she returned, wilfully. “People were happier when their wants were fewer.”

She spoke as the daughter of Tapera might be expected to speak. So the minister answered nothing; and there was a painful pause, which was broken by Lenore, who sat in such a position that she could see the path lending to the tennis ground.

“Here comes Mr. McCleod! Something is going to happen when he can tear himself from his garden at this time in the afternoon—and on Saturday.”

All eyes turned in the direction Lenore indicated, and, coming down the slope, they saw a medium-sized, thick-set man with white beard and hair, and something particularly happy about his whole appearance, from the blue eyes, already twinkling with merriment, to the rotund figure and round full face.

“Well, how are ye all?” he cried, with a most pronounced Scotch accent as broad as if he had landed but yesterday, instead of being a resident of over thirty years' standing.

“How is it you found it in your heart to desert the Mountain on Saturday afternoon, Mr. McCleod?” asked Lenore, when he had shaken hands with all but the players, who had resumed their game. She was a particular favourite with him, as she was with all her father's old friends—her brightness and witty remarks pleased them.

“I left the women and wains (children) in full possession. They'll rob the place of every flower page 85 in it before they're done, but what's the odds?” he cried, in his jolly voice.

“Are these flowers for me, Mr. McCleod?” she asked again, indicating the bunch he held in his hand, and without which he never visited Mr. Dayton's house.

“Yes, but you don't deserve them because your taste is so poor that you prefer a great, staring camellia to a graceful spray of heather or broom. You don't know true beauty,” he said.

“You haven't brought me a single rose or pelargonium,” Lenore commented, severely, after investigating her bouquet.

“Don't be too sure,” and taking off his hat down fell a shower of roses mixed with sprays of a delicate green creeper. He looked, with his snowy beard and hair, like a living picture of winter dispersing the treasures of summer. He took this method of conveying flowers, because some mischievous maidens, living near his garden, though possessing conservatories and gardens of their own, delighted in robbing him. Sometimes he forgot his precious freight, and, on raising his hat, down fell the flowers, to the delight of his tormentors, who quickly gathered them up, giving him as much amusement as themselves.

“Oh, thank you ever so much! You could not be so hard-hearted as to come without any,” she said, fastening a lovely pink bud in the blouse of her flannel tennis dress, and smiling saucily up at him.

“I'm not sure about the heart, but I know it is safer to bring some than not,” he answered, with twinkling eyes.

“I think we had better have tea now, Mary,” said Mrs. Morgan, coming up with an old friend, with whom she had been conversing nearly all the afternoon.

Mary, who had all the arrangements in the summer-house suitable for making tea, had everything all ready, and at once began pouring out.

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“I don't know how people managed to exist before tea was introduced from China,” remarked Lenore, sipping her tea with evident enjoyment. “You are an excellent presiding genius of the tea-table, Queen Mary.”

“Didn't hear of nerves in those days!” grunted Mr. McCleod, taking a cup all the same, and enjoying it too.

“There is something the matter with you of late, Mr. McCleod; you used to take my part on all occasions, and side with me on nearly all questions, but now it is far otherwise,” cried Lenore, tragically.

He laughed so heartily it did one good to hear him.

“I now see the error of my ways. It is a bad thing to agree with women folks too much.”

“I suppose you came to see my new Queensland plant?” broke in Mr. Morgan. “You had better come now before it begins to get dark.”

“Mr. McCleod is highly complimentary to us, Ellie; he makes no secret of the fact that he can come over here to see a plant from Queensland, but it is too far for anything else,” said Mary, with as much sarcasm as she ever indulged in.

A laugh was her only reply. It delighted Mr. McCleod to do and say things in a manner different to anybody else.

“I have often wondered,” remarked Mr. Everard, turning to Lenore, “how you came to be called by such an uncommon name. Is it a fancy name, or are you called after somebody else?”

“‘That rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore,’ ” quoted Bertie, grandiloquently.

“He wants to let you know he is acquainted with ‘The Raven,’ ” commented Lenore, sarcastically.

“I, too, have meant to ask you the same question several times,” exclaimed Captain Deering. “It is not in our family at all that I remember.”

“No; I am named for a favourite sister of papa's, page 87 who died young. There is not much romance about mamma—or papa either for that matter. I am perfectly satisfied with my name—very few I know are with theirs—because it is uncommon and musical at the same time,” she answered.

“I like mine well enough,” said Mary, calmly.

“Yours and mine are a little common, though,” remarked Miss Brooke again, with a covert sneer. But it took a good deal to ruffle Mary's composure.

“The sunlight is common, but it is none the less beautiful,” she answered, softly.

“Give me good old names like Sally, and Patience, and Mollie, easy to say, and with centuries' associations clinging to them,” cried Bertie.

“Your taste is not elevated enough for the age,” said Miss Ellett. “Be out of the common or die!”

“What is the use of elevating one's self when we have to come down to this prosy, everyday life in the end?”

“That is hardly a good way of looking at life, Bertie,” said the minister, gravely. “The world is exactly as we made it—nothing more nor less.”

The two gentlemen now came back discussing the probabilities of the Queensland plant.

“We are coming to the Mountain next week to trouble you for some flowers,” said Ellie.

“All right. But don't come on Saturday afternoon, unless you want to be driven wild with the women and bairns,” answered Mr. McCleod.

“Now listen to him! He pretends that he doesn't know that next Tuesday is Christmas Day, and that we have to help to decorate the church,” cried Lenore.

“What are you going to do that for, I should like to know? I have a good mind not to give one flower for such Popish nonsense as that. Decorate the church, indeed!” he said, scornfully.

They all smiled sweetly, they knew their man by this time.

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Mr. McCleod was a determined, obstinate Scot, as full of whims as he could well be, but with such a fund of canny humour and good nature that he was well liked by his acquaintances, and especially by children. He made it a point to abuse the “women folk” as he called them—he was an old bachelor of over threescore years—but no one danced attendance upon them better, or made so much of them as he did. He was a rank Presbyterian of the old school, and religiously attended service every Sunday in a church with about thirty members on its roll, no musical instrument of any kind, the singing led by a male voice, and its spiritual requirements presided over by a divine after his own heart. He was reported extremely wealthy, having a sleeping interest in a business in the city managed by his partner, a much younger man, and whose wife—a handsome, stately lady—was not in his good graces, though he was always very civil to her for all that.

His habits were most regular. He got up about nine in the morning, breakfasted at ten, and walked—he never patronized trams—to the Mountain, where he pottered and worked all day until five, when he returned for dinner, finishing the evening at his club, or some place of amusement. On Sunday he dined at his partner's house.

He had adhered to this disposal of his time for ten years, and he had never known an illness except one, when he set fire to the fern on his property, and ended by nearly putting an end to himself.

The Mountain consisted of seventeen acres of land on the northern slope of Mount Eden (the pride of Auckland), half garden, half park, and was his delight and almost his god. A man did most of the rougher work, but he himself did the lion's share of all that was to be done.

There was no house upon the grounds, but a little page 89 cabin, which he termed the hut, and in which were kept tools and other garden necessaries, a flagon of whisky, a couch, and divers other articles in a practical line.

He and Mr. Dayton agreed on one point—if only one—that gardens set out primly were an abomination, and, with this idea in his mind, he had made the Mountain a perfect dream of beauty.