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

Chapter VIII. Lenore and the Minister

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Chapter VIII. Lenore and the Minister.

Monday morning Ellie and Lenore started for the church quite early, the former taking the direction of Mr. McCleod's garden, which was some distance from Mr. Dayton's house, while Lenore kept on in the road that led to St. Mark's, the parish church.

On account of her great taste and capacity for taking trouble, Lenore was a valuable assistant to the ladies who managed the Christmas and Easter decorations every year. The artistic part of the girl's nature always responded to the demands continually being made upon it for church purposes; and to her and one or two much like her were entrusted the most important and conspicuous portions of St. Mark's.

When she arrived the church was in great confusion. Very few, indeed, had presented themselves, the greater number generally putting in an appearance in the afternoon or evening. Mrs. Willoughby, the minister's wife, came up to Lenore directly she saw her.

“How pleased I am to see you, Miss Dayton,” she cried.

It was most noticeable that strangers and distant acquaintances always spoke to Lenore as the elder page 91 sister, and Mrs. Willoughby, having fallen into the mistake, had never corrected herself. “You are such a valuable help, and at present we have nobody except yourself that understands what is to be done. Is your sister not coming to help us?”

“Oh, yes. She has gone to Mr. McCleod's garden for some flowers. If you will tell me what is required most to be done, I will see to it,” said Lenore.

“That's right—you mean business at any rate. If you will go on cutting out these letters, I can attend to something else,” and the minister's wife hurried away.

Mrs. Willoughby was one of those active, bustling people who never grow old, who give themselves little rest, and will not permit those with whom they come in contact to indulge in it either.

As Lenore glanced round the church from her position near the chancel, she saw that there was no one amongst those present that she knew particularly, or with whom she desired to make an extended acquaintance.

She therefore finished what she had been directed to do, and then settled down to the serious business of decorating the font—which she had done the year before—or at least the preliminaries, for as yet suitable flowers had not arrived. Ellie's contribution helped her little, as it consisted of rich, dark-coloured flowers, but the trailing sprays of a green creeper by which they were surrounded she seized upon at once.

“I wonder how it is, Ellie, that nobody is here, and so much to be done? Mrs. Willoughby says those girls down there don't know what they are about, which, by the appearance of things, is true enough,” said Lenore, glancing as she spoke down the lofty, gracefully-proportioned building, which required such quantities of flowers to make any show at all.

“I don't know. I suppose they will all come page 92 later on. Mabel Ellett is coming after lunch. Oh! by-the-bye, where's Mary?” cried Ellie, suddenly, as she remembered the half-caste.

“Coming, I shouldn't wonder, when it is too late for those flowers Mr. Morgan promised me, to be of any use for the font,” cried Lenore, in a vexed tone of voice. “Mary never assists in the decorations at any rate, but that would be of little consequence so long as she brought the flowers for me. Without them, or others like them, I can do nothing at all.”

“What is the matter, Miss Dayton? Anything gone wrong?” said Mr. Everarid's voice at Lenore's side.

She started slightly, and the blood mounted to her face for an instant, but her emotion was covered by her sister's greeting. As she sat with her back to the door the entrance of the minister had not been observed.

“I am waiting for Miss Balmain to come with flowers for the decoration of the font,” she answered, quietly.

“You will not have long to wait then. As I came in I saw your cousin and Miss Balmain turn the corner of the road. I can't say they looked the least in a hurry,” said Mr. Everard, smiling.

“I quite believe it. Here they are at last, just as my patience has nearly given out,” said Leuore, as Captain Deering and Mary appeared in the doorway, the latter as sweet and tranquil as if no such thing as hurry belonged to this world's machinery.

“You don't mean to say that you have actually arrived, Mary?” cried Lenore, as the two sauntered to where she sat.

“I am at my destination, if I know anything,” laughed the half-caste. “I was not aware there was any particular hurry, or I would have sent the flowers. Uncle Leonard gave me strict instructions to deliver this basket into no hands but yours,” as page 93 Captain Deering—who had carried it—handed over a pretty substantial basket of Colonial make. “I have done my duty!”

“There is no manner of use in anyone getting annoyed with you, Queen Mary,” said Lenore, her vexation vanishing now that its cause was removed, “for you will not see that you have been guilty of misdoing.”

From the basket she carefully lifted masses of small pinkish flowers, which she had told Mr. Morgan were just the thing she required, and which had been resting on soft pale moss, and small ferns to keep them fresh.

“Are they not lovely?” she exclaimed, turning to Mr. Everard. “I am glad Mr. Morgan sent the moss and ferns, because they will set off the letters of the text so nicely,” and the busy fingers began to work at once.

Ellie sauntered off in another direction, while the others watched Lenore in silence.

She looked up at last.

“Are you not going to help, Queen Mary? They are in need of all the help they can get.”

“What is the use? I never succeed in doing any of this kind of work but what it has to be done over again,” said that young lady, languidly. “Besides it is too warm to exert one's self. I don't think Mrs. Willoughby will be at all anxious for my services, she was so disgusted with me last year.”

“Pretty girls are made to be ornamental; plain ones to be useful,” commented Lenore, with a hard note in her voice.

“I don't know what you are complaining about, Lenore,” cried Mary. “If all the idle people in the world—myself, for instance—should turn industrious—not a very likely turn of events—what would be the position of the busy part of the community? They would have nothing to occupy themselves with. page 94 It would not do at all if we were all made alike, it would be too monotonous.”

“You practise a very comfortable and easy-going philosophy, Miss Balmain,” said the minister, with a little irony in his tone. “You would make a poor votary at the shrine of Buddha.”

“I am happy to be within the influence of the teaching of a greater than Buddha,” answered Mary, with a little low laugh that the minister felt to be mockery.

“Does it not seem strange to you, Leslie, and even to you, Mr. Everard,” said Lenore, after a pause in the conversation, caused by the half-caste's last remark, “that Christmas falls on such bright, sunny weather as this?” and she leaned back and glanced out through the wide entrance door at the flood of golden sunshine on the broad walk, intruding even to the steps of the font.

There was little of the “dim, religious light” that Milton loved in St. Mark's to-day; the searching, brilliant sunshine penetrated to each and every recess, it is true, with a subdued colouring, but with no attempts at shadowy nooks and corners that lull the senses and beget a devotional spirit.

“It certainly does seem all wrong to me—upside down, as it were,” cried the Captain. “In fact I forget half the time what month we are in. At home the very air and appearance of the landscape speak of the season.”

“I do not notice the difference this year so much as I did last, though I was not in Auckland, but, of course, to all intents and purposes Christchurch and Auckland are the same. I must say I prefer an English Christmas, lovely as the weather in the Colonies is at this time. To those reared in Australasia our Christmas seems dreadful, accustomed as they are to spend the season out of doors,” said Mr. Everard.

“I think you mistake. The Colonial mentally page 95 associates Christmas with snow and bare trees, holly and great roaring fires, short days and long nights, and all the rest of it, but his country is so contrary as not to admit of it. He makes the best of the circumstances like a good Colonial, and succeeds pretty well. I think the home Christmas seems to harmonize more with our idea of the proper setting of the day; though, perhaps, the idea is merely the result of centuries of association.”

And then there was silence between them, Lenore nervously keeping her eyes bent on her work—forming letters from the flowers, and outlining them with moss. From a window high up in the wall, a ray of sunlight brought out the reddish tints of her hair, making it appear as if it lived, and, to Mr. Everard's fancy, investing her head with a saint-like light seen in pictures of St. Agatha and St. Catherine.

Three or four birds twittered and hopped on the step, glancing in now and again with their bright eyes, as if surprised at the commotion in the usually silent edifice. The air was heavy with the odour of countless flowers, and but for a few whiffs of air that were wafted in now and then the heat would have been oppressive.

“How energetic you are, Miss Dayton—busy over many things,” he said at last. “You do many things, and do them all well.”

He was never quite sure, when talking with Lenore, how his remarks would be received. Sometimes she turned them into mockery, and at others only answered enough to be polite.

“A Martha, in fact,” she answered, with subdued bitterness. “But you must remember that Mary chose the better part, so it is said in the Bible, and that sentence always puzzled me sorely. I fail to see that anyone can attain any degree of religious proficiency without a practical application of the principles they profess. Is it not an objection to many religious orders that their converts selfishly page 96 withdraw from the world, which needs their help, and pass their lives in an artificial and utterly useless manner?”

The minister looked at the girl's face curiously.

“I scarcely think the Bible words are meant to convey the idea that we must not do our part in the work of life, but are meant as a warning to those who put all their energies into good works, when, perhaps, the true spirit of godliness is lacking,” answered the minister, hesitatingly.

“I cannot see that you have explained it at all,” said Lenore. “How can there be good works—taking the words in their broadest sense—without the true spirit? If the true spirit be wanting, the works cannot be good. In my opinion Martha does not receive full justice.”

“I feel sure, Miss Dayton, from your own words, and from other sources besides, that you are searching for a broader and higher conception of what we call religion. Is it not so?” he exclaimed, bending lower that they might not be overheard.

“It is so,” said, with the emotion in his voice reproduced in her own. “And you? You are said to be advanced; that is, you do not accept all the teachings of the Church of England.” For the first time she raised her eyes to his face, and in their depths lurked an anxiety.

He paused for an instant, and then, slowly and with an effort, said–

“That is a question I have not yet decided in my own mind. It is one I must think over a great deal yet. You know—in fact everyone here knows—that I cannot accept a living in Auckland on account of my doubts.”

He drew his hand over his forehead, as if there lay a pain in that part. Sympathetic and intellectual as Lenore was, the minister felt that it was not quite becoming for him to discuss grave and important questions—indeed, vital to him—with such a mere page 97 girl. She had almost forced from him what he never acknowledged to himself without pain, and what he felt was little short of profanation to discuss except with his own soul.

“You must come to lunch now, Miss Dayton,” said Miss Willoughby, the incumbent's daughter, who had come up unperceived, but whose presence was a relief to Mr. Everard at that precise moment. “Mamma is going to have it early so that we may have a long afternoon. You had better come too, Mr. Everard,” she went on, turning to the minister.

“No, I think not, thank you. I have some business to arrange for to-morrow,” he said, a little awkwardly.

He had said something like it an hour before to Mr. Willoughby, and yet he was still lingering in St. Mark's, but until Miss Willoughby's advent he was conscious of Lenore's presence only.

“Mr. Everard will be very much missed when he leaves Auckland. Papa was saying that only the other day,” said Miss Willoughby, as the two girls turned down the aisle.

“Yes,” assented Lenore, dreamily, and vaguely wondering how she would feel in that event herself. In her efforts to treat the minister in precisely the same manner as she did others, unconsciously to herself, she sometimes succeeded in being almost brusque. She saw other girls of her acquaintance court his attention, and that he was welcomed in every house belonging to the circle in which the Daytons moved; but their ways were not her ways. Mrs. Dayton had brought up her children with a nice sense of delicacy, already inherent in a girl of Lenore's refined perception.

To Mr. Everard himself her manner was inexplicable. Sometimes she was so pleasant, so witty, so bright that he yielded to the sweet womanliness of the girl; at others her mockery or mere politeness mystified him. Whichever way it was he felt page 98 powerfully attracted towards her, and desirous of her friendship at least, not only from his own impressions, but also from the warm praise lavished upon her by Mr. Morgan, for whose opinion the minister had a high regard.

Early in the afternoon Lenore finished decorating the font—a soft bank of trailing green upon which rested “Suffer little children,” the letters being formed of Mr. Morgan's hot-house flowers, and outlined in moss of a delicate, yellowish green, with here and there small ferns of a darker shade.

Besides decorating the font, Lenore gave valuable assistance in other quarters as the afternoon advanced. Her cousin—in addition to causing a great deal of quiet merriment—performed a considerable portion of the heavier work. Ellie, Mary, and Captain Deering, however, went home quite early—in time for afternoon tea—while Lenore, whose services were worth those of all three put together, stayed on and partook of a scrambled parsonage tea.

At nine o'clock the choir commenced practice for the next day's service; and Lenore, tired out, was just making up her mind to go home, when she saw Mr. Everard coming in her direction as quickly as the state of the church would allow.

“I was looking for you,” he said. “I see you are ready to leave. Are none of your people here?–Bertie or Captain Deering. No? Well it is of no consequence, I am going in your direction to-night also.”

But as she made no movement to go, the two stood near the organ and took in the details of the moving scene before them.

“Transformation, is it not?” she said at last. “To me it seems almost like profanation—the laughter, the light talk, the forgetfulness of the nature of the place.”

“It may seem so to you just now—reverence is highly developed in you. Perhaps the state of your page 99 mind harmonizes with your feeling—but it is a remnant of Puritanism that we must not display our happiness in God's house. I like to see it, and think there is too little of it,” said Mr. Everard, gently.

But Lenore made no answer; she kept her eyes fixed on the moving figures in the body of the church, which presented a most animated appearance under the great jets of gas with girlish tigures moving about in light-coloured gowns, and groups of both sexes conversing here and there. Great masses of green stuff and flowers were heaped in different parts of the church, adding greatly to the general bizarre effect; while high, up on the walls large fronds of the tree-ferns were ranged at intervals and brightened with scarlet geraniums; texts of white and delicately-tinted flowers were placed around the pulpit, and above the vestry and chancel; and a magnificent display of flowers, beautifully arranged, followed the lines of the woodwork of the pulpit, chancel rails, and the pillar of the reading-desk.

“It is beautiful,” said Lenore at last. “Let us go.”

It did not strike her at the time, but Mr. Dayton's house was in an opposite direction entirely to the one in which Mr. Everard lived, and he certainly could have no parochial duties in Parnell at that time of the evening. She thought of it in the silence of her own room that night, however.

The two emerged from the close atmosphere of the church into the warm though fresh air of the summer's night. The ordinary stillness of that hour was exchanged for the stir and excitement of Christmas Eve, which recurs so often, but which, though bending with the weight of years and poetical associations, is ever fresh to young and old, wherever civilization is felt, and the sound of the gospel heard.

But as Mr. Everard and Lenore walked onward the sounds of merry voices and quick footsteps became fainter as they left the shops behind, until page 100 calmness and silence reigned supreme, when, softly and slowly, like fairies' music, the chimes of the Bishop's Court broke on the air, gradually increasing in volume and intensity until the whole air was melodious with sound. At intervals the music died away, until it possessed all the delicious charm of an Eolian harp.

“I don't know why it is, but I feel depressed instead of glad as one ought to be on this night, of all others,” said the minister, half to himself.

“Strange that I feel the same, and have felt it all day. It must be the closeness and heat of the last few days,” answered Lenore.

“‘Peace on earth, goodwill to men,’” quoted Mr. Everard, musingly. “I wonder in how many hearts rests the real spirit of that blessed message, or how many consider the full significance of Christmas Day? The outward evidences of the season have become so hallowed by time, that we are apt to lose sight of its spiritual side.”

“Many do,” said Lenore softly, answering the first part of her companion's remark. “Some regard each succeeding Christmas Eve as a landmark in their life—they hope that the next one may probably see the desire of their hearts bear fruit.”

“Is that your case? I hope so—indeed, I feel sure that that is your position, Miss Dayton. You would like to do some practical, useful work, but you cannot well see your way. Is it not so?” cried Mr. Everard, eagerly.

“Something like it. My everyday life seems to me a little narrow; and if I had some outside interests to occupy my thoughts, it might be better for me,” she said.

Her mind was full of many things; but she could find no utterance for them to the minister. She felt too deeply to find outward expression.

“Then I shall ask a favour of you, and it is especially becoming on this night of all others. In page 101 my daily experience there are many cases that require womanliness and tact—you have these qualities—and if you will give me your assistance it will be of great help in this parish, and elsewhere. Of course it will be with Mrs. Dayton's full permission.”

“I shall be only too glad. Such an opportunity has never presented itself until now,” said Lenore.

“Then it is agreed,” he said, with a note of pleasure in his voice.

It thrilled him to feel that there was an understanding between himself and this girl, even although of a shadowy kind. He could see now a way to bring out all that was best in her, and at the same time to understand her various moods. His depression seemed to fade as if by magic.

“Will you not come in?” she asked, gently. “It is not late, and papa will not be pleased if you do not come in on Christmas Eve,” as they paused at Mr. Dayton's gate.

“I will, thank you; if only for a few minutes.”

There was a peculiar charm for this man, who had never known a home in the true sense of the word, in the harmony and perfect happiness of Mr. Dayton's household. In Mr. Morgan's elegant home, the intellectual and æsthetical side of his nature were satisfied by the learning and powerful understanding of its master, and by the luxury and cultivated taste displayed in its appointments. But in Mr. Dayton's house there was a thoroughly homelike atmosphere, a sweet disorder, a breeziness that touched the tenderest part of the minister's heart—a part that is never absent from the most depraved, and which is highly developed in the purest. The perfect union of father and mother, the tender regard of each one for the other, the loving obedience, that is the foundation of an ideal home, each and all contributed to a picture of family life that was always new, always sweet to his mental sight, always admitting of new points to be studied. page 102 And how sorely the brightness and happiness of this home life accentuated the barrenness of his own! How peaceful and orderly it was! How calm and ideally home-like!

In the great bay-window—opened to let in the little air there was—stood Bertie, Captain Deering, and another young man—Amy Brooke's brother—discussing a fishing trip they were going to take down the Hauraki Gulf. Mr. Dayton was languidly cutting through the leaves of a book, while Ellie was busy finishing a present for her younger brother, who had just gone to bed, and the mother, tired out with a long day's work, was resting in an armchair.

“Well, how does the church look?” asked Mrs. Dayton, after the usual greetings to the minister had been exchanged.

“It is just beautiful, mamma. I never saw it so well decorated as this year—everyone seems to have sent flowers,” answered Lenore, who, after carelessly throwing her hat down, and a small shawl beside it—actions which made orderly Mrs. Dayton wince—crossed the rcom, and sat down on a low stool at her father's side.

While the others talked, the father stroked the rich auburn hair of his second daughter with a loving hand; and then taking one of her hands into his own he held it and patted it softly.

“It always does me good to sit near you, papa,” she said, softly. “It takes all the tired out of me, and all the discontent. It has been so warm all day.”

“You do too much, Lenore. There is no sense in making a pain out of a pleasure, darling. They impose upon you because they know you will do all they ask. You should have come home with the others,” said the father, tenderly.

“I like decorating the church, papa; that doesn't tire me. Ellie, sing a little, will you, like a good page 103 sister?” she went on. “Sing ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night.’ I'll finish whatever you are doing.”

“Never mind; there are only a few stitches to be done, and you are tired,” said Ellie, kindly, and moving to the piano without any question.

The minister shaded his face with his hand as the pure, sweet voice—she sang it softly—floated through the room, bearing its message of peace and love. It pleased him to see the tender affection between father and daughter, and especially with a character so strong and self-reliant as Lenore's. This pleasant home picture lingered in his memory for days—the lovely position of the girl, the soft, caressing touch of the father's hand, the dreamy, thoughtful look from the dark-blue eyes, the evident enjoyment of the song first heard by the Jewish shepherds nineteen hundred years before.

“Thank you, Ellie,” said Lenore, as the sister rose from the piano again. “It is our Christmas carol.”

The minister now got up to take his leave.

“Don't go yet—it is quite early,” said Mr. Dayton, warmly.

Mr. Everard was an especially welcome guest to him.

“Indeed, no,” repeated Mrs. Dayton. “We are going to have supper presently on account of Lenore, who I don't suppose had a very substantial tea at the parsonage—they are so busy. I shall be sorry if you leave us so early on Christmas Eve.”

“The mater is afraid she'll have no luck until next Christmas Eve if you go without partaking of her grand Christmas cooking,” cried Bertie.

“How absurd!” said Ellie. “It is easy to see your thoughts are running on the good things of the season rather than on anything more spiritual.”

“I am sorry, Mrs. Dayton, but I must really go. I have some work to do for to-morrow, and it will page 104 be quite late by the time I get home,” said the minister.

“You know best—but I don't need to repeat that you are very welcome,” went on the mother. “By-the-bye, have you made any arrangements for tomorrow?”

“No, I have made no engagement of any kind,” he said.

“Then for once I am fortunate, if you will spend the day with us, or as much of it as you can spare. I suppose you will preach somewhere to-morrow?” cried Mrs. Dayton, warmly. “You are so much in request, or I would have asked you sooner; but I thought there was no use.”

“You are always thoughtful, Mrs. Dayton, for a forlorn stranger like myself. I shall be only too happy to accept your kind invitation.”

“I'll go with you, Mr. Everard,” called out Bertie's chum, from the semi-darkness of the window. “Good-night, all. Turn up at six mind, Bertie.”

“Will you stay to supper, Ernest?” said Mrs. Dayton. “You know you are always welcome here.”

“No, thank you. I must go home, or else my mother will be sending the town crier after me,” answered that young gentleman, with all Bertie's glibness.

Mr. Everard's leave-taking was more dignified and formal.

When his talkative companion left him at the head of the road, the minister suffered himself to dwell on the peace and happiness he was leaving every moment further behind; and when he entered his sitting-room the air of it struck him with an added coldness and dreariness.

He lighted the gas half-mechanically, and then, lighting a cigar, sat down in an arm-chair in front of the empty grate, and stared with unseeing eyes at the mantelpiece before him. There was an unmistakable absence of a womanly presence about page 105 the room, clean and tidy as the landlady prided herself upon keeping it; but all the subtle signs—so matter-of-fact when present, so pathetic in their absence—of a feminine personality were conspicuously wanting. Had it not been for the presence of a large bookcase, filled with the minister's favourite volumes, and a vase of dark-crimson roses that he had begged from Lenore, who prided herself on her roses, the room would have been like thousands of its kind—everything in it having the appearance of being let for so much a week.

Mr. Everard's face seemed older and graver than when he left Mrs. Dayton's drawing-room; a shadow of care had settled upon it, the outward expression of the deep and earnest thoughts that crowded upon him, which had troubled him over and over again since he had laid his brother to rest in the cemetery at Christchurch. The constant association for months with one whose whole mode of thought was in harmony with the most advanced agnosticism, and the frequent readings from literature diametrically opposed to all that which the Church of England minister held most dear, had borne its fruit.

At the time, Mr. Everard did not take into consideration the effect of what was unavoidable; but, instead of the total effacement of the arguments and logic of his brother's belief that he had hoped for, his memory seemed to be saturated with the ideas and reasoning that he had unconsciously absorbed during the period he had acted as nurse to his only brother; and strive as he might to realize his former confidence, the later avalanche of rationalism had considerably weakened the existing framework.

But all his doubts, all his struggles, were between him and his own soul, or that part of the soul in which is implanted the spark of the divine essence, to work out the problems of this life, and to judge between that which is good and that which is evil.

page 106

Much as the minister admired and respected Mr. Morgan, he never discussed with him religious questions of any kind, fearing that the other's philosophy and erudition—superior to his own—might influence him to an undue degree. But he borrowed books—his own library, with the exception of a few favourites, was in England—and compared and thought until from very weariness he desisted, and taking his hat he would walk for miles into the suburbs to calm his disquieted spirit.

At last he started, as the clock struck twelve; and putting away the end of his cigar, he drew up to his writing-table to prepare an address for the morrow, or rather to write out the matter that had passed in his mind.

As he wrote on the haggard look left him, and, before he finished, for the time being, “the peace that passeth all understanding” seemed to rest on the sympathetic, intellectual face of the minister, the result of the comfort and peace contained in words meant for other ears than his own.