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

Chapter IX. Christmas Day

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Chapter IX. Christmas Day.

Christmas time! associated in the mind of the Colonial with cloudless skies, and the softest and balmiest of breezes; with magnificent moonlight nights even more entrancingly lovely than the glitter and splendour of the day—a season in which the sunny land of the Southern Cross rivals the Elysian fields of Homer or the island kingdom of Calypso. It is the time of year for the Australasian to almost live out of doors. Excursions in the day time to the richly-wooded, wave-indented islands that adorn the Hauraki Gulf; or, on moonlight nights, when the air carried over the Pacific is particularly refreshing, to sail up and down the Waitamata, or to the more distant islands of the coast; all these are within the reach of all, and enjoyed to their fullest extent.

The exuberance of Nature seems to communicate itself to her children, whose keen delight in the marvellous scenery of their native land is so marked. From November until May and often June, the Colonial revels in the opulence of the land and the peculiar lightness of the air—a feature which the Greeks ascribed to Olympus—that gives buoyancy to the spirits and great powers of enduring fatigue, with an enjoyment only equalled by the ancient people of Greece.

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But Christmas Day itself, and Good Friday also, are observed with all the reverence and sacredness of Sunday—total cessation of business, of trams, of all outward signs of the work done on the other days of the week.

As usual the day rose cloudless, with a breeze from the sea so gentle that it scarcely seemed to breathe, and a golden radiance from the sun that was almost overpowering.

Mr. McCleod, as well as Mr. Everard, was one of Mrs. Dayton's guests on this particular Christmas Day, and was apparently the only individual over whom the weather had no effect. His broad Scotch accent and hearty laughter were as conspicuous as ever, saving the others the necessity for making great efforts in the conversational line, and giving them real amusement at the same time.

After dinner all the younger members strolled into the garden to seek the shade of the trees, while the elders made themselves comfortable on the verandah from which the sun had by this time retreated.

“What shall we do?” cried Lenore, leaning back in a garden chair, and idly poking the tree next her with her parasol.

“Whatever do you want with doing on a day like this, I should like to know? I hope there is plenty of work in the next world; if there isn't you won't be satisfied. Nothing is what I intend to do,” said Bertie, in an aggrieved tone.

“We can't amuse ourselves in any other way than by walking,” remarked Ellie, in her gentle tones. “Mamma does not like us to make Christmas Day as other days, and I suppose you do not either, Mr. Everard?” turning in the minister's direction, while Lenore's eyes twinkled.

“What a loss 'a Roman Catholic convent has in you, Ellie! You would not deviate one hair's-breadth from your duty as established by usage,” exclaimed Lenore.

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“Then are you not a devotee at the shrine of duty?” asked Mr. Everard, lightly, but yet with a note of gravity withal.

“Not to the duty that displays itself in a rigid adherence to form—the form is nothing,” she said, with a shade of defiance in her voice.

The minister's face clouded. He saw Mr. Morgan's influence, or thought he did.

“I say, you haven't been up Mount Eden, Leslie,” called out Will, who was engaged in throwing stones as far as he could. “It is a great place to gush over,” added that young gentleman, disgustedly.

“Have you not indeed? It is usually the first point of interest that tourists visit, and the view is really worth the walk. I have never seen a finer in my whole experience,” said Mr. Everard.

“Suppose we go then, Ellie, if you don't think it too far?” suggested Lenore.

“It is a pretty long walk, but we can go through the Domain, and it will be cool coming back,” said Ellie, as she saw her companions were bent upon going, though for her own part she would have preferred staying at home.

“You can go. I wish you joy. I am going to swing in the hammock in the shade, and enjoy myself in a quiet way,” remarked Bertie, lazily.

“You prefer getting almost roasted in a nasty yacht, and putting an end to poor, innocent fish that nobody wants,” retorted Lenore, scornfully.

“Let us send for Mary; they always have a dinner to the same people, friends of Mr. Morgan, on Christmas night, but we shall be home for tea at the outside, and I know she would like it,” said thoughtful Ellie.

“Yes; just what I was going to propose,” returned the sister. “Here, Will, run over and tell Mary, like a good brother, that we want her to come over here—that we are going to Mount Eden to show Leslie the view.

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“All right,” he answered, cheerfully. He adored the beautiful half-caste in his boyish impetuous fashion.

“And, mind, don't swallow a dictionary before you get, there. The last time I sent him on a message,” she went on, turning to the others, “he used all the polysyllabled words in a grammar school-boy's vocabulary, and Sarah—that's the housemaid—delivered such a marvellous report that Mrs. Morgan had to come herself.”

“Mr, Everard knows nothing of tiresome younger brothers, they are out of his calculations,” said Ellie.

“Of course he does not; he may have been the tiresome younger brother himself,” cried Lenore, and a second after she could have cut out her tongue, figuratively speaking; for at the remark, innocent as it was, a quiver of pain swept across the minister's face, though it was gone in an instant.

Mr. Everard, sympathetic and easy as his manner was, wrapped himself in a mantle of reserve whenever his own affairs and past history were touched upon, therefore Lenore had quite unwittingly touched on a sore point.

“How about Mr. McCleod? His garden is on the slope of the hill, and the little lane at the side is by far the pleasantest road to the summit,” said the minister, coldly, after a slight pause caused by Lenore's unfortunate remark.

“Let us go and tell him where we are going, and if he refuses to join us, I don't know Mr. McCleod. You see, Leslie, you are unacquainted with the beauties of the Mountain; therefore such a chance is not to be lost of hearing the praises of a bona-fide stranger,” laughed Lenore.

“We are going for a walk up Mount Eden, as Leslie has not yet had an opportunity of seeing our wonderful extinct volcano, mamma,” explained Ellie, as they neared the verandah.

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“I suppose you will not care to come, Mr. McCleod?” cried Lenore, demurely; “as it is such a warm day.”

“I don't see anything the matter with the weather at all, the finest I have seen for years; some people don't know when they are well off. Of course I'll go, as far as my place; scrambling up hills is only becoming to young folks,” answered Mr. McCleod, briskly.

“Bless the man!” exclaimed Mr. Dayton; “you'll be done up before you get half-way.”

“I daresay you “would—a man that rides to and from town every day. Thank heaven, I have always found that my two feet could carry me everywhere I wanted to go, weather or no weather!” the Scotchman cried, scornfully.

Trams and 'buses were his special abomination; hence his ability to walk distances the younger generation would not dream of attempting.

“Well, well, we shall see who will be the better man at six o'clock to-night—you or I,” returned Mr. Dayton.

“You were kind to send for me,” said Mary's sweet voice as she halted at the foot of the steps with her escort, Will. “I am sure this walk is Lenore's project; no one but her would think of such a thing on a warm day like this.”

“Then you are just wrong—I put it into their heads,” objected Will, who, by the way, had no intention of acting upon his own proposal.

And then they all passed through the gate down into the dainty bit of wave-washed beach, and through the dim peaceful cemetery into St. Stephen's Avenue, shaded by trees older than any of the younger members of the party, past the Orphan Home Buildings and the Bishop's Court—designed by Bishop Selwyn—and through Parnell into the shady Domain.

This reserve was originally a part of the forest page 112 that covered the hills and valleys upon which the town of Auckland is built, and has had little of the gardener's care bestowed upon it, having—except for the walks and picnic grounds—been left in its native state. A creek runs through its entire length, hidden from the brilliant sunlight by the luxuriant vegetation that rises on its banks, and beneath which mosses and graceful ferns lend the charm of youth to the rocks and decaying stumps of trees; while in its well-worn bed runs the stream with a gentle ripple, and of such purity and coolness that it might figure in an Oriental's dream.

To walk through the Domain is delightful—the aroma of titree and fern, great patches of golden sunlight, broken here and there with shadows, sometimes so accurately portraying every detail of the tree, that it appears as if stamped on the ground; the twittering of sparrows, and above all the vast canopy of golden blue sky.

To Lenore the place was always fresh, always lovely. In it she felt a gladness and buoyancy of spirits, and a keen enjoyment in the mere fact of living. She strayed behind the others with her hat in her hand, allowing the cool, pure air to blow upon her head, and dreaming as was her wont when alone.

Captain Deering, as usual, had taken possession of Mary; while the other three were well on in front.

“How delightful the shade is after the glare of the sun!” said the Captain, after a pause. “The heat is almost overpowering.

“I am ashamed of you!” exclaimed Mary. “To me this weather is all that can be desired; and to you, coming from the land where the sun does not know how to shine properly, it ought to be simply delightful.”

“I am sorry for old England's sun at this moment. What a, libel on Phœbus to be sure!” he answered, smiling.

“I know you are laughing at me—you laugh at page 113 many things I say—but they are true all the same. Now to me this weather would be enjoyable for its own sake, even if I had little to eat and scarcely anything to wear.”

So felt her pagan ancestors only two generations ago!

“I think Mahomet himself would consider this country as not inferior to the land he saw in his vision of heaven”–she smiled up at him, with pleasure in her eyes. “We all enjoy it more or less,” he went on, “so why should I laugh at you?”

“Not in the same way that I do—no one understands what I feel so well as Uncle Leonard, he understands everything. You simply take the warm sunshine and brightness as accessory to all that makes up what we call living; to me and my people the loveliness of our land is a great part of life itself.”

“When I have been here longer, and with you as a teacher, I also shall understand,” he said softly, and bending low.

At the words a thrill like an electric shock went over her, sending a gleam of light into the passionate dark eyes—but she kept her face averted.

“In the long summer days Lenore and I used to go excursions gathering ferns—and I do not think there is a fern in the province of Auckland with which I am unfamiliar, or a single tree. I must show you my collection sometime.”

“Go right in and make yourselves at home,” said Mr. McCleod, when they arrived at his pleasure ground.

He was in his element—and truly his character was one of those freaks of nature which we find now and again in our experience of life. To see him, with real enjoyment in his face, taking these young people round his garden, and telling them the names and habits of his most treasured plants, was in strange contrast to the Calvinistic austerity of his views and speech. It was the one refining page 114 influence of a thoroughly selfish life—a life spent in strict conformity with the letter of the law, but with the true spirit lacking. Day after day he lived on in the same fashion; meeting no one, caring for no one, wrapped up in the Mountain, his money accumulating at his banker's, and he himself with scarcely respectable clothes.

He was happy—yes, he was thoroughly happy; and why should not everyone be so, argued he, if they went the right way about it—as he did.

To Mr. Everard the man was a puzzle, small as was the acquaintance existing between them. What sympathy could there be between a disciple of Calvin and a Church of England minister with broad views? What, indeed?

He watched him with secret impatience as he showed his visitors the clumps of camellias, of magnolias, of olives, of laurels, and rare plants collected from different parts of the world, the terraces adorned with shrubs, the rockeries covered with New Zealand grasses, trailing ivy, and heaths. He thought bitterly to himself that this man had spent ten years of his life, working four and five hours a day, to make this garden a dream of beauty, for whom? For what? Who was the better? What good could he not have done, rich, idle, in robust health?

This Scotchman had made an idol and bowed down to it, and served it with greater perseverance than a pagan before an image which to him represents God.

“It is certainly very fine, and many of the plants are quite new to me. You really do all this work yourself?” asked Captain Deering, in surprise.

“Nearly all. I get a man once in a while to do the heavier work, and to do some weeding—I don't like weeding. But I planted every tree and shrub, and took out all the rocks myself,” answered he, with pride.

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“There are not many men at your age that could attempt such work,” said the Captain again.

“Show us where the broom and Scotch heather are growing,” cried Lenore. “My cousin can better appreciate the difference than we poor untravelled Colonials.”

And certainly one would need to be told the name of a miserable, smoky-looking plant the bonnie moors of Scotland would scorn to own. But it was Scotch heather!

“Now off with ye all!” cried the old man.

“Let us get over that hole in the wall made by the goats and boys, who are good enough to make a short cut that way,” said Lenore.

“Goats! I would like to shoot every goat be-between here and Cape Maria Van Diemen. What possesses people to keep such useless beasts, passes me to understand,” cried Mr. McCleod, irascibly.

“Now, Mr. McCleod if a goat stood before you and you with a gun in your hand, you would say ‘poor beastie,’ and look for some green stuff to feed it with,” said Lenore, mischievously.

“Yes, I'd give it a bullet to eat, and nothing else.” But Lenore was half way up the drive.

“Won't you come with us?” said Ellie, gently. “It does not seem kind for us all to leave you here alone, and it is not difficult to climb Mount Eden.”

“No, indeed! It would be cream to that lassie (Lenore) to see me puffing and staggering, and getting red in the face. No, no, I'll wait until you come back.” Ellie was right; it was not difficult to climb Mount Eden, a mere hill two or three hundred feet high, and with a wide carriage drive winding around it. The sun was now getting lower in the heavens, and a breeze at that height was most delightfully refreshing to the whole party after the heat of the morning and noon.

“See what a fine crater this hill has,” said Lenore, as they stood upon the summit. “It has the most perfect shape of any within a hundred miles.”

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“Yes,” assented Mr. Everard, “it is as much entitled to be called the Punch Bowl as that of Honolulu. Did you see it, Captain Deering?”

“Yes; a party of us got up at four o'clock in the morning and walked the whole distance.”

Mr. Everard's eyes wandered over the fair scene before him, bathed in a pale soft haze. On both sides away to the verge of the horizon swelled the trackless waters of the Pacific, with one mighty arm forcing its blue undulating stream on the east, and another on the west, while between lay the town of Auckland and its suburbs. A panorama of hill and valley, river and creek, and sweeps of grass-covered level land lay before him on every side, bounded, miles from where he stood, by the everlasting hills covered with a dense magnificent primeval forest.

No scene that he had ever looked upon affected him so strangely, or moved him so greatly. Here lay, not the home of a barbarous race, but a land made to smile by the labour of Britons, and a land the heritage of unborn Saxons. He saw an Italian England with no Capua for British Hannibals; but where all the characteristics that have contributed to the proud history of the mother country lose nothing of their force.

“How cruel it seems,” said the minister, moved out of his ordinary calm, “that thousands, nay, millions, in our native lands should be pining for fresh air and sunlight, and with scarcely food to eat, when here, in every Colony of the Pacific, food, light, air, labourare only waiting to be used as the Creator intended.”

“I have read and heard of the poverty never absent in large cities,” replied Lenore, gravely, as to her, instinctively, he had addressed his remarks, feeling that none of the party would understand him as she could.

“You cannot understand a thousandth part of the misery and unutterable woe that I—yes, I, with my own eyes—have seen, and not altogether in large cities either. How can you enter into a realization of a page 117 subject so vast when to you it is so far removed? It is impossible. I did not realize it myself until I came to these happy lands, the fairest on God's earth, because they are the only spots where poverty and oppression are at a minimum!”

Lenore felt the passion and earnestness in the strong, vibrating, persuasive voice with a sudden responsive feeling in her own heart.

“I have surprised you,” he continued, more gently, “but the contrast sometimes strikes me so forcibly that I must speak or enter into some physical exercise that will work off my passion.”

“I think I do realize something of what you speak. Surely one does not need to experience—or rather see the effects of—poverty, so dreadful, to sympathize with it,” cried the girl, earnestly.

“I tell you, Miss Dayton, that the wildest dreams of misery of which you are capable can never approach the reality. When I think of the cynical indifference, the cold selfishness, the utter heartlessness of this age, I feel inclined to agree with Mr. Morgan that God has put us here to work out our own salvation. The whole aim of the world to-day seems to be a desire to rise above the gods' intellectuality—to diffuse knowledge to the poorest. But does all this expansion and increase of learning satisfy the soul—the moral censor of a man? Does the moral growth of the present day keep pace with the intellectual strides? Most assuredly no!”

And then the minister smiled one of his rare smiles on Ellie, who had been eagerly listening, Mary and Captain Deering sitting on a slab of rock some distance away.

“We must start for home now, I think,” she said, breaking the spell the passionate words of Mr. Everard had cast over her. “Come, Leslie—come, Mary.”

In less than ten minutes they were down in Mr. McCleod's garden again, now full of dark shadows and lines of waning light.

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They returned the way they came; but on reaching the rifle range the Scotchman paused.

“Are you going home, Mr. McCleod?” cried Ellie, in great surprise.

“Yes,” said he, enjoying the situation.

“But mamma expects you to tea—you must really come,” Ellie persisted.

“Not to-night; she'll get over that before I visit you again. Good-bye all,” and he was picking his way among the stones that fairly bristled in his way. “That is scarcely courteous to Aunt Marion, is it, Ellie?” commented Captain Deering.

“He does not mean to be rude, Leslie—it is his way, and we are accustomed to it.”

“He is one of those people,” said Lenore, “that imagine they know more than the combined efforts of generations before us, and end by making themselves ridiculous. He thinks there is too much ceremony in society, and in his desire to show that he is above such considerations, succeeds in being rude—in short, he mistakes rudeness for originality.”

They walked through the Domain by a different path—a path cut along the side of a high bank, the lower side sloping to the creek hidden by hoary trees and parasitical plants, but whose ripple struck the ear with its pleasant murmur.

“This is called the lovers' walk, Leslie,” called out Lenore.

“Why?” he asked, mockingly. “Is it because it is a lovers' trysting place so frequently, or because it ought to be?”

“I leave that to your judgment, and to your experience in these matters—I am not competent to tell,” she answered, demurely.

“What a pity we cannot always have the summer season! Then we should live like the people in the allegory, wandering about the woods all day long with no care or labour to trouble our peace—everything placed at our disposal as we wanted it,” said Mary, in page 119 her rich voice that had none of the silvery qualities of a bell, but the compass and plaintiveness of an Æolian harp.

“Such a happy, placid existence would grow terribly monotonous to me,” cried Lenore. “Excelsior is my motto. I would rather climb Alpine heights like the boy in the poem than dream the days away in Italian valleys like you, Queen Mary.”

“You have chosen a thorny path, Miss Dayton, to judge by your motto, and one bristling with difficulties,” said the minister, with a warm gleam in the grey eyes. “I often think Longfellow's poem is so suggestive of the life of those with noble aims and exalted ideas.”

“I half agree with you, Queen Mary,” said Ellie. “But in a life passed under such happy conditions one is apt to grow idle and self-indulgent. To me contentment and strict adherence to duty are the two elements for securing happiness.”

You will be a happy woman, Ellie Dayton!

“What is your idea of happiness, Captain Deering?” asked Mary, curiously, and leaning idly against the railing of a rustic bridge.

“I haven't considered it yet. But I must say I like things to go along easily, and, for my part, am quite willing for Lenore and Mr. Everard to tackle the thorns,” answered the Captain, easily.

The minister's face became grave at the careless tone.

“Let us be moving on, as it is getting late for Mary if she is to get home in time for tea,” broke in Lenore, a little brusquely.

It annoyed her extremely for anyone to couple her name with the minister's, though to herself she did not own the feeling. How many times in our lives we deceive ourselves, even the best of us. It is a happy circumstance often, for otherwise, those who lull themselves to rest under a harmless deception would be full of misgivings or thoroughly miserable.