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LadyCalthorpe's entertainments lacked formality … which was so pleasant that gentlefolk brought up on good old-fashioned principles secretly felt they must be rather wicked and took care never to miss one of them.

Since to-night's dinner celebrated Darien's own birthday (a sufficiently immodest notion) Caroline was shocked to find that Darien had provided paper-caps for the gentlemen to wear during dessert as an offset to the ladies; and by the time the caps were on there was so much good food and drink below them that young Mr Courtney began playing a tune on wine-glasses that no one could guess, and Darien was asking everybody riddles, and Lord Calthorpe grinning all the time out of his mob-cap with blue paper strings.

How the Calthorpes did it on nothing but debt Caroline couldn't imagine. Anyone less moral than herself would suspect Darien of a lover who paid the bills. I wonder who he is, she thought, staring at all the laughing gentlemen. A saddle of mutton too. So vulgar. And crimson roses scattered all over the damask among the meats and jellies. Though probably there to hide holes they looked improper, thought Caroline, feeling that Linda should not be here. Yet, since Mr Andrew Greer had suddenly appeared again to sit next her, of course she had to be. Such a royal fish for Linda's little hook.

“Here's to our fair queen of the night,” cried Sir Winston, raising his glass to Darien. “Egad, Lady Calthorpe, your head should be on one of those new postage-stamps instead of Victoria's.”

page 239

“How would you have me? Like this? Or this?” asked Darien, quite ready to offer enraptured eyes dazzling views of white shoulders rising from green foam, of gay little profile and auburn curls where the matron's cap had shrunk to a jaunty scrap of gold lace and couldn't behave itself even then. Mr Greer, who, though beside Linda, was dumb to the point of imbecility, suddenly grabbed a rosebud and put it in his buttonhole, looking at Darien.

Caroline was so frantic that she forgot to see if the rosebud had covered a hole. Once that immodest creature got him there was no hope for Linda.

“I always think,” she cried, rushing into battle, “that we should speak reverently of the dear Queen who has contrived by the postage-stamps to link us so closely to her and all the world.”

“Not to the Crimea,” said O'Reilly, who had missed his chance there.

“La, sir! Don't mention the Crimea. It makes me ill to think of that abandoned female of a Miss Nightingale going out to nurse the soldiers.”

“Much more original than if she'd gone with the intention of marrying them,” retorted Darien, looking wickedly at gentlemen so well aware of Caroline's intentions for Belinda, while Sir Winston, seeing his chance, remarked:

“‘Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.’ “

“I wish it was. I'd put myself up to auction,” cried Darien … which was so shocking that Caroline would have led Linda from the table if there had been any hope of Mr Andrew Greer following.

Jermyn looked at Sally. Did the knowledge that one's price was far above rubies console a woman for a lonely life? Sally had not turned into a plump comfortable matron. She had grown more slender and remote, as though secretly dreaming of that crown of life which she page 240 had refused. For what? To be a figurehead to Peregrine's lordly ship. That's all she was, this quiet Sally, who could have been so bounteous with love and laughter.

Now Mr Greer was gloomily admitting to Peregrine that Christchurch had certainly been very sick with typhoid among its flax-swamps, but the situation was entirely changed since they had found artesian water.

“In fact, now all is well, said Sir Winston, ogling Darien, who threw a biscuit at him, declaring that the monster cracked puns as easily as other folk cracked walnuts. Caroline (concerned for Linda's future) was anxious to know what typhoid did to you, but Mr Pinshon was loudly hoping that we would not soon all have our heads cracked by Maoris.

“No sense blaming them,” declared Major Henry, who rarely did anything else. “England has made them the world's richest landowners, and now they are not the honest men they were. We gave 'em too many varieties of laws and religions, so now they've got indigestion and thrown up the lot.”

The Major was getting shocking coarse, thought Caroline, asserting that England certainly should have had more sense at her age. “I fear the Waitangi Treaty was a mistake,” said she to gentlemen who felt they had known that seventeen years ago.

“It's sending her old laws and customs into a new land where everything is so different—” began Hew Garcia, blushing at his boldness.

“We have to send you our troops and money at any rate, young sir,” said a portly colonel, anxious to get his men away from Maori marriages.

“Legislation,” remarked Jermyn, “is merely a sop to the sycophant and a bribe to the toad-eater.”

“We do our best to remain without it,” said Mr Pinshon, very dry, since responsible government, assembling in 1856 for the first time, had managed to dissolve itself three times in a fortnight. Yet it had done very page 241 well later, and if Gore Browne wasn't always sitting on the fence….

“‘Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change’—Mr Tennyson,” cried Sir Winston.

“All this country's changes seem to be for the worse, sir,” said the colonel, sourly, while Darien went to collecting eyes in a hurry. Gentlemen talking politics were even more unprofitable than the politics themselves.

“Well, we can't all enjoy life, but apparently we can prevent others from enjoying it. Come, ladies, we'll enjoy ourselves without them.” Saucily she turned in the door, menacing gentlemen with her great green feather fan, her dancing eyes. “Monsters! I detest you all,” cried Darien, including them all in a smile which each man took for himself.

How lightly Darien treated such superior beings, thought Sally, overawed. Of course she had begun early. Her prentice hand she tried on man … and now she tried it on the women; setting Martha Pinshon and Linda to duets so that ladies could talk scandal more comfortably; praising Leta Baizey's new Jenny Lind cap (“That adorable pink! I fell in love with you all over again, darling”); praising Caroline for her clever notion of sending her Sunday dinner to the bakery so that all her family could attend church.

“Now everyone is doing it. I see quantities of little boys running home with smoking dishes done up in napkins after church. So good for our souls. I suppose bakers haven't any?” inquired Darien, very innocent.

“Ask the Bishop,” retorted Caroline, annexing Andrew Greer as he came in.

Andrew was willing, having just discovered that this powerful female with a sort of bird's-nest of coloured fluff and feathers on her oily ringlets was wife to Sir John Lovel, whose prize Hereford bull he had come all the way from Canterbury to buy. So far Sir John had refused to sell but this woman looked a good ally, thought Andrew, page 242 never leaving her side even when Darien got everyone romping through blindman's-buff.

Darien, leaning breathless against a wall, heard the old fogies talking in corners. Discovery of gold in Nelson … coal in the Waikato … the Wellington Chamber of Commerce … oh, the dullness of the old fogies…. And Jermyn not married yet. Even with the marks of wear on him he was still the handsomest man in the room. Though all men are fools one don't like them to escape, thought Darien, beckoning Jermyn to her.

“Look at Caroline calling Belinda to sit with her and the Greer man,” she said. “She means to make a marriage, and I think she's right. Linda has been on offer too long.”

“When Lady Lovel is right it is merely through a misunderstanding on her part,” said Jermyn.

“Oh—hasn't he any money?”

“I believe not. Manager for a syndicate or something.”

“Delightful!” cried Darien, clapping her hands. “Don't tell her, Jermyn. I'll make that marriage.”

He glanced at her with his shadowed eyes. How came this reckless creature to be own sister to Sally?

“Would that be kind?”

“Unquestionably. Life with Caroline is just a series of police-regulations. Linda would be happier with a husband … any husband.”

“Does any husband content a woman?” he demanded.

“If she has common sense. We're very accommodating, you know. Have to be. See how well Sally is getting along at her virtuous promenade with Peregrine,” cried Darien gaily. “I vow I never expected her to be so content with that mean black rig.”

“So she's content, is she?” said Jermyn, going away to find Martha Pinshon … who would surely be able to exorcise Sally's unwilling ghost now.

Darien watched his still slender graceful figure threading among shining shoulders, glossy ringlets, sun- page 243 browned faces of the younger sturdier men. She sighed. Because she could never attract Jermyn he was still desirable, even if her desire was only to break his heart. But his heart must be pretty tough by now. She went to sit by Sally for a minute.

“You should always wear that shade of grey, Sally. It makes you look like a dear little dove…. I'll be having Tiffany at my parties soon, I suppose. Who is she to marry?”

“Oh … We haven't thought of that yet,” said Sally, turning her eyes from Jermyn bending over Martha Pinshon.

“I'll be bound Peregrine has. He won't let her hang fire as Iinda is doing … and with Sophy and Maria prancing to be in the market, though who the dickens Caroline expects to marry them to…. Tiffy won't attract men as I do, but she'll probably ravish a few with that stand-offish manner of hers,” said Darien, feeling that Sally had grown rather stand-offish too. And she was never gay Sal-volatile any more. What had happened to that lover she once certainly had? Gone off after easier game, since Sally would be far too moral to keep him? Or sent to the Crimea and died there, perhaps?

Thank heaven I don't care who dies so long as I don't, thought Darien, running off to the welcoming crowd again. All this adulation was vastly delightful, but it wasn't near enough. I've got to grow old and lose this, thought Darien shrewdly. I must be remembered for something better than this. What a shame women cannot be in the Parliament.