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page 388

What with Parliament, debts, and the Maori question, the North Island was by now gloomily conscious of its resemblance to the middle-aged father of a family. But the South was still youthfully building houses, bridges, fences, and cathedrals with happy inconsequence; riding breakneck down shingle slopes and through flooded rivers; combating scab in sheep, pleuropneumonia in cattle, and rabbits in Southland (since Grey's gift had already proved how much more blessed it is to give than to receive), and still strong enough to ride twenty miles after the day's work to hear a woman sing and badk in the red dawn to tackle another day.

On the Plains men principally rode to Bendemeer, and (since every home-station kept open house then, although the visitor might be sent out to kill a chicken for supper) they never felt shy, though coming in battalions. Tiffany loved the fine, if thinning, air of gallantry that clung yet to these hearty gentlemen riders bred in England's public schools, and rescued the younger ones from darning their socks with bodkins, and listened with patience if they wanted to talk of Home. But did they come drunken (as sometimes happened, since their lives were lonely) she frightened them more than Darien ordering them out to the stable to “sleep it off.”

“You are very young, Mr Copperfull,” said Tiffany, turning from them in disdain, and the abject miscreants dared not face her again for weeks.

Darien thought Tiffany too hard. “They haven't near so much sense as sheep, Tiffy,” said Darien, discussing page 389 men before a grinning row of them. “So, as a sensible woman, I feel we must just make the best of 'em.”

Darien was very satisfied with her brains, which indeed served her so excellently that she bought new gowns for Tiffany as well as herself when everyone went to Christchurch to see the Duke of Edinburgh in April of 1869. For, despite the clipping of governors' wings and the dismissal of the Imperial Army, New Zealand was loyal and proved it so violently up and down the two large Islands that a less tireless people might have been sorry for the Queen's son.

Tiffany, certain she had persuaded herself that life was now over for her and so nothing mattered, found herself confounded by the knowledge that it mattered very much when Brant Hutton fell in the amateur steeplechase at the race-meet, and that both her new gloves were split when she got her hands apart again as he came limping in. Darien, who had been suspicious for some time, nodded when she saw the gloves and—since she had already been gambling far ahead of the modest shillings proper for ladies—prepared to gamble with Brant Hutton as soon as occasion offered.

But the young men were being very gay in town, and ladies (with crinolines at the last gasp of expansion before deflating suddenly in the next year, to teach surprised youths that women really had figures) must be discreet, though decorative, at races and promenades, and even at Coker's Hall, where they went valiantly to roller-skating in honour of the Duke. Here they looked so helpless, so angelic among the clouds of fuller's earth rising from the boards that whiskered gentlemen, staggering hastily to the rescue, were sometimes moved to proposals on finding themselves unexpectedly on their knees before the fair. So Caroline's Emily got a proposal at last; and took it, driving home a bride with her youthful station-manager to the Plains. She knew she might have done better, since Mr Carter's prospects were as poor as his salary; page 390 but Tiffany at least had done worse, going home with no rings at all.

Tiffany knew she might have married more than once if she had not steadfastly denied those little crumbs of sustenance so necessary to nervous lovers. “Just a nod or a blush would do it. And instead … what do we get?” complained Toby Bayles, eating burnt chops and half-raw potatoes in Hutton's cottage after a sad return from town.

“Well? What do we?” asked Hutton, knowing well enough.

“Made fools of. I give you my word,” said the boy ingenuously, “the number of times I've tried to propose to that girl you wouldn't believe. I … I didn't mean to marry yet, but if I could get her I'd do it, by Jove. Last time I went on my knees all proper, and she was down beside me in a wink and said she'd help me look for it.”

Hutton wrinkled his dark eyes with laughter. Oh, the wicked delicious mischief of her.

“Did you tell her what you were looking for?”

“I tried, but she said it must have dropped behind the cushions. 'Pon honour, I tried to take her hand while we were looking. But Lady C. came in and hit me with another cushion and it burst. We spent the rest of the afternoon picking up blasted feathers,” ended Toby with a groan.

That (or something like it) was the way proposals always went with Tiffany Lovel; and since Hutton had danced with Lady Calthorpe at the Duke's ball he knew why. Lady C., although no fool, was always rushing in ahead of hesitating angels, and over claret-cup in a shadowy corner she had rushed Hutton. “Tiffy's such a fool,” she had said. “Won't let a man propose until he knows the truth about her, and until he proposes how can she tell him? I'd tell 'em if they ask me.” There was Hutton's chance, and he couldn't take it; muttering something page 391 about Miss Lovel's face telling all the truth a man needs to know, fobbing Lady C. off with more claret-cup.

Now he paid for his chivalry by trying to answer his own questions, which followed him about for days; peering over his shoulder while he was dosing a sick mare, coming between him and his book of nights, dripping redly out of the tin as he painted a tip-dray. He had heard vague stories, dismissing them sternly as spiteful woman-lies, but Lady C. had given them a body, damn her, he thought, tramping into his little sitting-room, looking round on its bleak bachelor discomfort. He had so often dreamed Tiffany there enchanting everything into laughter and beauty. And he had all a county Englishman's jealous insistence on chastity in a woman, untainted blood in his children.