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Now shearing, that sacred imperious festival of the year, was coming to the Plains, marching station by station towards the hills, and wherever it reigned at the moment men left their daily affairs to serve the sheep. Even the fencers left their work and wrought in the yards, thrusting and beating long lines of grey panting bodies up the race with manuka-boughs and forebent knees. Hut-cooks had two helpers, and several fresh-killed sheep hung daily page 440 on the gallows by the killing-pens. Dogs barked in dozens and fought in couples for the entertainment of their masters through the long hot evenings, and sheep cried day and night, as unhappy in their new white agility as they had been when gasping under the heavy weight of fleece. Each fleece was a golden fleece in these good days, and each ear of wheat was a grain of gold, and Darien, standing with Tiffany in the door of the Bendemeer shed, said no more than everyone else was thinking.

“Soon I'll be rich beyond the dreams of avarice,” said Darien. Even those who had mortgaged up to the hilt believed that they would too. This great aristocracy of the hills and Plains was no more than beginning to arrive at its own.

Tiffany had ridden down from Peak Hills with Hutton, come to try if he could get the shearers next. “Crofts is after them,” Darien told him. “But they may take you instead because yours is the bigger shed.” Somewhat touchy and high-handed, the shearers, coming often in numbers from Australia, working their way south through the New Zealand sheds. Hutton would speak to the leaders when work was done, but now he was watching the wool-classer at the long table. A good wool-classer was the kind of gentleman for station-owners to go on their knees to.

“Come on,” said Darien, moving forward. Tiffany hesitated. This dear man of hers did try so hard to keep her like an English lady. If only he knew all that I do know about things, thought Tiffany, finding continual humour in her daily struggles to be as ignorant as Brant thought her, finding endless stimulation in the high risks she had taken. Despite all their efforts (and Brant would try loyally) nothing could re-establish his belief in her as the perfect woman if he should know fully what had been between her and Dick Sackville. Brant, like any other English gentleman, demanded the utter perfection of page 441 purity in his wife. But, since being perfect was a little dull at times, she followed Darien into the shed.

“That second Maori is ringer this year,” said Darien, looking down the dim broad board flecked with light from the little windows, with the flash of clicking blades, the gleam of steadily-moving naked arms and torsos. Like machinery those muscular arms were moving; opening up the fleece with the long straight blow, purling it away in creamy folds glistening richly with the yolk, until the fleecy came pattering to gather up the full robe, the scared stripped sheep went out through the trap, and the shearer reached into the pen for another.

Poetry in this, thought Tiffany, feeling that she would never write poetry again. Brant wouldn't like the only kind that was natural to her. But she could enjoy the beauty of those rippling muscles, those brown Maori bodies glossy as hazelnuts, the sheep with their yellow patient eyes. And she could enjoy these rich meaty smells of sheep and heated men and oil, and tar dabbed on a wound, and dust and sheep-dip from the yards outside.

Maori shearers were a poor exchange for proud Heke strutting on the Beach with his warriors behind him; for kind old Waka Nene, who had given her so many toys; for the young Hemi, who gave so much more than toys…. All forgotten now, along with the mighty pride and tradition of the chiefs. Te Kooti, last of all the rebels, had bowed now to Fate. Oblivion had come to the great fighting chiefs with the huia feathers of royalty in their hair….

“Forgive me for leaving you, dear,” said Brant, rather hurried at her elbow. “I had no notion you were in here. Shall I take you to the house?”

Tiffany went with him meekly past the clatter of the wool-press, the sharp orders of the classer, the men moving the great bales aside with iron hooks. All these lusty hasty joys were not for Brant Hutton's wife, and Darien was perhaps the only lady on the Plains who went more page 442 than once in the season to the shearing-shed. They grant us the once as a raree-show, thought Tiffany, smiling with her hand on Brant's arm. “What a dear you are,” she said, a little protectingly.

Brant patted her hand, looking away to the nor'west arch over the hills. Already the air was electric with the nor'west's dry hot breath. “I hope it won't bring the river down, darling. I'd better have left you at home.”

“Sultan swims better than the mare. I'd probably have to pull you out … why, Prue!”

Some months since she had seen Prue, whom Roddy called Andalusia … which fitted her as neatly as Don Rodrigo fitted him. But this was a wakened Andalusia whose red ripe lips kissing Tiffany seemed kissing love itself, so warm and close they were. My gracious, thought Tiffany, alarmed; surely old Sophia couldn't have been right for once. She's never right. Why should she be this time? thought Tiffany, going with Prue between the heavy scents of jasmine, the frail winy scent of little banksia roses into the long room where Sophia was clattering crockery.

“I vow you must be dying for tea,” fussed Sophia, who always felt like a ministering angel when she had a teapot in her hand. “It is such a comfort. How is your dear grandma, Prue?”

“Not very much of a comfort just at present,” said Prue, sitting on the end of the sofa like a mermaid in her close green habit. “We're short of butter, and grandma is taking it to heart so much mamma sent me over for some. Two pounds, if you can spare it, please.”

“Well, I don't churn till the morning and the shearers are eating it all, but if you could stay the night….”

“Oh, I could. In fact, I daren't go home without it. Thank you, Aunt Sophy.”

Prue's dark eyes shone. She melted into sudden liveliness, running to carry cups and cake. It can't be, thought page 443 Tiffany who, since Linda had refused to lend Prue to Peak Hills, had put the matter away as one of Sophia's mare's nests. Prue's sleek young head on its slender neck was assuredly too proud to stoop to any tramp, no matter what his Begats might be. Perhaps Linda has let a lover into Durdans at last, thought Tiffany, asking after Deb and Janet.

Janet, it appeared, had a new tune to practise and Deb a new puppy to train. And what have you got, wondered Tiffany, watching this gay Prue as Darien and the gentlemen came in. Prue, she knew only too well, was one of the rebellious Lovels, choosing to live dangerously, like Roddy, like herself. Not so many years since she had come on Prue biting her arms behind the gum-plantation, and had said in surprise: “I thought I was the only child who had ever done that.”

“It's my own arm,” returned Prue, glowering. “I suppose I can do what I like with it. It's the only part of me that I can.”

Yes, a vessel of wrath and bound to explode some day, Tiffany had thought, sitting on the tussock beside her.

But now this Prue, looking sideways with her long languorous eyes, moving with her young grace, seemed so very delectable a woman that Darien asked in her blunt fashion: “When are you girls going to be married?”

“Ask mamma,” said Prue, a little bitter.

“Oh!” Darien sat up, her strange eyes suddenly lit. “Putting spokes in your wheels, is she? I suspected it. I would have bet young Taverner was after Janet last year, but now he's got a girl in Christchurch.”

“Mamma says it's indecent for girls to talk to young men,” said Prue, so exactly prim-mouthed Linda that Tiffany had to laugh.

“You haven't arranged my marriage yet, Darien,” said Sophia, coquettish under the false curls.

“The Lord did that when he made you. Come back to the shed, you men,” said Darien, getting up.